The power of walking


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By Cally Guerin

I was talking to a PhD student today who is in the final stages of writing. It’s a very difficult patch for anyone, both physically and mentally, and I believe that all students go through a phase at the end of a PhD where they need to become quite obsessive (even irrationally obsessive) before they can emerge into the bright sunshine on the other side of submission. This student was saying his main struggle was trying to stand back from all the material he had collected and written about over the years in an attempt to assess it objectively. Instead of being able to notice what has been achieved, he was experiencing the temptation to give into doubts about the worth of his efforts: is the research valuable to the discipline? Is it sufficiently original? Is it a substantial contribution to the field? After years of working with the same ideas, it is easy to understand how they can lose their freshness and no longer seem exciting.

In an attempt to be reassuring and to offer a practical solution, I suggested that he think through ideas when walking to university and then again when walking home. He looked rather bewildered (and maybe thought that I too was going mad in a kind of folie á deux). But I genuinely believe that a great deal of very useful thinking can happen while walking.

The best advice I ever received as a doctoral student myself was to try and keep the idea I was working on at the front of my thinking all the time—while waiting for the bus, while doing the washing up, while watching the photocopier, while doing any other mechanical, mundane task (not cycling or driving!). The point is to keep turning the idea over and over in your mind until the pattern or connection appears.

This has been extended to walking in my own circumstances. There is something about the soothing rhythm of walking that seems to aid thinking—it needs to be fast enough to get the blood pumping, but not so speedy as to take up all your concentration. For me, this is much more effective than sitting staring at the computer and drinking yet more coffee, nibbling on yet more dry-roasted almonds (or, preferably, chocolate sultanas). So you can imagine how pleased I was to come across a recent study by Oppezzo & Schwartz that provided some serious evidence for what many of us have suspected for a long time: walking outdoors really does stimulate creative thinking. Even Nietzsche is supposed to have said that “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking”. So I advocate walking and thinking as a regular part of academic life.

Last week was mental health week in Australia, and everywhere we’ve been reminded of the importance of maintaining our mental health, encouraged to take up moderate exercise and do enjoyable things to help cope with the stresses of modern life. This is a timely reminder when there is a parallel discourse about the apparent increase in mental illness amongst academics and doctoral candidates. So, I’m forced to consider how my advice fits with the recommendations to exercise but perhaps licenses obsessive work patterns by focusing on an idea and constantly it turning it over in one’s mind. On balance, I hope that these two approaches to doctoral writing create a manageable equilibrium. Not everyone is fortunate enough to be comfortably mobile, but those who are should be grateful and make the most of it.

Have any of you tried getting off the bus a few stops early and striding briskly to your desk when your thinking is stuck? What advice have you given to students stuck in this space?

Nietzsche, F. (1888; 1998) Twilight of the Idols, Or, How to Philosophize With the Hammer. Trans. D. Large. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Take your time – or get to the point?


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By Cally Guerin

I’ve had the opportunity to read lots of interesting papers written by doctoral students and colleagues lately, as well as reviewing journal articles. As I work through the various pieces of writing and line them up against each other, the styles used in different genres are clearly evident. This is especially noticeable when a paper doesn’t quite produce what one would expect of that genre. One of the challenges for any author working across a range of genres is adapting one’s own style to suit the current writing task. In particular, I’ve been noticing a tension between the more leisurely, discursive manner of a thesis, and the brisk pace of the journal article that needs to get to the point much more quickly and efficiently.

Having started my academic life in the world of feminist literary criticism, I find I’m drawn to the style of writing that takes its time to unpack each point of the argument in detail. But I’m torn between that and wanting to get to the main point quickly – like everyone else, I’ve got a lot of other stuff to read too! If the idea can be expressed adequately in 5 words, then why use 15 to make the same point? And too often, it seems that those extra 10 words are padding formed from empty jargon that poses as ‘intellectual’ but doesn’t really say much at all.

