Achieving writing precision: applying simple activities to complex thesis writing


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By Susan Carter

When…you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out in the open and has other people looking at it.                                   (A. A. Milne, 1961, p. 101)

In last week’s workshop with a group of doctoral students, we began by talking about what was puzzling, troubling or interesting people currently about their doctoral writing. A couple agreed that it was really hard to put ideas that are good in the mind onto a page–like Pooh Bear above, they found quite good thoughts somehow looked much less convincing in a draft of writing.

Some common disgruntlements emerged: feeling your own writing is boring to read and boring to write, and wondering whether the current writing might not end up in the thesis so feeling all that work might be a waste of time.

The potentiality of ideas seemed to be shut down when packaged into linear writing, in the same way that the pleasure of having inviting purchase options is gone once you spend your cash. You get one thing, and that is all.

A challenge those with English as an Additional Language agreed on, however, was how hard writing was at doctoral level, because ‘literacy’ suddenly became ‘much more complicated.’ So this week, we met again for a small exercise that comes from Linda Evans on developing precision in expression.

It begins asking students to take approximately three minutes to write down a good definition of a chair. Continue reading

Decongesting writing through revision: The unwriting workshop


By Susan Carter

Sometimes students have writing habits that make for bulky prose where the content to word ratio is low: too many words and not enough content. Often decongesting writing can be achieved through revision in peer review–in our posts, we often mention this. This post proposes the idea of a new group workshop for doctoral and academic writers: an ‘unwriting’ workshop where peer review focus is on trimming verbal excess. As someone who puts on writing workshops commonly, I like the idea of an unwriting workshop.

My own writing is always more stylish when I am forced to shed words. Usually I begin culling words due to journal limitations on length, and then later see how much stronger the writing is, and easier to read. (Sometimes my academic friends suggest some chops. This paragraph’s first sentence is better for the unwriting I have done, prompted by Claire. It was originally  I’m prompted to have an entire workshop focused on unwriting by the way that my own writing is always more stylish when I am forced to shed words. I like the trimed version much better.)

Usually In addition, when reviewing writing, I’m often irritated by the bulkiness of some authors’ writing. My experiences as both a writer and a reader prompt my desire for a workshop that focuses entirely on cutting out excess.

Writing that has been partly unwritten is shorter, and readers appreciate prose that is clear and succinct. The aim is for complexity conveyed cleanly and simply. More to the point, though, writing that has gone through an unwriting exercise is sleeker and more self-assured. Writing develops a confident insider persona.

Here are some common habits that stick out in writing that is grammatically fine but just a bit wordy.

Double hinged verb constructions

Some authors too often turn a good verb into a noun so that it needs another verb to activate it. Some examples:

Written as: I launched an initiative to begin to start a peer review group.

Unwritten: I started a peer review group.

Written as: The production of a doctorate is going to drive you mad at some stage.

Unwritten: Undertaking a doctorate drives you mad at some stage.


It is easy to recycle ideas repeatedly especially across longer documents. In my own thesis, I shed thirty pages before submission by removing this kind of repetition. Unnecessary repetition can also occur in sentences as these examples illustrate:

Written as: Hegg’s theory was introduced to introduce the idea that the third element of chance could be a factor. [This is clunky, but something similar was in one draft I worked on.]

Unwritten: Hegg’s theory introduces the idea that the third element of chance could be a factor.

Written as: While conducting the study, I found that in this study, participants seemed to avoid mentioning any comments about unease.

Unwritten: In this study, participants avoided mentioning unease.

Phrases that could be adjectives

Written as: The students who were fully engaged…

Unwritten: The fully-engaged students….

Preference for lengthy Latinate words

Written as: The study utilized samples….

Unwritten: The study used samples…

Strunk and White (1972, pp23-24) give a few examples that are highly pertinent to novice academic authors. Under the succinct heading Omit Needless Words, they demonstrate some draft revision examples, including:

the question as to whether…                     the question

used for fuel purposes                                  used for fuel

this is a subject that                                        this subject

the reason why is because                          because

Within a group, hunting for superfluous words together can become a game, one that somehow alerts those involved to spot congestion in their writing later when revising alone. I’m privileged at present to facilitate group work for doctoral students, who bring their concerns to the group to engage in play with writing. Other posts describing writing group exercises would be welcome.


