Managing the writing energy


, ,

This post comes from Gina Wisker who is head of the Centre for Learning and Teaching at the University of Brighton in the UK where she is  professor of higher education and contemporary literature, runs writing courses for staff, supervises PhD students and teaches undergraduates. Gina’s books include the Postgraduate Research Handbook (2008)  The Good Supervisor (2012) and  Getting Published: writing for academic publication (forthcoming  2014).


Today is a writing day – it is 12.30, early afternoon and I have defrosted the freezer, dealt with hundreds of emails, planned a course or two and not done any writing. I work best in the morning and now I have traded my writing energy for all those other things which crowd into my time (I happen to be working from home today, meetings and office paperwork can be substituted for these email experiences).

A few years ago Maggi Savin-Baden and I (2009) carried out some research into writing blocks and breakthroughs, and I added some more to that a couple of years later. One of the interesting revelations about breaking writing blocks and actually getting on with that important research-based writing was from an ex-colleague who said, ‘I only have so much writing energy, and if it is expended on bureaucratic documents, then it is gone.’ This has stayed with me among the other information about what we do to recognise and unblock writing blocks and I share this idea of managing the writing energy with writers in workshops and on doctoral projects.

Managing the writing energy is about taking control of your writing rhythms and the times and places in which you can write, some of which are premium – your best time for writing – some are edged in between other events, not in ideal locations. Rowena Murray refers to snack and binge writing (Murray, 2002), snacks being small moments of focused writing in between other things, when you can, binge being a long writing period in which you can really get through a serious piece, finish something off.

A few thoughts from the research and publications, and my own practice:

Planning to write: Find out your best times to write and be realistic about this – mine is early in the morning. Find a slot or two in your work or personal calendar and block it off. Plan to write then but set yourself realistic targets – don’t put in so many writing tasks that you will only experience despair. This is also about finding places and times when you can write. If you cannot write in your ideal time, can you trick yourself into writing later? Some people write well in the morning, some later in the day or through the night. Plan for it, don’t despair if it doesn’t work – find another slot.

Managing the writing energy: If you have to do other work or writing, then deliberately choose to take that time from writing, otherwise try and write when your thoughts are clear – you will make good progress and not ‘waste’ that limited, invaluable energy on the more everyday work. Cut the emails off until you take a break, and capture the thinking, conceptualising and expression energy.

Writing to write: We found many writers said they broke writing blocks and brought their best writing into being through any kind of writing. This includes free writing (Elbow, 1973), writing fast on anything – maybe reflections or a topic – until you stop. Or splurge (Wisker) – writing flat out on and around what you need to write to get your thoughts out, through to writing well phrased first attempts in structured sections of an article or essay, chapter, whatever you are writing. You give yourself the right to write, you write till you have worked the block out of your system by writing about it, or through writing generally. Then you could be more thoughtful about your topic, think it through by writing, and express it very clearly.

Multi-tasking: You can fool yourself that you are multi-tasking, in other words, doing several things at once, and miss out the writing, with the focus on defrosting the freezer and completing the emails. You can also break blocks and just rest your mind by deliberately moving away from the writing and letting your thoughts range freely, or let them focus on a problem of expression, a complex idea or argument, while you are cutting up the supper, sitting in a meeting in which you have to say next to nothing (this does not work if you are chairing or have major items), driving between sites, or going for a short walk outside the building. Focusing on home activities can enable the thought processes to pick up ideas from elsewhere to deal with problems, and to keep going – like having several documents open at the bottom of your computer screen. You can also deliberately choose to listen to music, watch a film, take a long walk or clean out the cupboards. Your writing will be clearer once you return to it. This isn’t wasted time, nor is it procrastination.

Talking to write: I have recently discovered how to make this practice work for me. Sometimes we cannot write down our thoughts but could speak them. Keep a notebook with you at all times to capture what you are writing and a tape-recorder to capture what you are thinking, sometimes clearly expressed, sometimes more hesitantly. This works well if two of you are co-writing, as a recorded conversation can form the basis of the thinking for a first stab at an academic essay (there will be much more hard work to come, but sometimes we generate our best ideas through talking).

Mimicry: When we first start to write in a discipline discourse or for a journal or a particular format, it is useful to research how this looks and sounds, the way arguments are formed and developed, information expressed, and what link words are used. Mimicry (Homi Bhabha) was a denigrating term used in postcolonial theory to suggest initial (at least) copying of others, but in writing it is about learning the language, the forms, expressions and skills. First, we process writing by others in our discipline, and in the format and outlet we want to write for, and see how they argue the points set out in their work. Using the discipline language, we learn to mimic the language and the forms, linking words in an argument (‘in this respect’…. ‘my research suggests that…’). We are not copying their information nor their work; we are learning about structure and expression. We practise until we own the discipline language, the structure and links, and then these are ours to use in our own writing as expressions of our own work.