I think the ability to write in different genres (thesis, journal article, book chapter) is one of the difficult challenges facing doctoral students, who are expected to understand the differences of genre in quite nuanced ways in order to pitch their work to different audiences and different outlets. I’m very much in favour of the thesis by publication, and advocate that format most of the time. For those who plan to work in universities or in research institutes that require publication in academic journals, there are great benefits in learning how to write articles, and how to negotiate the reviewing and publishing process. Most will only need to write a thesis once, but will need to know how to write articles repeatedly during their research careers.

But just lately I’ve noticed a sneaking feeling forming deep beneath my general conviction that thesis by publication is mostly helpful. I’ve been wondering what might be lost along the way if the traditional thesis format is abandoned. Where else does one have licence to follow through on the fine detail of intellectual thought, to expound at length on a complex theory, or to work through the digressions and tangents that surround the core ideas?

And there are some very good reasons why we don’t always want scholarly work to be constrained by the demands of contemporary publishing practices, of tight word restrictions imposed by journals, or the costs of printing hard copies within the traditions of how many pages the existing machinery can bind together. Not everything can be fitted into such tight spaces; not all writing needs to be quite so dense. Maybe this represents one area in which inexpensive publishing in electronic media becomes so important in disseminating extended excursions into intellectual thought—a few more pages (maybe even quite a few) might not cost much more, but allows for the longer discussion of an idea. This extra space could apply to longer journal articles just as much as to books that otherwise would not find a publication outlet.

Perhaps this all points to the strengths of a PhD thesis format that allows for a combination of published papers and the more conventional framing chapters (sometimes referred to as a ‘thesis with publications’ or ‘hybrid’ – see Jackson 2013; Sharmini et al. 2014). Here the big introductory, context-setting chapter allows for more extensive philosophising on the topic. That’s the place to take up the more leisurely style of careful unpacking of big ideas. But the shorter, neater, more concise representation of the findings can be found in the article-length chapters forming the middle of the thesis.

This preference for different kinds of writing might also mark a tension between scientific and humanities writing. There’s obviously a place for the beautifully crafted sentence in science writing – and certainly, poetry can find a place in science – but it doesn’t always have to take a lot of words to get there!


Just do it!! (and delete the ‘publish or perish’ warning)


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By Cally Guerin

I was talking to PhD students recently about how they can’t afford to be precious about their writing – that they need to simply see it as something they do as part of their job (or what Aitchison & Lee call the ‘normal business’ of academic life). After the workshop, one of the participants (thanks, Steph!) sent me a comic that she has pinned onto her noticeboard. In it, an academic is explaining that, in academia, we have a saying ‘publish or perish!’. The other person, who is not an academic, responds matter-of-factly: ‘Yeah, we have that too. It’s called “Do your job or get fired”.’

It’s a harsh message, and one that I would be careful of endorsing without reservation. I am fully aware that some academics’ working lives are well set up to allow them to get on with their research and to publish it, while others have such heavy teaching and administration loads that their research output drops off. Nevertheless, anyone enrolled in a PhD does need to get the writing done, and many also want to see their work published. If they are to succeed in these tasks, I think it is very important to discourage two fairly common attitudes towards doctoral writing: firstly, that writing is somehow special and more difficult than other elements of research; and secondly, that writing requires all sorts of particular conditions before one can get down to the work.

I can’t find the reference despite hours of searching, but someone somewhere talked about a writer (was it Asimov?) whose routine preparation for writing was to “Sit down at my desk within reach of the keyboard, hold my hands over the keyboard, and start typing”. I think this is an excellent way to approach the task. (Please let me know if you have any kind of reference or verification for this attribution – I’d prefer to be a bit more scholarly about it!)

