Writing in the company of others; ‘Shut up and write!’, AcWriMo, boot camps, writing retreats and other fun activities.


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By Claire Aitchison


I am watching the curious look inquisitively at this small group of people sitting outside in the sun tapping away at their keyboards. It’s hard to tell those who are intentionally part of our new ‘Shut up and write!’ from those who just happened, accidently, to lob here today. There’s the usual café sounds: orders being given and names being called out, cutlery clattering, cups meeting saucers and spoons. Some people look askance, others quickly soften their voices and look away – as if they have walked in on someone in prayer.

It’s 9.15am and people continue to join us. We are now eight definites and four fringe-dwellers: perhaps the outliers are hedging their bets; not sure enough yet to sit with us.

At the break we talk. Everyone is a doctoral student and immediately there’s an exchange about thesis topics, stage of candidature, software programs, the recent Boot Camp and other group writing opportunities on campus. Everyone wants to make writing normal business. Everyone needs to build writing into their lives so they can get their PhD done.

Then we settle down again to write. Together. In silence. It’s magic.

We have written before about group writing for doctoral scholars and academics including online writing groups, retreats and so on.  In this blog I aim to give an overview of the group writing opportunities that I’m aware of – and to invite readers to tell us about others.

WRITING MARATHONS are productivity-focussed events that usually involve measuring output (eg word counts) against time. Some examples include:

AcWriMo is perhaps the most widely known and popular. Started in 2011 by Charlotte Frost, AcWriMo is an annual online month-long ‘write-a-thon’ fashioned after the successful NaNoWriMo  (National Novel Writing Month). Writers participate via the host – PhD2Published; they determine their own writing goals and are supported by tonnes of social media including dedicated posts, twitter feeds and participant exchanges. You can read here about Cally’s experience with a more localised AcWriMo.

Boot camps work on a similar principle, except that those that I know of bring people together in the same physical space; they are mostly facilitated and very often centrally provisioned by University Grad schools or Writing Centres. Like AcrWriMo, participants set personal writing targets which they aim to meet in a set period of time, such as 2 or 3 days. This blog on the Thesis Whisperer gives a great account of how a Boot Camp works.


‘Shut up and write!’ is a mini writing sprint, rather than a marathon, that usually runs over an hour on a regular basis (eg weekly) in a convivial place. This kind of writing event is popular with doctoral scholars and academics because it’s a relaxed arrangement without hard rules or long term commitment. Participants simply turn up and get on with their writing, in the company of others, for two lots of 25 minute bursts with a five minute break in the middle.

‘Meetup’ writing groups. ‘Meetup’ is a global social networking phenomenon and recently, when invited by a friend to accompany her, I discovered yet another vibrant social writing avenue. Her group meets weekly at a pub in central Sydney where participants write, eat and drink together for 2 hours under the ‘cone of silence’. Thereafter, people mix and socialise as they see fit. I was amazed to discover that these writers included professionals of all kinds, scriptwriters, bloggers – and doctoral students.

Writing retreats are another kind of extended writing together opportunity favoured by doctoral scholars and academics alike. Whether they are highly structured (as described by Rowena Murray) or more organic (see Barbara Grant’s Guide), there’s growing evidence of the value of being able to retreat from the everyday demands and routines of academic life, to spaces entirely dedicated to writing. Susan has written about the pros and cons of writing retreats.

Writing buddies and intimate circles of productivity Finally I’d like to include a plug for the common, but undervalued, practice of hiding oneself away with a colleague/s to write. I’ve been lucky enough to have spent weekends away with doctoral scholars in which we have shared writing, cooking, walking and talking. Pat Thomson’s recent blogs on working with her co-author Barbara Kamler describes the joy (and productivity) of this kind of companionship.

But back at the University of New South Wales’ ‘Shut up and write!’ I overhear a passer-by say (I’m not kidding, I promise!): ‘This is really good. I saw the Research Office advertising … I want to do it – but I don’t have time’.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? – ‘Shut up and write!’ and these other group writing activities are booming because they work especially for those who don’t have time. The popularity of writing in groups is evident everywhere – so if you haven’t already; get yourself into some kind of group writing activity and you will reap the rewards.

And we’d love to know about your own group writing adventures.

Other references:

Aitchison, C., & Guerin, C. (Eds.). (2014). Writing Groups for Doctoral Education and Beyond: Innovations in Practice and Theory. London: Routledge. http://www.tandf.net/books/details/9780415834742/

Grant, B. . (2008). Academic writing retreats: a facilitator’s guide. Sydney: Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australia (HERDSA).