These are just a few thoughts on practice based on experience and research. One last tip: do not feel guilty if you get less done than you thought you would. Just get on with another strategy, persevere, find out what works for you and use it, take control, congratulate yourself at each piece of beginning or finished, well formed writing, and manage your writing energy!


Peter Elbow (1973) Writing Without Teachers, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 77.

Rowena Murray (2002) How to Write a Thesis, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Gina Wisker (2014)’Voice, vision and articulation: conceptual threshold crossing in academic writing.’ in Threshold concepts: from personal practice to communities of practice.

Proceedings of the National Academy’s Sixth Annual Conference and the Fourth Biennial Threshold Concepts Conference [E-publication]Ed. Catherine O’Mahony, Avril Buchanan, Mary O’Rourke, and Bettie Higgs January 2014

Gina Wisker (in press) Getting Published, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gina Wisker and Maggi Savin-Baden (2009) Priceless conceptual thresholds: beyond the ‘stuck place’ in writing. London Review of Education 7(3): 235–47.


Gina’s podcast on publishing from your PhD at:

Gina’s podcast on publishing journal articles at:

You can also listen to two podcasts by Gina via the following links:

Keeping the public out: No-go areas in your thesis


, , ,

By Claire Aitchison

Earlier this month when I was running some workshops for doctoral students in the Northern Territory of Australia, a conversation ensued about no-go areas in the thesis.

nogo areas205

In thesis writing, as in life, we are wise to make decisions to keep certain things to ourselves. Some things that happen in doctoral research are best not shared. For example, don’t tell them how you forgot to turn on the tape recorder at the focus group interview…

Let me quickly make it clear that I am not advocating unethical practices like hiding bad results or manipulating data or findings, or withholding relevant information from participants. It is absolutely imperative to conform to ethical standards of research and to be as transparent and as consultative as possible about our processes and practices.

But in writing the thesis, one constantly needs to make decisions about what to include and exclude. Various institutional, disciplinary and ethical practices – and personal preferences – impact our decision-making about what goes into, or stays out of, the thesis.

In my experience, depending on the disciplinary expectations and the kind of research being undertaken, doctoral scholars may be uncertain as to whether or not to write (or write very much) about the following kinds of things:

For example, how much do we need to tell about the twists and turns of the research journey?   It’s not always clear. I worked with a student who sought to measure the impact of a certain leaf-chewing insect on a eucalypt forest. For many and convoluted reasons to do with access to a specific machine in the laboratory, she ended up changing her research, instead investigating the impact of the insect droppings on soil structures. She could have told this story from a variety of vantage points – not the least of which would have been her anger and frustration! What appeared in her thesis, however, was a very authoritative statement about the need for the study she did. Another scholar working with an indigenous community also had to make significant and unexpected changes to her research. She felt that she was not at liberty to relate any aspect of the circumstances which had brought about this substantial change, even though it had had a major impact on the research. Her choice to keep the public out of this part of the story was the right ethical decision.

It’s unlikely any doctoral thesis will include a review of all the relevant literature. Generally, it’s only after many iterations arising from sustained engagement in the research itself that we get clarity about what can stay and what must go. You can’t leave in a beaut 5,000 words on globalization – no matter how well-written – if it’s no longer relevant because your research moved you on in another direction. If it’s not fit for purpose, then it shouldn’t be in the thesis.

The pilot study can also present a dilemma. On a number of occasions I’ve worked with doctoral scholars who have been in a quandary about reporting on their pilot study. In my own doctoral research I did a small test-run to check out the veracity of my interview questions and to see which participant recruitment flyer appealed most. It was a useful activity for me – but it wasn’t a particularly important part of the research and I never reported on it, nor did I use the data that I collected in the process.

On the other hand, I’ve known of situations where the pilot study, although conceived of simply as a mechanism to test specific research methods, itself became an important source of data. In this case, the researcher had to decide how to tell that story. Should they have described how it started out as one thing and changed to another? What was necessary information in this case? Could they abandon the term ‘pilot study’ and include that original investigation as one of the data sets? Is it better to conceive of that component as a ‘First Phase’ of a two phase study? The point here is that we need to decide what story fits best the requirement to present a strong, coherent and honourable account.

Sometimes doctoral scholars are unsure about the need to include raw data in appendices. Again, there will be different answers according to the discipline and nature of the research. In the sciences there may be an expectation to include considerable amounts of information in appendices (protocols and calibration specifications, for example). In the social sciences and humanities there is often less need – but again it depends. I know of a couple of studies using photovoice as a method, but only one thesis had an appendix with the participant’s photos. For most social research, it would be rare to include the full transcripts of participant interviews or focus group transcripts in the appendices. On the other hand, this may be required for certain studies in applied linguistics.

When deciding whether or not something needs to go into the thesis, I am reminded of something my kids say: ‘I’ll tell you if you need to know’. This could be equally good advice for thesis writers.

If you’ve had other experiences or can suggest strategies for making some of those tricky decisions about what stays in, or gets removed from, the thesis we’d love to hear from you.