We’ve talked in other posts about establishing good writing habits that help us get on with the job (see, for example, New Year resolution: Get the right/write habit), and clarified that really means ‘good for you’. What works for one person’s life context and commitments is not necessarily the answer for someone else. Rising at 5am to write for three hours before breakfast is ideal for some, but not if you are unable to get to bed early or will be met by a crying baby at 5:30am; large quantities of amphetamines might have aided Jean-Paul Sartre, but this technique is unlikely to be sustainable for most of us.

Increasingly, academic writers are taking a disciplined stand, forming various kinds of writing groups and writing to order. Recalcitrant PhD students – and those who simply want to make some speedy writing progress – are joining ‘boot camps’ (see, for example, University of Melbourne and RMIT), where they are focussed on writing as much as possible during set writing periods. This is a model that is based on more peaceful writing retreats (see, for example, the models developed by Barbara Grant and Rowena Murray. Others are taking advantage of the Shut up and Write! movement, while yet more are signing up for Academic Writing Month (AcWriMo). These are all useful ways of getting on with the job of writing as an everyday practice. What I like most of all is that these approaches are pushing along thesis writing, whether that is in a traditional format or as a thesis by publication.

But if one more person mouths the tired cliché ‘publish or perish’ at me, I might well scream. The situation is obviously far more complicated than that simple dichotomy announces, and there are all sorts of reasons one ought to avoid publishing research prematurely (Paré, 2010). So the challenge I’d like to put to you readers is to devise an alternative motto to take its place. Any votes for the new slogan for doctoral writers that needs to replace this? ‘Write it or regret it’, ‘Write for your life’, ‘Stay calm and write’?

Aitchison, C. & Lee, A. (2006). Research writing: problems and pedagogies, Teaching in Higher Education, 11(3): 265-278.

Paré, A. (2010). Slow the presses: concerns about premature publication. In C. Aitchison, B. Kamler & A. Lee (Eds), Publishing Pedagogies for the Doctorate and Beyond, London, UK: Routledge.

A second helping of commas, anyone?


By Susan Carter
You might remember that Cally Guerin’s blog a few weeks ago described her fascination for punctuation and its expression in a two-hour workshop. I share her obsession: my workshop focussing solely on the comma is three hours long. (I hasten to add that this is partly because students do a lot of the teaching, and we also get to talk about style and voice.)

Cally covers the point that you must not separate a subject from its verb, even when that sentence subject is one of those giant mutant nouns that academic writing is so prey to, made up of the noun word with a whole heap of adjectival stuff before and after it. You would not be tempted in a simple sentence to put in a comma between subject and verb—”The dog, ran”—. However, you might be tempted in one of those gruesome academic sentences like: “The subjects who had been previously identified as at risk from multiple socially-constructed hierarchies that disempowered them at the crucial years of puberty, were found to be more likely to….”. I’m running over that point again because I agree with Cally that it is invaluable to doctoral writers when they get to the proofing stage.

And I am putting it into a writing guide that I’m revising for staff involved in our university’s publication. One of my goals in revision is to redress the balance given to different aspects of punctuation—the comma previously on received a mere third of a page while ‘words to be capitalized’ occupied four pages. Even a non-obsessive can see that the comma is more crucial than that. (My indignant defence of the importance of commas has triggered this post.)

So, I’m adding to the guide as follows.

Often decisions about using a comma will be based on whether additional information in a sentence is essential or not. Non-essential words, phrases and clauses can be omitted without altering the meaning of the sentence. Judge what is essential by which words need to cluster together to make one meaning.

When not to use commas
Never separate words from their essential meaning-cluster, that is, essential to the grammar or the meaning with commas. For example, it is wrong to write “Boys, who learned ballet, were found to be better soccer players.”

“This” and “which” clauses and commas
We begin clauses with the word “that” when the content is essential: “The data that showed anomalies has been destroyed” (other data wasn’t necessarily destroyed). So the rule is that “that” clauses don’t have a comma before them. “Which” clauses, in contrast, are used for non-essential material and it is kind to readers to always have a comma before them. “The data, which took five years to accumulate, was destroyed” (all the data was destroyed).