Grant, B., & Knowles, S. (2000). Flights of imagination: Academic women be(com)ing writers. International Journal for Academic Development, 5(1), 6 – 9

Grant, B. M. (2006). Writing in the company of other women: exceeding the boundaries. Studies in Higher Education, 31(4), 483-495. DOI: 10.1080/03075070600800624 http://www.leadershipscolaire.uottawa.ca/documents/Grantonwritingretreats.pdf


Where’s this going!? Metadiscourse for readers and writers


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By Claire Aitchison

We’ve all heard good teachers and orators lay out what they’re going to cover in their talk. It usually happens early on, and when done well, it is unobtrusive and incredibly useful to help us ‘get’ what it is they are going to talk about. Depending on the situation, this bit of chatter, may remind listeners of what was covered previously (where they’re coming from), of the scope and nature of their current talk, and indicate how they’re going to proceed (where they’re going). This bit of talk ensures everyone is ‘on the same page’ and acts as a launching pad from which things can proceed. It gives us a moment to collect ourselves mentally and it reduces cognitive load because we don’t have to second-guess where things are heading. As an audience member, I appreciate this early orientation because I want to know upfront how my time is going to be spent.

Linguists call this chatter ‘metadiscourse’ – that is, talk about the talk, or “discourse about discourse” (Feak and Swales 2009, p. 38). Generally this discourse is empty of content – although it may include a position or argument statement.

Metadiscourse features a lot in academic writing – and especially in thesis writing. Generally speaking, the longer the manuscript, the greater the amount of metadiscourse. Feak and Swales (2009) say that expository texts have more of it than narrative texts. Metadiscourse is most commonly found at the beginning and end of chapters and as a segué between different parts within chapters. At its most basic, it aims to foreshadow what is to come and how, and perhaps also connect backwardly to what has been covered/ argued. Metadiscourse is a feature of a reader-friendly text (Paltridge & Starfield, 2007).

Not surprisingly, we can expect to find a fair bit of metadiscourse in the average dissertation or thesis, although some disciplines favour it more than others. Hyland (1998) describes variations across disciplines. In my own experience, I’ve seen a lot of it in economics and theses that are heavily argument driven, and less in the pure sciences and humanities.

Evans and Gruba (2002) outline a useful structure for the beginnings of chapters: that is the three moves of backward reflection to the previous chapter, to state what’s in the current chapter and to foreshadow what follows. The rendition of these steps or ‘rhetorical moves’ will vary – for example they might appear as three distinct paragraphs, or be combined in one paragraph, or even as one sentence.

Here are some examples of sentence structures or ‘skeletons’, as Kamler and Thomson (2013) call them, that may be located at the beginnings or endings of chapters or between segments of a text.

Current orientation

The focus of this chapter is ….

This chapter reviews the literature on … , beginning with an overview of the key disciplinary influence s…

Backwards orientation

This chapter follows from a detailed report of the findings that …

The previous chapter provided an historical review of the evolution of these models. To recap, the main …

Future orientation

Having established the central argument, the next chapter ….

… and thus, the next chapter explores the key themes …

Combination orientations

This chapter analyses the environmental drivers first identified in Chapter 4. It begins by …, and then …., thereby establishing the context for a more thorough discussion in Chapter 7.

Following from the discussion of key findings in Chapter 5, this chapter lays the ground for the resultant recommendations presented in the final chapter.

Isn’t metadiscourse just plain boring?

Some readers object to this kind of directional voice, finding it intrusive and simplistic, even insulting. Certainly if it is formulaic and repetitive, reoccurring at regular intervals when it simply isn’t necessary, it can become tedious.

Using metadiscourse as a writing tool

As a writer myself, and as a writing teacher, I make frequent use of metadiscourse as a writing tool. My early drafts often have lots of metadiscourse signalling for me what it is (I think!) I’m doing. Later, I remove most of this writing.

When working with others, I often ask them to include explicit metadiscursive text between new sections of writing because this forces writers to clearly articulate their intentions for any particular section – and how these relate to what has come before, and what will follow. Sometimes, together, we read only the metadiscourse or sentence skeletons to gauge the logic and rhetorical integrity of the writing. Removing the ‘content’ in this way, can reveal the strength of the structure as articulated in this “discourse about the discourse”.


A final note: There are some excellent resources on thesis writing from the fields of applied linguistics and ESL written for those who have English as a second language. Supervisors are not always aware of these resources and of their applicability for all kinds of writers – irrespective of language backgrounds. After all, isn’t academic English just another foreign language??!!

Does any one have a favourite resource they wish to alert us to?


Evans, D. & Gruba, P. (2002). How to write a better thesis (2nd ed.). Carlton: Melbourne University Press.

Feak, Christine B., & Swales, J. M. (2009). Telling a research story: writing the literature review (Vol. 2 of the revised and expanded edition of English in Today’s Research World). USA: University of Michigan Press.

Hyland, K. (1998). Persuasion and context: the pragmatics of academic metadiscourse. Journal of pragmatics, 30(4), 437 – 455.

