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For many of us in English speaking countries, the end of the year means heading into seasonal holidays when we gather together with family and friends, share meals, drinks, Christmas pies and side-step the pressure of work. Lockdowns and anxiety might have both limited this activity and made it even more emotional when there are chances to get together and celebrate just that—time spent together.

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This year we’re issuing a challenge: what have you learned this year about doctoral writing? The pandemic has forced us to learn new tricks, mostly with working at a distance to support doctoral writing, a topic that Cally considered last year. We thought we’d end 2021 by reflecting on what we’ve learned.


Writing in company to structure your day

The unstructured nature of research degrees has been even harder to manage for those unable to access their offices on campus. This has played out differently in different countries in 2021, but many Australian universities have had periods of campus closure this year. Thanks to the blessing of Zoom, we have held lots of ‘Writing in company’ sessions—informal, online Shut up and write sessions. Making an appointment to join a writing group creates structure in the week, helps us all focus on getting some work done, and encourages a little social chat before and after writing. Importantly, this has also allowed international students stuck in their home country to feel part of the research community in their new institution. As a simple remedy to the isolation of doctoral writing in a pandemic, this is my most effective strategy. We’ve posted several pieces about online writing groups in the past—have a look here, here and here to get some more ideas.

Editing with purpose

 The opportunity to develop a short ‘Document editing’ course taught me the value of approaching editing with a specific purpose in mind. I noticed how often doctoral writers spend many hours ‘editing’ but don’t feel they’ve made much progress. It’s easy to read over documents again and again, tinkering and adjusting, but not having a sense of what the end point is. Developing a systematic approach to the different layers of editing—and putting time limits on the activity—can help get better value out of the effort. My posts ‘Preparing your thesis for submission’ and ‘Taming the baggy thesis monster’ includes some of the material I used.


As supervisors we see how disruptions bleed through into writing practices; paradoxically potentially both stalling and motivating writing, building and undermining confidence, providing solace and continuity, even joy.  For both supervisors and candidates, the emotional toll of ongoing uncertainty, personal trauma, dislocation and longing, resides alongside the requirement to ‘carry on’, specifically to continue to write through disrupted research plans and new working spaces and practices. I have never been more aware of the emotional impacts on writing.

Zoom meetings have given us small windows into each other’s lives. Many candidates have had to fess up to prolonged and intrusive pressures, stresses and anxieties which they normally may have kept private.  I’ve noticed a different kind of intimacy—and sometimes discomfort—associated with the harshness of full-frontal Zoom meetings where there’s nowhere to hide. It has been a special time to be a supervisor, one requiring additional levels of care and kindness.  I hope I have lived up to the challenge.

Our writing support for large groups has also shifted significantly. I have certainly learned many new tricks and technologies for conducting online workshops—in fact, I even find a kind of normalcy in that space now!

I’ve experimented with redesigning previously fully on-campus workshops noticing the benefits of having two facilitators to manage the interface between tools and mediums (such as monitoring polls, breakout rooms, and busy chat exchanges). I’ve also come to recognise that some activities (such as deep discussion and monitoring individual feedback on writing) don’t readily translate to the online space despite the cleverest tools. 

I have noticed, too, just how generous candidates and colleagues have been as we’ve struggled together to master ever-changing web-conferencing tools and technologies. And finally, so far at least, I’ve found it much harder to build trust and rapport in large, one-off online workshops where I find it hard to ‘read the room’ and bounce off the collective energy that exists in a loud and busy room of engaged participants.  Suggestions welcome!


Lessons this year have mostly related to more awareness of how challenging doctoral writing has been for those locked down in tiny apartments with family or flat-mates. That leads me to think about the subjectivity of doctoral processes. But meantime….


I learned that sometimes you can use different prepositions, each version correct, in constructions like

  • The methods of this study
  • The methods in this study
  • The methods for this study.

Several of those I supervise have seen different usage, and asked why, and which was the best. That led us to ponder on the fact that prepositions are tiny metaphors. In those examples, ‘of’ suggests belonging to; ‘in’ suggests being inside of; and ‘for’ suggests both belong to but also taking forward. I’d never really thought about prepositions as tiny metaphors, and probably have defaulted to barely thinking about them at all other than to recognise when something is definitively wrong.

Too much feedback

I’ve also always assumed that feedback on academic writing is a gift of time and intellectual energy, and that it is always helpful. But this year I watched two candidates pay a professional proof-reader and get feedback from two supervisors on whole theses at the same time, and sometimes these people giving feedback made changes to each other’s changes. Now, that did lead to conversations about why one style of expression has benefits and disadvantages, but such conversations were not really helpful to getting the theses to submission.

Claire, Cally and Susan

We’re excited that amongst all the stress relating to institutional change, Juliet Lum and Susan Mowbray managed to keep a community going for doctoral support by hosting and facilitating conversations about doctoral writing. They sustained a charming energy when many of us were enervated or snowed under with time-pressured work, and the result are resources on our site you can draw on. This is something that 2021 gives us to be thankful for.

Wrapping up the year

Has this year forced us to gain more understanding of doctoral writing? I think it has: the pressure that many candidates have endured has pushed their lives, their families’ lives, their habitus, habits, and singularity to the fore.

At the same time, doctoral writing and feedback on it has been the oasis where minds meet; amongst all the grim news that seemed to get worse daily over 2021, doctoral writing seemed an activity that was positive, and something that we did have control over. Working with doctoral writing has been another of the pleasures of this year for us.

Please throw us a comment if you feel that you also learned something new this year.

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