The value of blogging


, ,

By Mary-Helen Ward, who recently completed a PhD on students’ experiences while doing a PhD in Australia. Mary-Helen works in eLearning and Learning Space management at the University of Sydney.

When I enrolled in my PhD, in 2005, blogs were very popular. There were even ‘blog evangelists’, who would tell you that blogs were the best way to do a range of things, from promoting your business to getting undergraduates and even school students to express themselves. I’d always just thought of them as a useful way to record what was happening in your life, but academics were starting to write about blogging as a useful way to both develop ideas and to share them internationally. There was Axel Bruns and Joanne Jacobs’ 2006 book Uses of Blogs, Stephen Downes’ blog and articles (eg 2004), Toril Mortenson and Jill Walker’s 2002 book chapter that was reproduced and referenced many times, and Jill Walker Rettburg’s 2008 book Blogging (which has just been updated and republished).

While I was working on my PhD (over seven years part-time) I kept three blogs. One was the blog I’d already had for a few years. Subtitled ‘What I think, what I do and what I knit’; it recorded my theatre visits, books I was reading, my knitting projects, and my general opinions and doings. The second I started when I enrolled. Originally entitled ‘Faultlines’, later ‘Living in Liminal Space’, this was the place where I recorded my struggles and victories, and also, before Evernote became available, where I recorded useful web-based material on the fly. Then there was the entry I dashed off about something I observed on the way to work, that made it into my thesis as a screen grab exactly as you see it on that page.

The third blog I can’t link you to, because it was a part of the data for my PhD and under the conditions imposed by the Ethics Committee it can’t be made public. Part of my project to investigate how the PhD operates in Australia involved having a group of PhD students blogging their process, and of course I was one of them. For about 18 months, a group of 7 PhD students wrote about their lives, their feelings and their studies. The result, as you can imagine, was a rich and complex document that enabled me to think about the experience of doing a PhD in Australia in a complex and nuanced way. Although there has been quite a bit of writing about supervision and what PhD students need in Australia, as you probably know there has been very little written by students themselves – about their own or other students’ experiences. What has been written includes the theses of Jim Cumming, Kevin Ryland and Liz Harrison referenced below.

There are many ways in which public blogs can be useful in the PhD process. At the most basic level, it can provide students with a place to dump random thoughts and reactions – and at the same time practice presenting their ideas, even when raw, to a reader. Over time, it provides a record of process that can surprise the writer on re-reading, and create opportunities for reflection and reflective writing on progress. This is especially valuable for someone using a methodology that requires reflection and self-reporting, but is helpful for anyone who wants to be self-aware of their own process of doctoral development. Sandra West, a very experienced supervisor, and I have written about the advantages of using joint blogs between student and supervisors. Sandra’s students are often busy professionals, and the blogs have proved useful for her to keep in touch with them between face-to-face meetings, while also encouraging their reflective writing. She asks her students to record supervision sessions, then write something on their blog a few days later about the session, with the supervisors then being able to comment and continue the conversation.

But there is another level at which blogging can be useful for PhD students. As has been well documented – it is really the reason for this blog’s existence – many PhD students find writing difficult. Finding their voice and becoming comfortable with making claims about their knowledge is a threshold concept for PhD students (Kiley & Wisker, 2009). In a blog, an online space that they own and can decorate to represent themselves, they can play with ideas, record emotions, link to others’ ideas easily, store copies of important documents and, if they choose, put their ideas out for others to read and react to.

Although PhD candidates have always kept notes of their research, these have often been concerned with the research project and not with their development as researchers. And although a document is a simple way to record and reflect more widely on what we are reading, a blog, kept over time, easily records how we are developing as researchers and writers. Here is an entry that is a picture of a twitter conversation I had with Inger Mewburn one day, during which I had a small conceptual breakthrough. Looking back over my blog to write this I also found these two entries, which reminded me of stages I went through that I had forgotten – the significance of events shifts so much through time. The comments on the second entry were interesting to revisit too.

So, although some might decry blogs as ‘so twentieth century’, they still provide flexible, easy to share and, in our mobile world, always available tools for journaling and sharing academic work. In addition, the continued popularity of this blog, Thesiswhisperer, Patter, and other blogs like Nick Hopwood’s that aim, at least in part, to support HDR students, demonstrate that blogging has continued to be an important way that students can gain skills and share experiences as part of their development as independent scholars.

Comments welcome.

Bruns, A., & Jacobs, J. (Eds.). (2006). Uses of blogs. New York: Peter Lang.

Cumming, J. (2007). Representing the complexity, diversity and particularity of the doctoral enterprise in Australia. (PhD), Australian National University, Canberra

Downes, S. (2004). Educational blogging. Educause review, 39(5), 14-26

Kiley, M., & Wisker, G. (2009). Threshold concepts in research education and evidence of threshold crossing. Higher education research and development, 28(4), 431-441.

Harrison, J. E. (2010). Developing a doctoral identity : a narrative study in an autoethnographic frame. (PhD), University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban.