If you insert non-essential detail into the middle of a sentence and use bracketing commas, you must have two (just as you need two brackets). You can often get away with none but not one.

Never use commas that disrupt the logic of grammar
1. Never separate a noun from the verb it governs, even when the noun has adjectival stuff round it that makes it fairly long (as in that giant mutant noun example above). E.g., it is wrong to write “The evidence that came from a longitudinal study involving 52 first-in-the-family graduates and how their careers developed, was surprising.” That sentence cannot take a comma.

2. Never put a comma between a verb and its object. It is wrong to write “The rat ate, the poison” or “The chemical was then heated, to 200 degrees Fahrenheit.”

In general, there is a tendency in academic English to leave commas out when they are optional. If in doubt, it is safer to leave them out than risk breaking up a meaning-cluster or disrupting grammatical logic.

When to use commas
Use a comma to differentiate items in lists. Note that some pairs are regarded as a single idea and the comma will come after the second item, e.g, “Guests choose from eggs and bacon, filled croissants, and cereal, yoghurt and fresh fruit” (they have three options).

Put a comma after any introductory material before a main clause, especially if it is more than a few words long. This makes for easier reading, especially when the introductory material is long, e.g., “While she was analysing comments about scrum experience from her All Black interviews, scrum rules were changed.”

In our guide, we prefer not to use the Oxford comma (before the penultimate item in a list like dogs, cats, and small children)—we tend to follow British preference down-under rather than American. Personally, I’m never sure why there is such interest in this relatively unimportant anomaly.

It does raise the point that there are different practices between British and American writing, particularly around the punctuation at the end of quotations. For those of us outside these places, consistency is the main rule. Take your pick and then stay in that zone.

Let us know whether you think it is sometimes helpful for the DoctoralWriting SIG to mention the mechanics of grammar and punctuation or not—we’re pedants who find this stuff intriguing but we don’t want to irritate.

P.S. And if you are also a fellow pedant, one great site on punctuation and grammar comes from NASA courtesy of Mary K. Mccaskill.

Writer’s block: unblocking and declawing



By Susan Carter

I’ve long felt that ‘writer’s block’ is too general a term. It is a bit like saying ‘I’m sick’—people know something is wrong, but to find a cure, you need more detail than that. In the last post, I reported on an excellent talk by Professor John Bitchener on giving good feedback on doctoral writing. He was also critical of the catch-all phrase ‘writer’s block.’ John suggests that what ‘writer’s block’ usually means is limited reading, limited thinking and limited scoping of the topic. His tonic for unblocking writer’s block is more reading, thinking and scoping.

The pointer to more reading rings especially true to me as being helpful for many reasons: to get the jargon of the discipline; to see how good paragraphs and sentences are constructed when the writing is clear; to locate any tensions of opposing view; and to re-inspire. And there is of course the content that literature offers too…. However, a friend says that reading is her favourite writing avoidance strategy, so I guess the trick is to know and manage yourself.

John explained how he gives his doctoral students four tasks before they begin writing. Even before they are at risk of writer’s block, they are encouraged think their way into the task as a way of pre-empting blockage. To develop thinking and scoping musculature, along with better understanding gained through reading, they are to:

  1. mind-map the topic;
  2. design a rough content page projection;
  3. build a powerpoint with just five or six slides on their thesis content; and
  4. write an argument overview.

These tasks orient each thesis writer into the overall shape of the thesis, and, perhaps more importantly, force recognition that there will need to be such a thing and that its design is their responsibility. Such realisation is often alarming.

John’s point is that, by the time they have completed the quite challenging thinking involved in each of these four tasks, students will be well placed to start writing, and the quality of the early drafts will be much better. They will require less feedback from supervisors, and the writing will be more sure of its own direction.

