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By Susan Carter

The question in the title is not rhetorical: this post is keen to receive suggestions from both doctoral students and academics on how to help doctoral students learn to control their academic writing.

Here’s an example: explaining the mechanics of writing proved hard in a recent peer review group with one woman who just didn’t get it. Each meeting, she found others’ writing ‘really good’, while agreeing that the formative feedback on her own writing really improved it. Why couldn’t she learn how to give good feedback from receiving helpful feedback on her own work? Why didn’t this help her learn to self review?

This woman was highly intelligent; as such, she trusted her own evaluation that she simply was never going to become good at academic writing. She had tried other writing support before attending our classes. Her writing hadn’t improved, mostly because the instruction didn’t make sense to her. She was sure that she could never write well enough to be published.

After the class, as facilitators we did a post mortem. Could we have managed this better as teachers? We considered whether it was an advantage or disadvantage that the group was small. It had worked well for the others; one student celebrated that understanding the ‘formula’ for a paragraph had enabled her to write more fluidly and produce clearer writing—she rocketed ahead. Others made break-throughs too. That others seemed to be moving ahead happily probably made it worse for this sharp-witted student who seemed unable to revise her own writing.

I have also heard from supervisors who bemoan the fact that, although they try to explain the notion of logical forward progression, the need for a narrative, and for connections, some students continue to lack a sense of how writing structure affects meaning. As a learning advisor, I spend hundreds of hours with students on the other side of the conversation who find supervisor feedback puzzling. (Difficulty may be often due to communication between two people who interpret things differently.) My own approaches include the following:

  • always give feedback first on content and then on mechanics;
  • praise what works well, dissecting why;
  • compare what is not working to what is (‘you do this well over here’);
  • scaffold support with English language, not too much at once;
  • work with one section and request that the same principle be applied throughout;
  • direct students to other resources, e.g., learning centres, guides, digital resources;
  • keep exemplars that can be used as models;
  • ask students to look for well-written articles and explain why they enjoyed the style;
  • explain with metaphors to make writing revision less emotional, more practical;
  • set up peer review groups.

Usually, this combination, adapted to suit the situation, keeps my research students progressing in their control of writing—and as I work through these approaches with them, I’m often alerted myself to ways I could write more strongly.

Yet, I am aware from the student in my writing class that some very clued up people simply don’t connect to the workings of language in formal academic prose. Are there alternative ways to explain the points about academic writing that would help someone who really has trouble with language mechanics?

If you are a student, or have a student, with a story that goes “Did not get it until…” I would love to hear from you. Stories could be pastiched together for a sequel post: suggestions based on student experience.