Strunk, W. Jr. & White, E. B. (1979). The Elements of Style. 3rd Ed. Boston, London, Toronto, Sydney, Tokyo, and Singapore: Allyn and Bacon.

Demonstrating criticality in the doctoral literature review


By Susan Carter

We have written many posts on reviewing literature—you will find more by using our blog’s search engine. The topic deserves our turning back to it from time to time because the task is challenging. The beginning of the process requires extensive searching in a world that is busy with a myriad of voices—that can be discombobulating, because some research articles assure early-stage doctoral students that they are on track, while others quite terrifyingly show them how naïve and unaware they are.

To add to the enormity of the task, each relevant article has its own literature. Initial reading is never a matter of crossing what must be read off a reading list but, rather, adding another five or so items to that list. But this post addresses the need to demonstrate critical analysis in writing about all this literature. Continue reading

New Year’s resolutions and doctoral writing: best wishes!



By Claire Aitchison, Cally Guerin and Susan Carter

Turning from one year to the next brings out self-auditing tendencies, the New Year resolutions. We have written on this before: drawing on psychology to build self-control so that those resolutions are actualized (2016) ; suggesting a series of practical approaches that might help doctoral writers get more pleasure and productivity (2015) ; and considering ‘habits of mind, body, time, place and pace’ with a range of options used by famous authors (2014) . That was useful advice, and the posts are still there for any wanting new year re-energisation. This year, though, we thought we would each describe our own aspirations for 2017.


This year Susan has set us on a provocation to declare our New Year’s writing resolutions. It’s a delightful (although slightly scary) suggestion to make something public that is generally private.  As usual, during the Christmas break I took down my annual writing schedule from above my desk, and before throwing it out, reviewed what I had achieved. It’s a satisfying task to reflect on what has come in as anticipated and to ponder further on what was not achieved. The most exciting thing for me is the little buzz that I get from the writing that happened serendipitously, not even imagined at the beginning of the year.

Over the years I have become better at planning my writing for the year ahead. I’ve also learned that the most crucial variable is how much control I have in my life.  There have been some years when new demands have seriously limited my ability to progress my writing goals. As a consultant over the last few years I have had more control over my workload and thus have had greater success.

I often co-author with colleagues with whom I have established productive working relationships.  Some years January commences with a number of commitments already in train and other times the horizon is pretty clear. Conferences and colleagues are always built into my planning – for me, both are powerful motivators.

But, what of my plans for 2017?  This year my job has changed and I am beginning to see how I can bring the learning from that into my work around doctoral writing. I enjoy new challenges and particularly enjoy working with colleagues who push my thinking. I always learn so much from working with others, whether it’s a simple trick with Word, or a new perspective; I find it invigorating. In addition I find stimulation from my work – many workshops have ended up being posts and then extended further into papers.

I also like to extend myself with a new theory  or a topic.  For example, I may be intrigued with a thought that returns and shapes up over months (or years!). Sometimes the theory comes first and sometimes it is the problem or issue that surfaces and troubles my thinking. The beginning of a year is a good time to do a stock-take to see if I can nail this down into something publishable.

So, what does this add up to? I’m devising my own year as a foray into new areas of interest.I will also continue to write with old friends and colleagues. Reflecting on my process for this post lets me see what might be of use to doctoral students; namely:

  • Make a schedule: to keep you anchored when things are madly busy and for a self-auditing.
  • Use the aspects of writing you know inspire you as motivation—acknowledge them and factor them in.
  • Accept that some writing obstacles are outside of your control.
  • Identify and acknowledge the learning you do as a writer.




Last year I tried to finish off a few writing projects that had been hanging around for some time. I wanted to get them off my desk to clear space for new thinking in 2017. So now I’m allowing myself to start work on some new projects.