It seems to me that the tasks John sets his research students before they write are also likely to help should they fall prey to writer’s block further into the thesis. My own approach when I am in the grip of writer’s block is to hunt for what its cause is really. If I find I am avoiding writing I should be working on, I hunt for more specifics by asking myself why I am avoiding it. What is the problem, precisely?

It may be that the next task required is to restructure my manuscript and I dread beginning cutting and pasting because I know that I will lose orientation. In that case, I take a single-sided print-out and scissors to a large table. I cut it into sections and then physically rearrange them. It means that when I am at the computer, the word document won’t turn into a swamp as I cut and paste. I’m guessing that this is what John’s tasks help to avoid: if you have spent time figuring out how things connect before you right, you avoid creating a quagmire. Sometimes, for me, the quagmire route results from the fact I think through writing–the act of choosing words pushes me to think more deeply, and it can mean messiness.

I may need to spend a few more hours reading literature to get more confidence within the zone of my topic. Often I find that reading motivates me towards writing again. It might be some evocative language that inspires me to be more creative, or something moving that reminds me of the significance of my area of research: doctoral writing and pedagogy.

Scoping can be helpful too; often one chapter or article is made too difficult to pull together because it has several strands. Itemising what these are and considering whether or not they should all be in there, somehow breaks the work down into manageable sections.

I also suspect that most doctoral students, and maybe most academics too, are sometimes angry, despondent or disinclined in their relationship with their writing. ‘Writer’s block’ has emotional symptoms in addition to slowing progress. So I’m curious as to other ways of locating what specific dis-ease writer’s block symptoms point to and/or ways of overcoming it.


This post was inspired by my notes from an excellent talk by Professor John Bitchener at the Faculty of Education, University of Auckland.

Tough self-scrutiny as a doctoral writing tool


By Susan Carter

I’ve just been to a great lecture by John Bitchener on giving good feedback on doctoral writing. John has intensively researched the topic, as his website shows, and his books are very helpful. He began the lecture by looking at some of the causes of doctoral writing difficulties. In this post I am turning his observations into a checklist that students could use for self-auditing.

But before we begin, a caveat: self-auditing, like writing review from others, is often disconcerting. Those questioning processes can hammer your identity and sense of self-worth in unpleasant ways.

It is important that at doctoral level, especially in the early stages, students are made aware of the way that critical review, including self-review, is a method for strengthening your academic identity and worth. It is a bit like tempering metal: you get stronger metal after heating it up and bashing it.

So yes, for humans, this is uncomfortable; nonetheless, all academics go through routine hammering from reviewers. Supervisors do well to explain this, and show some of the snide reviewer comments they have received over time.

Now to apply the heat and hammer. If students feel that feedback on their writing is more negative than they expected, they could consider how the following may have contributed.

  • A gap between past experience at undergraduate or masters level and doctoral level, for example, if prior educational experiences or qualifications were achieved in a different country from where they are doing their doctorate.
  • Incorrect assumptions about what a doctoral thesis should be—it is longer, more defensive and with more emphasis on original contribution than they might have understood. It also often builds new theories and expands methods.
  • Misalignment between theory and practice, or between knowledge and application, and uncertainty as to how to work between these dichotomies.
  • Lack of awareness of what theory does (as well as what it is).
  • The appropriate use of hedging and emphasis (or what John terms ‘boosters’). The capacity to use English to get just the right degree of emphasis can mean the difference between a statement being convincing or simply wrong.
  • Unawareness of the need to be developing an argument at macro levels—the thesis of the thesis—and at micro levels within chapters.

On reflection, I think this suggestion for students’ self-auditing does several positive things. It improves the writing because students see what is not quite working. It gives students agency for their own learning as writers, cutting the umbilical cord dependency on supervisors to always show the way. Perhaps most importantly, it teaches the habit of positive critical reflection, one I believe that academics need to survive and to be good academic citizens. Chris Park (2007) points out that one contribution of doctoral work is the fully-fledged independent researcher. Critical self-auditing of writing quality is seldom easy, smooth and comfortable; finally graduating with a PhD is so satisfying partly because it is recognises the high research quality produced by all that hammering.