Mortensen, T., & Walker, J. (2002). Blogging Thoughts: Personal publication as an online research tool. In T. Morrison (Ed.), Researching ICTs in context. Oslo: InterMedia Report.

Ryland, K. D. (2007). Reconceptualising the Australian doctoral experience : work, creativity and part-time study. (PhD), Deakin.

Walker Rettberg, J. (2014). Blogging. (2nd edn) Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Ward, M.-H., & West, S. (2008). Blogging PhD Candidature: Revealing the Pedagogy. International Journal of Emerging Technologies and Society, 6(1).

Williams, J. B., & Jacobs, J. (2004). Exploring the use of blogs as learning spaces in the higher education sector. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 20, 232-247.


Academic selfies, self-promotion and other narcissistic behavours


, ,

By Clairephoto 4

I was talking to my 90-year-old father about his working life in a post-war world where opportunity seemed abundant, where hard-working people had job security and predictable promotion trajectories. My father doesn’t understand self-promotion. In his view of the world, good work is noticed and rewarded by good managers. Blowing one’s own trumpet is crass; modesty and humility are admirable. I’m grateful he isn’t part of my world and will never see how we academics survive by self-promotion.

I have conflicted views about this brave new world – sometimes it seems so self-indulgent and narcissistic. But I also recognise that there are few alternatives. The Anglo-Christian idea that ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’ and Confucian respect for humility, for example, just doesn’t cut it for job-seeking doctoral students.

In our highly competitive world, doctoral students need to keep a very firm eye on profile building. Publishing – and here I refer not only to traditional paper-based publishing – is a central plank to constructing one’s public profile. Publishing is not simply about disseminating research, it is also about building an image of yourself as a scholar, promoting your work and your availability. Unfortunately, most of this promotional work needs to be driven by the individual; our institutions rarely assist scholars in this endeavour.

So, what academic selfies are available – and acceptable – for building this public profile?

Self-citation, or citing oneself, is a pretty traditional approach, although it’s not always clear where, when and how much one should cite oneself. For example, a friend is scathing about her colleague’s habit of citing his own work within the first paragraph of his articles…

Citation circles (you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours) have long been used for building a presence and getting traction within a particular community. Of course, sometimes citing oneself or one’s colleagues is entirely legitimate, but not always necessarily entirely innocent…

Email signatures can be effectively constructed to advertise new or highly cited publications.

Personal websites and online professional networks such as LinkedIn, and ResearchGate are widely used for displaying publications, profile analytics, and other professional achievements. A Google Scholar profile is a basic essential these days.

Compared to these relatively static mechanisms, the power of social media (eg Twitter, Facebook, blogging) for profile building is like dynamite. Big and loud, social media can make an impact that can be useful – but it can also be damaging. It is immediate and pretty unforgiving. Social media, more than these other tools, requires you to manage your own image-making. Blogging – that is, public diary-keeping – is now commonplace and it’s no surprise that doctoral scholars and researchers are increasingly taking to this medium as readers (Tenopir, Volentine, & King, 2013) and for the dissemination of their research (Gruzd, Staves, & Wilk, 2012). But blogs also present an image of their authors, inviting public engagement in ways that aren’t predictable (Steel, Cohen, Hurley, & Joy, 2012). The format, title and visuals, the choice and treatment of topics, the style and tone all help brand the author as a certain kind of scholar.

Image making is hard-wired into social media tools. I found this out recently, when I signed up to Twitter. Having agonised over the choice of name (or hashtag or handle), finally, with the help of seasoned experts Joyce Seitzinger and Tseen Khoo, I signed in – only to discover that Twitter then wanted a descriptor and a photo. Weeks later, I added a descriptor – as short as I could get away with. Not long afterwards, momentarily forgetting about the still absent photo, I tapped out a response to a tweet, only to receive this quip: ‘I see you’re still an egg head!’ So much for my careful image making!

This relatively harmless stuff-up underlines how easy it is for social media to backfire. Blogging and other social media, operate like selfies – you choose and make the image of your public self. Therein lie the benefits – and risks.

Participating in this self-promotional world is a performative act, that, to a degree, is self-indulgent, but can also be business-like and professional – and, when viewed as a reciprocal community, can reap great rewards. Nevertheless, successful engagement necessitates careful thinking about what, where and when you will promote particular aspects of your research and professional persona. It involves decisions about identity, image and personal/professional boundaries.

My foray into this world has largely been experimental and fun – but I recognise the central requirement to sell oneself in such public forums can be daunting. If your objective is career-building then it’s worth taking a considered approach to how, where and when you will build your public profile.

Some of these themes will be taken up again next week in a post by Mary-Helen Ward on PhD blogging, in the meanwhile I wonder:

Can doctoral scholars avoid self-promotion? Do institutions have a responsibility to help them (and their supervisors) learn the ropes in this new context?



Gruzd, A., Staves, K., & Wilk, A. (2012). Connected scholars: examining the role of social media in research practices of faculty using the UTAUT model. Computers in human behaviour, 28, 2340 – 2350.