Paltridge, B. & Starfield, S. (2007). Thesis and dissertation writing in a second language: A handbook for supervisors. Oxon: Routledge.

Thomson, P., & Kamler, B. (2013). Writing for peer-reviewed journals: strategies for getting published. Oxon: Routledge.



Who is helping your doctoral student write their thesis?


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By Claire Aitchison

Last month I had my head down writing a chapter for a forthcoming book on academic integrity. The invitation to contribute to this volume came about following a paper I gave with my colleague Susan Mowbray at the Quality in Postgraduate Research (QPR) conference earlier in the year.

In our presentation Shadow writers in doctoral education?: Shades of grey we reported on the initial findings of a research project investigating writing service providers (external to the conferring university) for doctoral scholars. The motivation for the project arose from a dilemma in my work at the time, whereby I needed to find external help for a doctoral student who was struggling with their writing. The university itself didn’t have the resources to provide individual long-term, one-on-one writing support for doctoral candidates.

The research, conducted with ethics approval, aimed to investigate the scope and nature of writing service providers available to doctoral scholars, and to get a better sense of who such providers are.

Our enquiries led us to realise that there was a considerable demand for this kind of support – and that there was an extraordinary variety of people and organisations promoting their services. Our study identified over 158 sites simply from entering 6 doctoral writing related internet search terms. Our analysis showed the diversity of service provision – from the fully legitimate, transparent and regulated – to the highly questionable.

In a world where so much of our life is lived on-line and serviced by markets – especially in education and research –perhaps it is not surprising that there should be a burgeoning of on-line commercial doctoral writing support. However, although we only scratched the surface, what surprised us was the global reach and diversity of such provision and, paradoxically, how little is really known about this clandestine world.

As we tried to interpret what was going on, we constructed this diagram. It aims to illustrate the range of services and their relationship to the market and to notions of teaching and learning. Of course there is also overlap and confluence with some service providers working across the fields we have designated. It isn’t a perfect representation and we will refine it further as we go.


At one end of the continuum we located the market-based providers and at the other end we situated the free or ‘gift’ economy. The majority of fee-for-service providers at the market end of the continuum sell text-based services such as editing, proofing and formatting, and, it would appear, even contractual writing. This group includes highly professional enterprises allied to professional associations with transparent company and service details. There was also, however, a large number of providers whose advertising raised more questions than answers in regard to their business professionalism, capabilities and authenticity-let alone their capacity to deliver acceptable or quality product.

Moving along the continuum we identified others who were offering more developmental services such as extended 1:1 support, mentoring, coaching, and short courses for writing and research development, blogs and on-line conferences/training. Some of these providers were delivering to institutions as well as to individual doctoral students. In our interview phase, in general, we were impressed with the professionalism and expertise of these providers and of their genuine engagement with supporting scholars’ writing development.

At the ‘gift economy’ end of the spectrum we identified a small number of socially-networked, collaborative writing support opportunities in the form of blogs and online communities that showcased and shared research and writing interests. Our readers are no doubt are already familiar with these online communities.

While the research project was only small and far from conclusive, it raises some big questions for those of us who care about doctoral scholarship and writing. Pat Thomson recently wrote about some of these issues. In interviews, providers claimed that their clients included ‘all sorts’; working academics, native and non-native speakers of English and many whose experiences with supervision were unsatisfactory in one way or another. So why is there such a big market offering doctoral writing and research support? Does this healthy demand for external help signal a failure on the part of institutions to provide adequate support to their enrolled scholars? And how do/ should institutions interface with these providers? Is it acceptable, equitable or desirable for students to independently pay for such help? Or should we see it as a natural outcome-indeed a logical response-to a system that advocates autonomous doctoral scholarship?

Our investigations also raised serious questions about the quality and legitimacy of some services. The ‘industry’ isn’t regulated. As we explored the more questionable online sites, we became acutely concerned about the potential for fraud; for the flow-on negative effects for legitimate service providers; and for the potential undermining of the reputation and integrity of doctoral scholarship more broadly.

If anyone has thoughts or relevant experiences we’d love to hear from you. Perhaps you know of doctoral students or supervisors who have been ‘stung’ by dodgy companies? Perhaps you know of people who work in this field? Do you think this outsourcing of help might be changing how we work with doctoral students and how they work with us?

Writers without Borders


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This week’s post is from Brett Say, a graduate student and program coordinator at George Mason University, USA. Brett’s interests include faculty and peer mentoring as they relate to graduate student development, learning outcome development, and writing across the curriculum. Brett received his bachelor’s degree from the Pennsylvania State University and his Master’s degree from George Mason University with a concentration in professional writing and rhetoric.