This post comes from the notes that I took during Professor John Bitchener’s Feedback on doctoral writing at Epsom Campus, The University of Auckland, 10 September 2014.


Park, C. (2007) Redefining the Doctorate: a Discussion Paper, York: Higher Education Academy.




The bones of the thesis: structure and articulation


By Susan Carter

I was talking to a chap who’d just graduated through a taught Masters with strong grades. He said, “Sometimes I got my best marks when I was really busy and didn’t have enough time. Then you’d just try to figure out the bare bones of what they wanted. Actually, that seems to be what matters.” With a big project like a doctoral thesis, looking for what matters becomes harder because there is so much detail to attend to with painstaking care. It becomes very easy to overlook what matters. Yet examiners who need to tick off that each of the generic requirements has been met are really looking for “what matters.”

A thesis with good bones usually stands out as strong once finished. This post is given to the bones of the thesis, the framework that gives its structure.

Figuring out the bone structure gives a writer multiple advantages at many stages of the thesis. Usually a full thesis proposal produced in the first year will have a suggested outline. The more concrete such an outline is, the easier the author makes it for themselves to begin the writing project. Knowing how many chapters (or articles if this is a thesis by/with publication) means envisioning the work that must be done.

Working back from the word limit helps too: knowing the full thesis might be 80,000 words lets you figure more or less what proportion of these words will be given to the different moves to be made within that word limit. It already breaks that work up into smaller tasks that seem less daunting. It also begins to outline the bones of each section—if there are only five thousand words to cover the three theories that underpin the research, then you need to decide what detail matters enough to be included. The shorter route to finished becomes more visible as a sense of structure firms up.

Pulling back to do a stocktake on what matters, and reconsidering the bones of the thesis, can sometimes be helpful if the detail is beginning to grow tiresome. Shifting from detail to the bare bones of thesis structure gives psychological relief as a way of shuffling forward with a large writing project. Moving back and forth between different sections and chores at different levels helps with the sheer tedium involved in a large project. For many doctoral students, this will be their first exercise in persistence. Consciously developing psychological strategies may be essential for survival.

Then, before submission, it’s a good idea to take an x-ray view of the thesis. At the end, the articulation of the skeleton becomes crucial because it does much of the work that allows the examiner to tick off against the criteria for a PhD.

That word articulation is apt: it applies to both talk and to movement. ‘Articulate’ is the word I use when I’m struggling for absolute precision with a theoretical or novel idea that is still slightly nebulous: “I need to find a way to articulate this.”

The articulation of the skeleton gives movement to the mass of flesh: the talk of a thesis, the flesh of content, needs to make moves too. It needs to demonstrate that it meets the generic criteria for doctoral qualification–these usually relate to originality, incorporation of the relevant literature and methodology, and the overall format.

The metaphor of a skeleton with articulation could be taken a bit further into the joinery hooking those bones together. Ensuring that every section of the thesis is framed within the main argument, the context of problem, what is known, what unknown, the theory, the methodology and why the research matters somehow assures examiners that this is a coherent entity that makes a substantial enough contribution. Doing this entails successful articulation of those good bones (what really matters) and sets them to work persuading examiners and future readers that the research contribution is valuable and interesting.

Do you have different metaphors than dancing skeletons for that might help doctoral students think about their key points and how to emphasise them in writing?

Review before submission: an index-building model for multiple audience theses


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By Susan Carter
This post applies a book index-building experience to doctoral writing with multiple audiences. You do not need an index in a doctoral thesis. I am not by any means suggesting this as an exercise before submission: it is a big time consumer, but I will suggest the possible usefulness of a truncated version.