As a first step, I’m preparing a couple of ethics applications. I hear from others about their frustrations at being forced to fill in the forms, and what they experience as delays when they have to amend applications to meet the requirements of their ethics committee. But in my field I don’t have the complications of human drug trials and medical interventions, working with children, with indigenous communities, nor negotiating the sensitivities of vulnerable groups. My work is regarded as ‘low risk’ in that I just want to talk to people about topics that are not particularly contentious or disturbing. This means that it’s usually fairly straight forward and at my university these applications can be approved by the core committee – I don’t need to meet particular deadlines posed by the less frequent meetings of the full committee. On the whole, I find ethics applications provide a very useful process that makes me think carefully about method and project design, why I want to do what I do, and how it can be useful to others. Obviously, I want my research to be ethical, and paying proper attention to this at the very beginning is appropriate and leads to better outcomes – in my experience, at least.

I’ve also been thinking about more creative, alternative research methods, and want to take the opportunity with new projects to try and push this a little further. One book that has inspired me is Helen Kara’s (2015) Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide (Bristol: Policy Press). She talks about shadowing, mapping, and transformative data gathering, all of which I find interesting. Others are doing fascinating work using big data and social media in their education research. I certainly don’t feel very confident about how to do anything like this, so it’s bound to be a steep learning curve! It feels promising to start the New Year with some new writing challenges – I’m keen to get on with it.


I’ve been in the habit with my academic writing of simply listing what I want to complete in the new year. There is something confirming about reviewing the year that has gone and looking forward to the one ahead. Primary questions are

  • When I reach the end of this new year, what writing will I be most satisfied to have completed?
  • What must I do?
  • What really interests me?
  • How theoretical am I willing to be? Am I willing to go further into theory this year?

Doctoral students usually find ‘what must I do’ the most important of these, and rightly so, but it is worth taking the annual cusp opportunity to face up to other relevant questions about direction.

It’s quite a personal consideration because it includes the persona in style and voice as well as the topic focus. I sit with an overview in mind and list goals for the year, usually on paper. I think about the pattern of the year, that is, when I might want to take a break; when teaching might be heavy; when there are deadlines that I already know I will need to meet. As the year feeds through, I follow this up with monthly goal-listing and weekly goal-listing. Somehow sitting and writing this down usually anchors my writing flow throughout the year. The trick is to take your own deadlines seriously.

This year, though, I am thinking differently. I want to focus on increasing the pleasure that I find in academic writing. So I intend to consciously treat both my writing and my academic work as a game. I am convinced by Jane McGonigal (2010): when we’re in game worlds I believe that many of us become the best version of ourselves, the most likely to help at a moment’s notice, the most likely to stick with a problem as long as it takes, to get up after failure and try again. And in real life, when we face failure, when we confront obstacles, we often don’t feel that way. We feel overcome, we feel overwhelmed, we feel anxious, maybe depressed, frustrated or cynical. We never have those feelings when we’re playing games; they just don’t exist in games.

I want to put behind me the irritation that I feel when writing doesn’t go well, or the dread I feel towards the drudgery of revision for consistency. I want to find pleasure in what I do, and courage to change my own patterns if I feel that they trap me in the same rut. For me this year, my ambitions are less with productivity and more with attitude.

McGonigal, J. (2010). Gaming can make a better world. TED, Feb, 2010. Available at

2016 – another good year for doctoral writing!

By Claire Aitchison, Susan Carter and Cally Guerin

It’s a convention at this time of year to reflect on what has happened over the past 12 months and thank those who have helped make all that happen – a convention of which we heartily approve as part of the season’s celebrations. This is our 50th post for the year, and we’ve covered all sorts of topics, received lots of comments on them, and seen our readership continue to grow. Continue reading

A review of ‘Social Media for Academics’ by Mark Carrigan


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By Claire Aitchison

Is it possible to write a book about social media with any chance of it not being out-dated before it hits the presses? This is the question I asked myself when I first heard of Mark Carrigan’s book: Social Media for Academics (SAGE 2016). In this case Mark has managed to do so and has produced a book about social media that is thoughtful, practical and relevant to his target audience – academics. Furthermore, the scope and the scholarly approach to exploring the whys and wherefores of social media for academics means this book is likely to remain relevant for quite some time yet.

Mark writes like an insider because he is an academic and researcher who is also an active and skilful social media user. Mark’s approach to social media is informed by his work as a digital sociologist and consultant. This means he is concerned not simply with how and what to do in the social media space; he is also interested in the social and personal functions of social media in higher education, digital scholarship, identity and engagement, and the implications arising from participation.  Continue reading