Steel, K., Cohen, J. J., Hurley, M. K., & Joy, E. A. (2012). Why We Blog: An Essay in Four Movements. Literature Compass, 9(12), 1016-1032. doi: 10.1111/lic3.12012

Tenopir, C., Volentine, R., & King, D. W. (2013). Social media and scholarly reading. Online Information Review, 37(2), 193-216. doi: doi:


Comma, stop



By Cally Guerin

It comes as a great surprise to me that other people don’t always seem to find punctuation as fascinating as I do. In fact, it turns out that the vast majority of my students find it frankly boring and tedious, despite my enthusiastic offers to devote the next two-hour workshop to exploring the wonderful world of commas. I admit that I’m definitely not a serious scholar of punctuation, but I do like talking and thinking about it (and I suspect that some of my colleagues deliberately include punctuation errors in documents simply to give me the pleasure of correcting them!).

The continuing evolution of English means that conventions keep changing. While it’s not useful to be too pedantic about punctuation, there are lots of situations where a misplaced or missing comma can confuse the reader. The critical placement of the comma in the title of Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves plays with the image of a panda wielding a shotgun: removing that comma changes ‘shoots’ from a verb to a noun. While not an academic text, this very readable and entertaining exploration of how punctuation works is much more approachable than some other texts on punctuation that I’ve tried to wade through. There’s also a version for children that is fun.

One of the most unhelpful pieces of advice I’ve received about punctuation is to read the text aloud and pop in a comma wherever I need to pause for breath. This might work for very simple sentence structures, but is really not useful for doctoral writing, where noun phrases are often very long. By the time the subject has been announced (the ‘thing’ the sentence is about), I often feel that I need to take a breath and gather my composure before continuing. An example of a long noun phrase would be ‘The ongoing and contested nature of the simple squiggle known as the comma…’

By contrast, one of the most useful rules about commas that I’ve been lucky enough to learn early is that a subject must never be separated from its verb by a comma. In the above example, we must leap straight to the verb: ‘The ongoing and contested nature of the simple squiggle known as the comma is a source of great consternation to many academic writers’. Sure, I can’t say out loud the whole sentence without taking a breath, but readers will get confused about how the parts fit together if I slot a comma in before ‘is’.

When sentences get more complex, it’s possible to insert extra information in between two commas: ‘The ongoing and contested nature of the simple, although alarmingly complex, squiggle known as the comma is…’ And don’t forget that those dependent clauses also need a comma when introducing the main part of the sentence: ‘Although they are alarmingly complex, commas can be tamed by even the most timid of writers’.

There are lots of much more erudite scholars than me who can help writers work out the correct punctuation for their sentences (and no doubt some readers of this post will not agree with my own comma choices here!). One book well worth exploring is Punc Rocks (Buxton, Carter & Sturm, 2011). The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University has very straightforward, useful materials available for free. And I really love the pamphlet I found as a first-year PhD student called ‘English Grammar on One Card’ by Vincent F. Hopper – clear, easy, direct.

For doctoral writers, the main focus must always be on ensuring clarity for the reader. While extremely complex sentence structures might look scholarly to some, most readers will be more interested in following the argument than trying to track the subject of a sentence through a dense array of punctuation marks. Directness and simplicity can go a long way in communicating complex ideas.

Now, don’t get me started on which words need to be hyphenated…


Buxton, J., Carter, S. & Sturm, S. (2011). Punc Rocks: Foundation Stones for Precise Punctuation, 2nd Edn, Auckland, Pearson Education New Zealand.

Lynn Truss (2003) Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, London, Profile Books.

Blog roundup – some recent favourites on argument and voice


, , ,

By Cally Guerin

One of the pleasures of writing a blog is that it has encouraged me to keep an eye on the wonderful work on research writing that other bloggers also publish. Some of my favourites are Patter, ThesisWhisperer and Explorations of Style. I use these informative sites on a regular basis to refresh my own approach to writing workshops and supervision. Here I want to reflect on some blogs I’ve read in recent weeks that remind us of the important links between argument and voice, particularly in relation to signposting the direction of the argument.

Pat Thomson warns doctoral candidates about the dangers of boring writing in ‘Don’t send your thesis examiner to sleep’. She advises doctoral writers to be wary of over-signposting: Don’t become too repetitive in announcing what will be done and what has just been done. I agree that this can be utterly off-putting. I once proofread a thesis that told me so many times what I had just read before it allowed me to find out what was coming next that I completely lost track of the actual content.

Patter also encourages doctoral writers to get some life into the writing, rather than being ‘Kind of impersonal and distanced. Professional. Stuffy. Lacking in personality.’ In other words, think about creating a lively voice in the writing. I really like this. As a supervisor and as an academic editor, I prefer not to intervene too much: I think it’s important to preserve the individual style of a writer. But remember – one person’s charmingly quirky can be another’s irritatingly obscure or self-conscious. It’s about striking the right balance and it can be very useful to get a few different people to read sections of your work to see if they find the voice appropriate.