Some doctoral students have two distinct audiences beyond the examiners. This may be true of those taking an indigenous, feminist or queer theoretical position, or showing that one group of people (nurses in the ward, or teachers in small rural towns, say) need more support in some area or that they are undervalued. Research like this often creates new knowledge that underscores the need for support for a particular course of action. The authors of such theses may be aware that have some sympathetic readers—insiders who will welcome the research on a topic of concern to them–and others who are sceptical. Thus they need to direct their argument in two different directions at once to influence the progress of their cause.

I learned a new way of seeing when I co-edited a book about generic support for doctoral students. The book’s structure was unusual: in addition to the introduction and conclusion to the book, we editors also wrote introductions to each chapter and some sections within the chapters. Our joint coherent argument was built through a bricolage of other voices, with about thirty-five others giving us short inset pieces we fitted into our own frame. Most of the book’s expected readers would be sympathetic: other learning advisors providing generic support to doctoral candidates and seeking inspiration. However, our argument really hoped to persuade the unconverted of the value of our practice and pedagogy. These readers include a middle group of academics whose supervisory work meshes with generic support, doctoral students who sometimes don’t realise how useful generic workshops would be for them and, most of all, senior management who so frequently engage in a program of change management that entails restructuring generic programmes. We felt this last group might very well be sceptics.

Now, to build an abstract index, i.e, one that indexes ideas and not just single words, you work through your list of terms to be indexed and find-search in your large document, checking each instance recording how long its discussion runs. This gives a quantitative overview of how many pages are devoted to the themes and factors that build the overall argument, the thesis. The process showed us how often we talked about good practice in terms that learning advisors would recognise, and how often in terms likely to speak to senior management. For example, the index included:
1. Terms for the sympathetic: academic identity formation, critical thinking skills, culture, equity, graduate attributes, homeliness, indigenous, insider/outsider, theory, thesis-writing
2. Terms that talked to those neutral folk we complement and work with: collaboration, communities of practice, intercultural skills, supervision, university context
3. Terms intended to persuade senior management: accountability, assessment, benchmarking, completion of doctorate, curriculum, effectiveness, employability, publication, key performance indicators.
The index-building process surprised me with a new view of a document that I had gone through diligently so many times.

I had worried we might be biased towards our sympathetic reader, or too didactic overall, soapbox thumping about what matters to us. Instead I found that we were fairly even-handed in the attention we gave the different audiences as instanced by our interweaving of different stakeholder discourses. In effect the search for terms let me gauge how appropriately and successfully we were in driving one argument forward that was differently nuanced for different readers. I could see that it was a way to pick up any lack of balance.

Many doctoral students are similarly motivated by the desire to articulate the value of their work to sympathetic insiders who know that a cause really matters, and to persuade the unconverted. This method could be modified when scholars/candidates/ students have a near-completed thesis: they could make a short list of the most significant themes and associated terminologies and then do a find-search for each thus enabling them to build a map of usage. When this task is undertaken as though constructing an abstract index, it means checking the text surrounding the term to decide how much attention is given to the concept. This kind of quantification shows how the overall argument weighs out in terms of speaking to different target audiences.

I’m hoping you might have other suggestions for doctoral students in the last few months before submission. What other ways are there to audit the structure and the weight of argument throughout the entire thesis? And what else needs checking when different research methods are used?

Sharing our practice: Writing and HDR supervision



By Claire Aitchison

In this blog I thought I’d share some of the teaching materials I used recently when working with higher degree research supervisors. As part of a series on supervision and researcher writing I created small vignettes from stories I’d collected over the years. Groups were encouraged to talk over the scenarios in response to two prompts: What is going on here? and What strategies might be useful to address the issues?

Very often academics work in isolation, rarely having the opportunity to share their teaching practice – despite a literature that extols the virtues of peer observation (Shortland 2010) and the desire of (especially newer) academics and supervisors for learning from colleagues (Hamilton & Carson, 2013).