It’s no secret that the interests of graduate students, particularly new graduate students, change and mature with time. It happened to me. I’m part of what you might call the burgeoning group of non-traditional students, although I wasn’t always that way. Sure, I took the traditional undergraduate path (4 years, give or take, ages 18-21) but then left academia to enter the “real world.” A few years and a few experiences later, I returned to academia with the hopes of learning how to better address professional issues my colleagues and I were facing in the corporate world. This decision led me down a path that would not only change my career, but also the way I looked at writing and higher education.

Before entering graduate school, I had spent several years writing and managing proposals for a large engineering firm outside of Washington, D.C. Because of this, and my undergraduate degree in English, I enrolled in a Master’s program focused on professional writing.  As I moved through the program, however, I realized that the topics which I believed I was interested in weren’t really what I was interested in at all. It wasn’t until I began considering doctoral programs in my field that I had a sudden realization that I was, academically at least, alone. The faculty members with whom I had been working, while supportive, didn’t share my new interests. I no longer felt I had a mentor to guide my research and writing. This was further complicated by the fact that, as a non-traditional student, I was working full-time and going to school at night. Feeling adrift, I did what any self-conscious graduate student would do – I turned to the literature.

I was relieved to find that in other disciplines people were actually writing about the issues that interested me.  When I found an article particularly aligned with my interests, I looked up the author and felt even more hopeful.  Not only did this professor share my interests, but she had completed her doctoral work at the same university in which I was enrolled. It had to be fate, right? There was one minor issue – she was now about 500 miles away.

Eager to speak with someone who shared my interests, I didn’t let distance stop me. I emailed the professor and asked if I could speak with her about her work. When she agreed, I was happy enough just to speak with someone.  Shortly into our first conversation, however, I found that our writing interests were even more aligned than I had originally thought. The faculty member also recognized it and asked me to collaborate on a manuscript she had been preparing. In all honesty, this caught me off guard.  Call me naive, but I had never heard of a professor writing with a student from a different university…let alone different latitude! I couldn’t help but think to myself, “What’s the catch?” After working with her for a few weeks, I found an answer to that question…

…There was no catch! It just made sense. This was an opportunity for a developing graduate student to learn from, and write with, an established author on a topic of shared interest. Moreover, it was an opportunity for the faculty member.  Doctoral education, by nature, is specific with many unique areas of interest. Thus, finding a student who is well versed in a faculty member’s area of interest, and one who is highly motivated, can be just as difficult for faculty a member as it is for a student who is looking for  a mentor. Couple that with the clichéd publish-or-perish mentality, teaching loads, and administrative responsibilities, and trying to write for publication can be just as lonely for faculty as it can be for students. So why not take advantage of an opportunity when it presents itself? Why confine faculty-student writing collaborations to opportunities within an institution? After all, faculty collaborate globally all the time.

One issue with this idea could be that the mentor-mentee relationship is still seen as an in-person relationship. This idea is likely even more entrenched  when it comes to collaborative writing at the doctoral level (Maher, Timmerman, Feldon, & Strickland, 2013). But, in the 21st century, is this an antiquated view? The goals of academic mentoring, typically, are to provide students with instrumental and psychosocial support systems that will help them succeed (Eby et al., 2013).  But does that mean that a writing mentor must be in the same room, city, or even country? Certainly, there is much to be said for in-person mentoring interaction, especially around collaborative writing. In fact, I prefer it. However, sometimes it’s not practical or even possible. So why do students and faculty tend to limit themselves to writing with those who are in their own institutions, especially now that it’s so easy to interact remotely (Dennen, 2004; Khan & Gogos, 2013)?

I suspect the answer is more political than you might think. Higher education can be a territorial place, particularly when it comes to research and scholarship. If “Professor Smith” from “University A” collaboratively writes with a graduate student from competing “University B”, what happens when that work is published?  Will the professor be questioned as to why he/she didn’t collaborate with a student from his/her respective institution? Will the student be penalized by his or her own faculty for “betraying” their program? Or, will both universities applaud the collaboration? I imagine a combination of all three…And that’s ok. But we can see how the former outcomes might cause apprehension.

The atmosphere of doctoral education is changing in so many ways. For a non-traditional student like me, it’s an interesting time; but for graduate students who feel adrift, it can be anxiety-producing. I feel lucky to have a strong idea of where I would like to go and to have people who can help guide me along the way. In the 21st century, I argue that we shouldn’t limit collaborative opportunities to produce new knowledge simply because of geographical or institutional boundaries. This is especially true for doctoral students who need to practice writing for their disciplines as much as possible. It’s also important to remember that, as students, we can more easily identify our writing mentors. We read their writing in journals, book chapters, and blogs. They, however, have no way of knowing who we are. So reach out to them…they just might reach back. There is nothing to lose, and a lot to gain.

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.





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