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By Cally Guerin

Like most of my colleagues around the world, I’m working remotely with PhD candidates at the moment. The challenges of unplanned change to working from home have been documented extensively, but I’d like to focus attention on what this means for doctoral writing. I’ve argued elsewhere (Morozov & Guerin, 2019) that much of the advice regarding remote supervision suggests something not actually very different from usual practices, since so many of us in 2020 mobilise the affordances of digital technologies to do this work.

Support for writing productivity

In many cases, candidates might need more frequent contact with their university community than usual in order to reduce the sense of isolation that so often has accompanied the sudden closure of university campuses. They are likely to look to supervisors for this contact, while writing support staff and researcher developers might also have noticed an upsurge in demand for their services. This doesn’t necessarily mean that a vast amount of time is required to provide writing support; rather, shorter, more targeted meetings might be appropriate.

Planning drafts

It is helpful to organise interactions around shorter pieces of writing instead of tackling full chapters if candidates need more frequent meetings to maintain momentum at a distance. Taking a scaffolded approach to the writing can create an effective (and possibly more efficient) structure as the candidate works towards producing the thesis.

It can be very useful to work alongside the doctoral writer to map out a broad outline for the piece of writing, and then build detail into the plan as the thinking develops – section headings, subtitles, keywords for paragraphs. This can be done online together, using Google docs, for example, or simply sharing the screen on Zoom so that everyone can see the document developing.

Alternatively, if doctoral writers prepare this stage of the writing on their own, I would recommend that supervisors and writing teachers read outlines and dot-point plans for chapters and sections. It’s a quick task and provides opportunities to offer advice on structure and also on content (What’s missing from the plan? What is a distraction from the main argument? What belongs elsewhere?).

There are three big benefits to working on the outline in this way.

  1. It is a much simpler process to move material around the document at this stage than it is to extract material that has been coherently woven into the fully written paragraph.
  2. This approach then allows the candidate to take short sections to write up; many of these sections are likely to be useful for the final document, albeit with various adjustments to fit the requirements of the final version.
  3. It also means that candidates don’t waste time writing up sections that are moving off in irrelevant directions that neither contribute to the final document, nor help to develop background thinking.

Delivering feedback

We know that regular, timely feedback on writing is required (Deshpande, 2017; East, Bitchener & Basturkmen, 2012; Paré, 2011). The challenge here is to determine what qualifies as ‘regular and timely’ – candidates sometimes have unrealistic expectations and limited understanding of supervisor availability for this task; working remotely exacerbates this, as candidates don’t get to see the regular work day of their supervisors as they pass in the corridor. It is well worth having a conversation about everyone’s availability to read and respond to drafts. Scheduling in advance when writing is both to be submitted and then returned with feedback can clarify the process for everyone; conflicts with other commitments can be identified and timelines adjusted accordingly.

Written feedback

Annotating the text with track changes and comments continues to be central in remote writing development, as it is in face-to-face settings. Those comments need to be detailed, specific and encouraging. It’s not helpful to write ‘I don’t understand this!’ without identifying where the argument fails to communicate clearly; similarly, a question mark in the margin does not help the writer appreciate what is required to clarify their meaning. Feedback should focus on the writing not the author: ‘The chapter would be strengthened by an explanation of XXX at this point’ rather than ‘You need to explain XXX’. And always remember to tell the author what they’ve done well – this can be enormously encouraging and helps the writer be more receptive to the criticisms.

Verbal feedback

It is important to provide verbal feedback on writing, too (Guerin, 2013). Sending the written comments in advance of a meeting allows the candidate time to read and absorb your responses. But then a follow up discussion is effective to sort out any misunderstandings and further queries can be clarified. Video conferencing or phone meetings play a crucial role in conveying nuances of meaning; if real-time conversation is not always possible, recorded voice messages can be incorporated into the feedback procedure. The verbal element plays a key role in strengthening a positive relationship: tone of voice can soften the blow of otherwise blunt criticism, making it easier to accept and therefore more actionable; clarification can be quickly sought and provided on the spot.

Connecting with peers

Candidates still need to interact with peers even when unable to talk with them face to face (see my comments on this in a previous post). Online writing groups can very effectively contribute to writing development (Kozar & Lum, 2015). Groups can focus on critiquing members’ writing or on facilitating productivity, or allow time for both activities; they can be facilitated by supervisors, writing experts or the group members themselves (Aitchison & Guerin, 2014). I’d recommend looking at the typology created by Sarah Haas that includes lots of different formats for establishing writing groups (Haas, 2014).

Basically, remote PhD candidates ‘want more of everything’ (Kozar & Lum, 2017). The sense of being cut off from their university is now common to doctoral writers who had never planned to work in such isolation. How are you managing remote support doctoral writers at your institution?


Aitchison, C. & Guerin, C. (Eds) (2014) Writing Groups for Doctoral Education and Beyond: Innovations in Practice and Theory. Routledge.

Deshpande, A. (2017) Faculty best practices to support students in the ‘virtual doctoral land’. Higher Education for the Future4(1), 12-30. DOI: 10.1177/2347631116681211

East, M., Bitchener, J. and Basturkmen, H. (2012) What constitutes effective feedback to postgraduate research students? The students’ perspective, Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 9(2). https://ro.uow.edu.au/jutlp/vol9/iss2/7

Guerin, C. (2013) Disembodied feedback on writing. DoctoralWriting blog. https://doctoralwriting.wordpress.com/2013/11/18/disembodied-feedback-on-writing/

Haas, S. (2014) Pick-n-Mix: a typology of writers’ groups. In C. Aitchison & C. Guerin (eds), Writing Groups for Doctoral Education and Beyond: Innovations in Practice and Theory. Routledge.

Kozar, O. & Lum, J.F. (2015) Online doctoral writing groups: do facilitators or communication modes make a difference?, Quality in Higher Education, 21(1), 38-51, DOI: 10.1080/13538322.2015.1032003

Kozar, O., & Lum, J.F.  (2017) ‘They want more of everything’: what university middle managers’ attitudes reveal about support for off-campus doctoral students, Higher Education Research & Development, 36(7), 1448-1462, DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2017.1325846

Morozov, A. & Guerin, C. (in press) Academic mobility in the digital academy: Questions for supervision. The Global Scholar: Implications for Postgraduate Studies and Supervision. Stellenbosch: AFRICAN SUN MeDIA.

Paré, A. (2011) ‘Speaking of writing: supervisory feedback and the dissertation’. In: McAlpine, L. & Amundsen, C. (eds) Doctoral Education: Research-Based Strategies for Doctoral Students, Supervisors and Administrators. Dordrecht: Springer.