Given the history of PhD scholarship and the increasingly busy lives of academics, it is not surprising that the student-supervisory locus remains the most private of all teaching spaces. For students and supervisors alike, what goes on there is rarely scrutinised, discussed nor made public (Goode 2010). Perhaps that is why this activity that showcased some pretty common scenarios received so many exclamations of recognition and generated such lively discussion. As long as it’s not overdone, I think we all enjoy the chance to share and compare our own experiences against those of others. Well-constructed scenarios that ‘ring true’ can encourage us to consider events from different perspectives, trigger self-reflection and hopefully enrich our supervisory practices.

As you read these vignettes perhaps you’ll rehearse some possible explanations and responses? Perhaps you’ll think of other stories that could become a launching pad for discussions about challenges and practices in supervision, or you may like to share a pedagogical initiative that’s worked for you?

Scenario 1
‘For over a year now I have been giving my research student careful, detailed feedback on her writing. At the end of the chapter I try to summarise her main problems and identify relevant spelling or grammar rules. I have even given them links to grammar websites that have clear explanations and practice activities. However, I have seen the same errors repeated over and over. I am at my wit’s end. What else can I do?’

Scenario 2
‘A recent incident has negatively impacted my relationship with my doctoral scholar, leaving me perplexed and surprised.
Luke wrote a fabulous Masters dissertation that was insightful, quirky and inventive. I was happy to take him on as a doctoral scholar. Because I am already familiar with Luke’s capabilities, I guess I have not been as attentive to this student as I am with others; nevertheless, I have been happy with the progress of the candidature. He has been highly self-motivated, achieved all the milestones and handled some difficult surprises in his research. He is now in the last 6 months of candidature and I am working more intensely with him.
In my experience, candidates’ writing capabilities often show significant improvement in the final stages of intense ‘writing up’. As is not uncommon, some of Luke’s writing had long been under par – lacking the sophistication and depth required of a highly theoretical thesis. When I tried to explain that his writing was not ‘academic enough’ and that he still wrote like a Masters student rather than ‘at PhD level’, he reacted badly. He cut short our conversation and left the meeting. Since then our interactions have been rather steely.’

Scenario 3
‘My doctoral student has been a high school classroom teacher for over 35 years. His research is on second language acquisition – an issue about which he has very strong opinions. He is a great writer, teacher and communicator, and despite emigrating from Italy, his command of English language is exceptional. His thesis writing, however, is convoluted and dense. His sentences are long and complex. He writes passionately, at times infusing his work with hyperbole and flourish. He is determined that his views, born of extensive experience, find a place in the thesis. I am not sure how to proceed; so far he has failed to pick up on my feedback about the importance of being objective.’

Scenario 4
‘One of my very capable students is at risk of not completing on time. She is demonstrably clever and contributes well to lab activities and discussions. She is popular amongst her peers, often helping others with their work. She has developed an active social media profile with a website and research blog where she posts stories and pictures from the field and communicates with a global network of researchers.
However, she regularly fails to deliver substantial pieces of writing – rather, she turns up to supervision meetings with pages of dot points and descriptions of what she is going to do. She often presents with yet another new idea. She doesn’t stick to agreements about handing in work a week before our scheduled meeting, nor producing text in accordance with our discussions. She always has excuses – and grand plans for catching up. She has probably attended nearly every workshop available to HDR candidates.’

Goode, J. (2010). ‘Perhaps I should be more proactive in changing my own supervisions’? In M. Walker & P. Thomson, The Routledge doctoral supervisor’s companion: Supporting effective research in Education and the Social Sciences. Oxon: Routledge.

Hamilton, J., Carson, S. & Ellison, E. (2013). Building distributed leadership for effective supervision of creative practice higher research degrees Final Report for Australian Government Office for Learning and Teaching. Retrieved from

Shortland, S. (2010). Feedback within peer observation: continuing professional development and unexpected consequences. Innovations in Education and Teaching International 47(3), 295-304.

Managing the writing energy


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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:


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