By Claire Aitchison

I started this blog when running a writing retreat for research students last year. Some writers were working on a paper for publication that needed to serve the dual purpose of being a stand-alone publication while also being a segment of their thesis as a series of publications. Others were writing research papers connected to their doctoral research that wouldn’t be submitted as part of the examinable thesis. And some were writing chapters or sections of the more traditional ‘big book’ thesis. Students came from all stages of candidature and from all disciplines. In this post I reflect on the questions students asked in individual consultations that day:

  • Should I just write it first – let it all out, and then structure later – or decide on the structure first, and then write into that? (This came up twice.)
  • Should I write the chapter first and then derive the article from that, or the other way round?
  • I’ve got this rough draft of a chapter and my supervisor says I have to make it into a publication – it is 14,000 words and needs to be 7,000. How do I do that?
  • One of my troubles is that I write bits of information and it is just blocks of stuff. My supervisor tells me I need to connect the bits together. How can I do that?
  • One of my supervisors is sick, and the other goes on sabbatical at the end of the year. I need to finish asap – how long will it take me to write the thesis?
  • My supervisor says I am verbose. It could be cultural – but it seems too abrupt, like I’m writing a manual when I do it your way.
  • How do I write a methodology section? I have read so many methods books that I feel overwhelmed. Now, apparently I am writing like one!
  • I feel like I’m going round and round. I don’t know what I’m saying anymore.

It’s interesting to note that most of the queries were about writing processes – how to actually do the writing. This is such a beautiful challenge. Some people like to begin with an outline: they need the roadmap first to guide their writing. Others like to begin writing freely, drafting as they gradually and organically find the form (and the ideas) they require. It’s easy to see why these two very different approaches can sometimes lead to misunderstandings between supervisors and students.

A number of student queries were about cohesion and linking. These prompted us to discuss the organisation of ideas – sequencing and logical development of an argument, along with the use of metadiscourse for linking segments and for helping writers articulate the rhetorical raison d’être of their structure.

Other questions related to writing style. The student concerned about writing the methodology section was experiencing ‘model assimilation’. Methodology books are mostly written in a textbook style for a student audience and provide a theoretically detailed account of methodological approaches and methods. In my experience it is not uncommon for doctoral writers to initially mimic this style. Helping students identify voice and writerly stance can assist them to learn how to replace the voice of the informant with their own authorial voice as their writing project develops.

When the big book thesis also contains a series of related, integrated publications, writers will need greater dexterity (and nerve!) to accommodate the unpredictability and uncertainty of these emerging forms. There are fewer models for students and supervisors to draw on, and they may have less control over the form and timing especially as plans can be disrupted by the reviewing and publication process. In addition, students sometimes struggle to distinguish between the requirements of a chapter and a journal article where the same story has to be told differently.

Apart from form and process, these questions made me think about where students can find answers.

Of course, students can speak to their supervisors … or can they? Some questions cannot be asked of supervisors; at times students may feel uncomfortable asking their busy supervisors, or maybe they just want a second opinion. In the main, doctoral students have few opportunities for low stakes conversations about their writing. Family and friends hardly seem best placed (and too many questions may stretch the friendship!).

Other doctoral students, especially more senior peers, may have some good advice – but not all students have access to such colleagues.

Increasingly, institutions are providing opportunities for students to access writing help (e.g. via 1:1 consultations, workshops, guest lecturers or credit bearing courses). Nevertheless, ongoing support for doctoral writing is still, all too often, secondary to the task of getting the research done. Not all institutions are equally well resourced, nor perhaps do they recognise the value of supporting writing. Similarly, not all students are comfortable seeking feedback on their writing. In fact, some students say that they have only ever shown work to their supervisors – despite the fact that doctoral scholars who regularly show, share and talk about their writing are less likely to experience writer’s block or the debilitating shock that can accompany some reviewer feedback.

The student queries above also speak to the very nature of writing and authorship. They remind us yet again of the deep complexities of doctoral writing – of the temporal and relational nature of writing, of the emotional and subjective aspects of writing, not to mention the skills and knowledge requirements for discipline-specific research writing. Open, genuine forums for discussions about writing help bring these complexities to the fore and help reduce the stigma some people feel about sharing their writing.

In many ways, any writer embarking on a new writing task faces these questions, particularly when they are not part of a dynamic community of writers. Questions about writing are perfectly legitimate; our institutions need to encourage and resource vibrant and ongoing discussions about writing so that such conversations are deeply embedded in the practices of scholarly research.

Do you want to tell us about the places and spaces where writing discussions happen in your life?