Also in relation to voice, Inger Mewburn in the ThesisWhisper posted ‘The zombie thesis’, referring to those theses that ‘can walk and talk, but aren’t really alive’. That is, theses can meet all the rules and regulations, can include all the elements that check the boxes, but still fail to engage the reader and communicate the excitement of the research. This lack of life is sometimes caused by the overall argument being lost in amongst a whole lot of detail. The post recommends the very effective practice of going back to basics and revisiting the outline of individual chapters and sections. From my perspective, it’s even better practice to encourage students to focus closely on the planning of outlines right from the beginning, so that the central argument is kept alive throughout the writing process. This in turn can free up the author to present opinions confidently, and thus bring the whole thesis to life.

The issue of signposting sufficiently without overdoing it was also canvassed by Rachael Cayley in Explorations of Style in a recent reblogging of a post from her archives. This post reminds us about how to create useful transitions while avoiding the boring repetition mentioned in Patter. There are some really good ideas here for linking between sentences, but I was particularly interested in the advice regarding transitions between sections—this seems to be the hardest part for novice writers to get right.

Achieving the right the balance between showing how the sections relate to each other without overstating the obvious is not easy. It helps enormously if the argument is clearly structured, so that each step seems inevitable as it moves in a straight direction towards the concluding statement. Headings derived from the original outline of the chapter/section are helpful, but I also like the suggestion from Explorations of Style to read through a piece of writing without referring to the headings in order to ensure that the sense is not too dependent on the headings to guide the argument—we need both headings and textual signposts to find our way through the text.

Do you have any further suggestions about how to find the right balance in presenting the argument clearly in one’s own voice? How can we keep the writing interesting, but make sure that there is enough signposting to let the reader know what’s going on?

Take home messages, or ‘What was that all about?’


, , , ,

By Cally Guerin

It’s old and well-worn advice, but worth repeating at regular intervals: make sure you know what the key message is for any given piece of writing. The necessity of being absolutely clear about the ‘take home message’ holds true for a short conference presentation, a journal article, and for an entire thesis. Yet surprisingly often, particularly at conferences, it is easy to find at the end of hearing a presentation that you are left wondering what the main point was meant to be. The same is true of an early draft of a chapter or article. Of course, I’m not immune from this myself, and admit to having left audiences somewhat confused more than once in the past.

I think that this confusion about the central meaning of research comes largely from being bogged down in the complexities of data analysis, where vast amounts of information need to be processed and organized. Doctoral writers in particular have often collected piles of data and can sometimes be overwhelmed by the sheer mass of information they are confronted by, and perhaps don’t want to leave anything out – every detail seems precious. But, as I’ve said before, what is deleted from the final version of writing can be just as important as what is left in (Leave it in or delete it? Dilemmas in writing the research story 27 March 2013).

As Mullins and Kiley (2002) demonstrate, and Carter (2008) later confirms, one of the most damaging responses a thesis can evoke in examiners is confusion about the main message that the research has established. If someone has read the entire thesis and remains unsure about the key argument, you’re in trouble. Holbrook et al. (2007) make a similar point in relation to literature reviews, highlighting that doctoral examiners are looking for the synthesis of lots ideas into a coherent argument. At various levels of the thesis, then, it is crucial to be absolutely clear about the central point the writer wants to convey. Luckily, there are a couple of tried and tested ways to focus thinking about the key argument or central idea.

One useful technique is to make sure that the introduction to the paper matches the conclusion (which is, of course, why it’s best to write the introduction last, when the conclusions or meanings of the data analysis have become clear). Although this seems pretty obvious, the trick is not to be too repetitive, but at the same time make it easy for the reader to see that the task the writer set out to do has been accomplished, and that he/she knows exactly what the point of the whole exercise has been. For long-term projects, the main message can shift in emphasis over time as the data is analysed in more detail, hence the value in revisiting this at the end of the writing process when preparing the introduction.

Another effective strategy I use in workshops and writing groups is to ask participants to write down in one sentence the main idea they want to get across for the particular piece of writing they are currently engaged in. Many find it quite difficult to explicitly articulate what this piece is trying to argue, and there can be lots of scribbling and crossing out and starting again, but most usually get there in the end. It sounds simple, but is often overlooked as part of the writing process when the focus tends to be on elaborating the discussion rather than being clear about the starting and end points. However, when the work has been fully digested, it is possible to state the take home message very clearly.

Is this lack of clarity about the take home message something you’ve observed? Have you got some other strategies for clarifying this in your own mind or when working with doctoral writers? (And I hope I’ve made it clear here that my take home message is: ‘Make sure you know what your take home message is!’)


Susan Carter (2008) Examining the doctoral thesis: a discussion. Innovations in Education and Teaching International 45(4): 365-374.

Allyson Holbrook, Sid Bourke, Hedy Fairbairn and Terry Lovat (2007) Examiner comment on the literature review in PhD theses. Studies in Higher Education 32(3): 337-356.

