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By Sara Cotterall and Morena Botelho de Magalhães

Morena and I have worked in universities for a number of years. Amongst other things, we share a passion for languages and beer! Morena grew up in Brazil and I am from NZ. In 2014 we met at a conference in Bangkok and in 2016, we met at a conference in China, by which time we had become colleagues and friends. So, in 2017, when Morena was doing her PhD in Auckland and I had returned to New Zealand from teaching in the Middle East, we decided to present a conference paper together: “Doctoral research by EAL candidates: How effective is generic support?”. In 2019, with our friend Diego Mideros, we co-authored an article about identity, voice and agency in doctoral writing. So, having dined, researched, presented, travelled and written together, we thought it was time to blog together!

We believe that CONFIDENCE is essential for effective writing and wanted to share some strategies for building writing confidence. We planned the post together and have indicated who contributed what. We hope you find our suggestions helpful. [Sara]

Sharing writing, though often feared by novice writers, is beneficial [Morena]

Perhaps not all novice writers are afraid of sharing their work, but this was certainly my experience. Even though I have now accomplished some writing feats I thought impossible some years ago (I wrote a doctoral thesis, published a couple of articles and authored a book chapter), I still consider myself an apprentice writer. [Sara: Crazily, Morena has done all this in her THIRD language!]. That reluctance to share what I write is still with me, but I’m now more confident and less embarrassed to show others my drafts. Why that fear, I ask, if by sharing we learn and help others learn too?

When I was beginning my PhD, I was invited to a colleague’s practice presentation for his oral defence. Before telling us about his examiners’ reports, he shared the first couple of pages of his thesis, and his first paragraphs were a revelation! He’d begun his doctoral thesis with a personal anecdote – one which involved a shower! I remember being both shocked and happily surprised. I had no idea you could be that personal in a PhD thesis, and I loved it! Fast-forward six years and the paper I wrote with Sara and Diego was based on our writing experiences – an utterly personal investigation (Botelho de Magalhães et al, 2019). If I hadn’t read my colleague’s personal anecdote all those years before, I mightn’t have felt comfortable being part of such a personal project.

Writing needs to go through multiple drafts [Morena]

If only I’d learnt sooner that sharing unpolished writing was a good idea! I like my texts to be neat before showing them to anyone. As silly as this may sound, when I started my PhD, I didn’t know that accomplished writers shared drafts and work-in-progress with friends, family and colleagues. I worked and reworked my texts, but never showed them to anyone other than my supervisors. I heard about peer review in seminars and workshops, but in my own department, asking colleagues for feedback was not common practice. What a shame! PhD candidates can learn so much by reading and critiquing others’ writing. With time, I learned that by sharing initial drafts with someone else, I could also distance myself from what I’d written. I would then come back to it with fresher eyes and a different perspective prompted by the generous soul who had taken the time to read my work. Every reader brings another take, asks a new question, ponders over something you hadn’t considered before. By showing my writing only to my supervisors, I was limiting my perspectives.

Asking for help is an important part of doing a PhD [Sara]

No-one knows how to do a PhD at the beginning; you learn as you go, and asking questions is key. Doing a PhD is like undertaking a research apprenticeship (Austin, 2009). Smart apprentices observe how experienced colleagues work, ask questions and seek feedback on their work. This happens naturally when doctoral researchers share their writing. One PhD candidate recently claimed: “Peer review … is crucial to doctoral students as novice researchers. As a doctoral student studying in New Zealand … my main learning modes are cooperating with my supervisors and learning from colleagues …” (Carter, Sun & Jabeen, 2021, p. 376). Asking questions is central to both supervision and collaborating with others. Carl Sagan (1997) once said, “There are naïve questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions … [b]ut there is no such thing as a dumb question”.

However, when I was a supervisor, I also appreciated knowing that my students were capable of helping themselves. Once, a PhD candidate who had been attending my Shut Up and Write (SUAW) sessions regularly, disappeared. A couple of months later, when I ran into her on campus, she explained that, since she had found SUAW so helpful for her writing, she had started running SUAW sessions for peers in her department. There are lots of ways you can seek help from people other than your supervisors. You could contact the author of a paper you’ve read, ask to attend a seminar at another institution, or arrange a session with a librarian to find out how to conduct more efficient literature searches. If you’re still not convinced that asking for help is okay, think about doing a PhD as being like joining an existing Community of (Research) Practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991). In that context, it’s normal for newcomers to seek advice from ‘old-timers’ (like me 😊).

