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By Susan Carter

This post draws heftily on Gina Wisker’s website, the Good Supervisor, and directs readers to it: read to the bottom of this post for the password! Meanwhile, the post gives an example of one of Gina’s exercises that doctoral writers could undertake to improve their writerly skills. It’s a series of reverse-engineering prompts designed to help doctoral students learn how to ‘notice’ (Kumar & Kumar, 2009) the strategies that good research writers use. I noticed that Gina Wisker says to pick ‘good interesting’ exemplars—that is exactly the kind of writing that early career researchers should be encouraged to notice and aspire to produce.

Here’s Gina’s exercise. Find two good, interesting articles (or dissertations or theses) in your field. Then analyse each article/dissertation/thesis according to the following:

  • How the abstract establishes the reason for the work, why it was conducted the way it was, and what its importance and impact in the field are;
  • How the introduction introduces the context, the need for the work, where that work fits in, and what credibility (such as background, work, research, experience) the author has to write it and briefly gives an idea of the rest of the article;
  • How the literature review engages with the literature, with both the established theories and the relatively recent critical work in the same/similar areas, with the main arguments and concerns related to this area, this question, this work, and how this new work enters the dialogue with those previously written pieces and emphasises that what it has to say is a new contribution to this ongoing discussion;
  • How the methodology/methods section discusses, describes and defends why the work was undertaken in the way it was, who or what with, in what ways and why not in others, samples, limitations, and ethical procedures;
  • How discussion of data engages with the data produced; explains the analysis, and how it looks at the evidence in the information found, ensuring that this is all related to the initial question (social sciences, humanities, related fields), or hypothesis (sciences and related fields). How it deals with the statements about aims and intentions of the article  as expressed at the beginning. How it shows how the evidence/data/findings do relate to the initial question or hypothesis etc, and to the theories which have helped to ask the question or address the hypothesis, which underpin the understanding and approach to the field and to the data analysis and discussion. Look at how it makes claims, informs them with the  underpinning theoretical perspectives, and backs them up with some form of evidence and does not just overload with large amounts of undiscussed, unrelated information or data;
  • How the conclusion closes. Is there a sense of exhaustion and repetition? Or does it draw the main findings, factual and conceptual, together and make a statement about main factual findings (new information and knowledge) we can take away, and new conceptual understandings about the field and about meaning in the field in terms of areas explored in this work? (new, deeper meaning and understanding). Does it clearly signal the importance of the work?

Each one of these bullet points would form the basis of a workshop or supervision meeting. I like to emphasis the word ‘how’ in the above exercise, and ask students to look closely for the mechanics of language that articulate all these workings of their chosen examples.

This process is what Helen Sword calls ‘reverse-engineering [of] exemplary prose’ (Sword, 2017, p. 67). That is, by noticing exactly how a good writer achieves their purpose, a doctoral writer can check whether their own writing is as successful, and do so armed with an informed sense of the linguistic strategies they might employ. Sword (2017) suggests some examples of what might be noticed, including

  • The author has made complex concepts accessible by using real-life examples
  • The author avoids gratuitous jargon and contextualises crucial technical terms so that readers can easily work out their meaning

Gina’s resource is the Good Supervisor–click on the link and log in with password brighton.  This resource is online, licensed under creative commons – please use it and just say where the work came from (and note that it is not her Palgrave Macmillan 2012 book of the same name!)

You will find some of Helen’s resources without a log in. Both sites offer useful pointers to supervisors and doctoral writers as well as some practical support.


Kumar, M., & Kumar, V. (2009). Recursion and noticing in written feedback. European Journal of Social Sciences, 12(1), 94-99.

Sword, H. (2017). Giving feedback on grammar and style. In S. Carter & D. Laurs (Eds.), Developing Research Writing: A Handbook for Supervisors and Advisors (pp. 63-70). London and New York: Routledge.

Wisker, G. (2012) The Good Supervisor. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wisker, G. (2015) Getting Published. London: Palgrave Macmillan.