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by Susan Carter

This morning a colleague who was to provide a workshop for doctoral students phoned in sick. Stepping in at short notice to replace her, I’m used Amanda Wolf’s four sentence formula for writing a research proposal in the workshop.  As we worked through Amanda’s exercise, I noticed how this great post is an exercise about writing to sell ideas to the reader rather than an exercise in writing to think. In this blog I ponder two related aspects arising from my fill-in workshop using Amanda’s sentence formula.

Writing to think

Now, every so often I end up in academic conversations where one or the other of us emphasises that writing enables thinking. In fact, it doesn’t just ‘enable’ thinking. It demands thinking. When doctoral candidates describe their research by telling you about it, their body language and the speed of delivery mean that it doesn’t matter if the actual words are not carefully chosen – it’s still easy to follow their meaning because they can communicate in ways that are not available to writers.

When those words are on the page, though, they matter considerably. So revision, that process of examining word choice, syntax and ordering, forces authors to really think about the precision of their own ideas. In another piece currently being written, I have just changed ‘Teaching generic doctoral sessions was based on my admiration for doctoral writers’ to ‘My choice to teach generic doctoral sessions was based on my admiration for doctoral writers.’ My point with that example is that, identifying that you are talking about the decision to do something rather than actually about the process of doing it sharpens accuracy. Struggling to think of what really is the case forces brain cells to whirr again over what exactly needs to be said based on what matters and why. Then, I feel that increased accuracy gives increased authorial trustworthiness, which makes it worth mucking round with writing revision.

The need to spend time on revision for accuracy leads to the need for skills in producing prose that sells ideas to the reader. Doctoral writing needs to be accurate, and it also needs to advertise a research product.

Writing to sell

Advertising agents could give a great deal of advice on how to market products. You can critically analyse advertisements to see their exploitation of cultural assumptions and how they appeal to their envisioned buyer’s anxieties and desires. Examiners are the target audience for doctoral writing, and knowing how to interest and please them needs consideration. Previously we’ve considered examiners and the way authors negotiate with them, pointing out that choosing them wisely matters. Additional to the need for examiners to award the degree, the revision and care with selling ideas to examiners makes it more likely that other readers will find the thesis accessible, perhaps cite it, and maybe watch for further publication from the author.

A basic principle of sales is that packaging should be attractive. Sword (2017: 66) suggests doctoral writers consider whether their thesis title is ‘eyecatching; memorable; concrete; packed with information’ and acknowledges that there is no single formula for a good title. It just ought to be the best one to be picked up by search engines and to look dynamic and interesting. And she asks doctoral writers whether their opening paragraph ‘is designed to capture and hold the reader’s attention’. These questions lead to revision for selling rather than for thinking: how academic writers learn to best display their thinking so they get uptake from readers.

Then, a strong thesis structure goes a long way to already signalling, even before content is considered, that the product really falls within the thesis genre. Description of the problem that the research investigates is best revised carefully to convey the importance of the study: such careful description entails writing to sell the product because its contribution is significant.

Wolf advises that the first step to a full thesis proposal is to “Situate your study in an area ripe for investigation, and craft a ‘narrative hook’, expressed as a declarative sentence”. Such writing clearly demands accuracy, but it responds to the need for writing to dangle out something suggesting a story in order to hook the reader’s attention.

Doctoral submission is mostly marked by hope and anxiety. Yet the revision strategies learnt through revision of doctoral writing will be of use in future publication or report writing. Thinking revision ensures writing is accurate and selling revision persuades readers that the work is sound: both skills are valuable in any future work.

In the current environment of neoliberalism, I’ve hesitated over the commercialism of the metaphor “selling.” Could you offer a better metaphor than one laden with the connotations of the market?


Sword, H. (2017). Giving feedback on grammar and style. In Carter, S. & Laurs, D. (eds.) Developing Research Writing: A Handbook for Supervisors and Advisors, pp.65-70. London and New York: Routledge.