Help comes in all shapes and forms [Sara]

In addition to the books, articles, blogs, websites and Facebook groups we list below, we also encourage you to take advantage of the human resources around you. The multitude of individuals who have helped us complete writing tasks over the years include friends, partners, colleagues, siblings, supervisors, Helpdesk technicians, co-authors, statistical consultants, reviewers, librarians and conference delegates. Different people provide support in different ways; a question raised in a seminar once prompted me to clarify an idea in something I was writing. Friends who invite you for dinner when you’re tired and discouraged are also worth their weight in gold.

Writing expertise and confidence develop over a lifetime (and often with other people!) [Morena]

No-one expects you to be a brilliant writer by the end of your PhD. Writing with others develops your confidence in your ability to write and talk about written text (Matzler, 2022). Try writing with different people if you can. Whenever I’ve done this, I’ve learned about language, writing styles, different approaches to writing and authorship, as well as about managing work with different (and at times clashing) personalities. The decisions I made in my own writing were influenced by the people I was working with. Accepting or rejecting their positions, negotiating claims, and arriving (or not!) at an agreement – these were all useful as I was finding my own voice. Not to mention the opportunity to talk about text and improve my language skills! Although proficient in English, writing academically was (and can still be) a challenge for me. I had to learn the genre, and I’m still mastering it. What I now understand is that my confidence and my ability to write will continue to develop over time.

These are just a few strategies that have helped us in our writing practice. Whatever you do, just keep on writing. And don’t be shy about sharing your writing with others!

Morena and Sara


Austin, A. E. (2009). Cognitive apprenticeship theory and its implications for doctoral education: A case example from a doctoral program in higher and adult education. International Journal for Academic Development, 14(3), 173-183.

Botelho de Magalhães, M., Cotterall, S. & Mideros, D. (2019). Identity, voice and agency in two EAL doctoral writing contexts, Journal of Second Language Writing. 43, 4-14.

Carter, S., Sun, Q., & Jabeen, F. (2021). Doctoral writing: learning to write and give feedback across cultures. Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education, 12(3), 371-383. DOI: 10.1108/SGPE-07-2020-0054

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Matzler, P. P. (2022). Mentoring and co-writing for research publication purposes: Interaction and text development in doctoral supervision. Oxford, England: Routledge.

Sagan, C. (1997). The demon-haunted world: Science as a candle in the dark. New York: Ballantine Books.

Resources for Doctoral Researchers

    Useful Books and Articles

Bitchener, J. (2010). Writing an applied linguistics thesis or dissertation: A guide to presenting empirical research. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kamler, B., & Thomson, P. (2014). Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervision. London: Routledge.

Paltridge, B., & Starfield, S. (2019). Thesis and dissertation writing in a second language: A handbook for students and their supervisors. London: Routledge.

Sword, H. (2009). Writing higher education differently: a manifesto on style. Studies in Higher Education, 34(3), 319-346.

    Useful Websites

https://www.phrasebank.manchester.ac.uk/ – an academic phrase bank that lists phrases which routinely appear in in the main sections of research articles or dissertations

http://postgradenvironments.com  – easily searchable platform for postgraduate students and supervisors, with videos, readings and guidelines on various aspects of the PhD journey

https://www.ithinkwell.com.au/resources – a collection of useful planning documents and guides for the PhD journey

https://doctoralresearchbydistance.wordpress.com/ – website designed for doctoral researchers working at a distance

    Useful Blogs

Doctoral Writing SIG – https://doctoralwriting.wordpress.com/

Nick Hopwood’s Blog – https://nickhop.wordpress.com/

Patter – https://patthomson.net/

The Thesis Whisperer – https://thesiswhisperer.com/

    Facebook Groups

https://www.facebook.com/groups/doctoralresearchbydistance – This FB group is for PhD researchers and their supervisors who are working at a distance