Gerry Mullins and Margaret Kiley (2002) ‘It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize’: how experienced examiners assess research theses. Studies in Higher Education 27(4): 369-386.

What’s it worth to you? Awarding authorship percentages


, , ,

By Cally Guerin

In the process of writing a paper with a group of colleagues recently, I was reminded of the complexities of assigning authorship. In particular, the question came up regarding who had done the most important and/or the most difficult work.

Some felt that the original concept for the research was most important; others claimed that research design was the challenging part; another felt that organizing the data collection and actually collecting some results was key; yet others believed the analysis of that data mattered most; and for others, framing all that empirical data in the relevant literature and locating it in the current debates in the field was what took creative imagination and lots of background reading and preparation.

These issues are pertinent to doctoral candidates writing joint-authored papers in theses by publication. At my university, a statement detailing who did what must be signed by all authors for any co-authored chapters written as journal articles (whether or not those chapters have actually been published yet). This is sometimes fairly straight forward if there are only the supervisor and candidate to be named. In other situations, where to draw the line on who contributed what gets considerably murkier.

There are some guides to working this out. The Australian Code of Conduct for Responsible Research states that:

Attribution of authorship depends to some extent on the discipline, but in all cases, authorship must be based on substantial contributions in a combination of:

  • conception and design of the project
  • analysis and interpretation of research data
  • drafting significant parts of the work or critically revising it so as to contribute to the interpretation.

It is possible to think that this means the three elements listed are of approximately equal importance, though there are plenty who wouldn’t agree.

The Vancouver Protocol makes it clear that legitimate authors must participate in all stages of

  • conception and design, or analysis and interpretation of data


  • drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content


  • final approval of the version to be published.

But these codes and protocols tell us more about who should be included, rather than how big their contribution might be (‘substantial’ is not all that helpful when it comes to disputes over percentages of contribution – everyone might think their work counts as ‘substantial’). It seems that some researchers still place greater value on some elements of the project than others do.

Suzanne Morris has made a very valuable contribution to this discussion. Her tool, Authorder, goes a long way towards working through these more complex questions – although it does require that all authors cooperate in finding agreement on what percentages they are willing to assign to the full range of tasks undertaken in writing a paper. While it is not prescriptive in terms of what tasks to include in the list, nor the percentages that ought to be assigned to each task in the process, Authorder is a wonderful instrument for guiding what can sometimes become a rather difficult discussion.

I love co-authoring papers, and have learnt a huge amount about writing from everyone I’ve written with – how they approach their research, tips on everything from ethics applications to database searches, and the writing processes that they find useful. Part of this learning includes discovering where other authors place the value and importance in their writing.

What are your experiences of co-authoring? When it comes to getting credit for your work, what should you be rewarded for? What takes the most time? What is valued most? Are all parts of the project and writing equally important for getting a paper ready for publication? It would be really helpful to hear more from others about the complexities of this area of doctoral writing.

Writing pleasure: Space and people


By Susan Carter

Nine people faced a small task as part of postgraduate course work: to try to find pleasure in academic writing. They could write somewhere stylish, glitzy or interesting that they had never tried writing in before, or write in the same space as others, i.e., do a write-on-site aka pomodo aka shut up and write. But the mission was to be writing pleasure seekers.

They gave their feedback as to how it worked for them. Sally pointed out that pleasure is an attitude, as well as an adjective that she hadn’t readily linked with academic writing. The thought of sullying the café space, a place that for her is firmly social, went against all logic. But she recognised that she liked to write on campus because the desk space there was her own, unlike the writing places at home in a space shared with partner and teenage daughters. She used a timer to set a rhythm of regular stops, and found that the breaks meant being able to go on for longer.

Kat worked on a couch in a public place, and was interested to notice that a zone of silence descended. She realised that she could block off distraction around her if necessary. Iris went to a deliberately glamorous location, a café in a hotel. She said she regularly looks for somewhere unusual to write as a stimulus, and had never written there before. When she arrived mid-afternoon, the café was pretty quiet. She set a stop watch, and did nothing in the break except people-watch. And Brenda chose an intimate café with little break-out booths, finding a comfortable one that put her in the winter sun.

Tui was travelling to a conference at the time, so her new environment was on the 29th floor of a hotel with views out over the city. She had expected to find it hard to write there, saying she is easily distracted and the magnificent view over the city was alluring, but found the pattern of writing solidly for a chunk of time, then taking a stretch by the window seemed to work: she did get more writing done than she usually does when away from home.

Firmly anchored at home, Lana wrote till midnight beside a son who was having troubling getting to sleep, sitting on the bed next to him with her laptop on her knees. Often the responsibilities of parenting along with a full-time job has restricted her time to write, and she was used to working late into the night. Yet she found that sitting on the bed in the calm of her own research writing somehow made her academic writing more comfortable, homely.

Home was good for Barry, too, who has a magnificent view over the harbour and found being away from work (and having access to coffee, cheese and crackers) was calming—he could settle down and write. Coffee is assumed to be crucial in Inger Mewburn’s ‘shut up and write‘ way of working, along with food for the added sense of comfort.

Kevin established a new routine for the week: writing for an hour each morning straight after going to the gym. He found linking the physicality of the gym with thinking stimulating: his brain seemed to respond to motion, and then he was also glad to sit down at the computer.

Caroline had found that routinely fencing off time to write at the same time each week (Wednesday morning) meant that she made the most of that time. She also had a breakthrough in that, because she teaches mainly in digital media, she found that working at the computer made her edgily aware of teaching demands. So her most productive research writing medium was pen and paper, with her thoughts later transcribed into Word. She was aware of the need for what Rowena Murray calls ‘disengagement.’

Usually disengagement is a bit of a pejorative in teaching and learning terms: the rhetoic at universities is all about student engagement. But Murray’s disengagement is empowering when it comes to writing—for many research writers, this is exactly what is needed in order to do the thinking that research writing demands. There was general agreement that shifting place of writing allowed disengagement from the distractions (often other chores to be done) that familiar space offers. This more readily allows reengagement with writing, and intense focus on it.

There are two benefits to making writing a special occasion, then. It lets you detach from all the other demands, and it makes the habit of research writing something special. Do you know of other rituals around doctoral writing that might lead to pleasure?

Murray, R. (2013). “It’s not a hobby”: Reconceptualizing the place of writing in academic work. Higher Education, 66(1), 79-91.




Saying ‘says’ in research writing



By Susan Carter

Academics tend to agree that, all else being equal, a simple word is better than a pedantic one. There’s one curious exception: we all know to avoid saying ‘says’ in academic writing.

Words that say ‘says’ without saying the actual four-letter word convey a complex signaling system. Careful choice of ‘says’ words shows critical evaluation of the literature—it is the literature that usually does the saying in research writing.

I once heard a doctoral student say that their supervisor told them to always use ‘suggests.’ The student believed it was a discipline preference relating to an objective voice–I think it was simply bad advice.

For all disciplines need to show critical analysis: ‘suggests’ is simply the wrong word in some cases. Maybe the supervisor didn’t trust this person to signal correctly in their choice of options and thought ‘suggests’ was a pretty safe default position. Yet, encouraging students to think about the degrees of difference in what those ‘says’ words convey is one way to explicitly show them how to achieve more accurate and nuanced academic writing.

‘Suggests,’ is neutral, a tad on the tentative side. A suggestion doesn’t stridently take a stance. So although ‘suggests’ seems harmless, it won’t be the most accurate word if the author actually was really emphatic. If an examiner wants sound evidence of critical interpretation, ‘suggests’ often won’t give that.

Gathering ‘says’ words into a list shows more clearly the nuances of meaning between them. ‘Says’ words can be collected up by individuals or as a group exercise. Then they can be put together for ones that might be used in similar situations. This includes, for example, when an author

  • really is tentative or explorative;
  • endorses someone else;
  • disagrees with someone else;
  • picks something apart to show better how it works;
  • pulls things together in new ways; or
  • takes things further.

I’ve drawn up a list of some of these words, and put them into clusters. At the shallow end of the pool: ‘explores,’ ‘speculates,’ ‘suggests,’ ‘proposes,’ ‘finds,’ and ‘shows.’

There are also ‘describes,’ ‘clarifies,’ explains’ or ‘unpacks’ for the times when authors make things clearer.

They may ‘theorise,’ ‘refine,’ or calibrate.’ With just a little more force, it might become ‘asserts,’ ‘endorses,’ ‘demonstrates,’ ‘affirms.

An author may ‘emphasise’ or they may actually ‘argue.’

When an author wants to say that those they are citing came across something really very new, the cited author can be said to ‘discover’ or ‘find’. And there are two uses of ‘finds:’ the literal one when something is actually found that was missing before; and the metaphorical one to mean when a position about previously know things has been found and taken by this individual thinker.

When an author makes headway by clearing aside misconceptions, they may ‘doubt,’ ‘refute,’ ‘rebuff,’ ‘challenge,’ ‘dispute,’ ‘disprove,’ or, more graphically, ‘explode the myth/misconception/belief.’

Or they may follow someone else’s lead but continue the vector further, as when they ‘add,’ ‘expand,’ ‘develop,’ or ‘take further.’ Sometimes they ‘synthesise’ by pulling different discourses together.

When a research writer says an author ‘reveals,’ ‘illuminates,’ ‘dissects,’ ‘explicates,’ ‘develops,’ or ‘anatomises,’ they are also saying that they found that work helpful, and learned from it. They are endorsing the author they are citing, and aligning their own work with it. My own favourite, my highest praise for a cited author, is ‘anatomise,’ because it conjures up the cutting open to show how things work inside. Rembrandt’s Dr Tulp with his solemn anatomy lesson springs to mind.

Any other ‘says’ words, or comments on this curious social phenomena?




Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,690 other followers