Writing training for different stages of a PhD

Writing training for different stages of a PhD

Anne Wilson

Academic writing interventions for PhD students seem to be more effective if they are tailored to specific stages of the PhD. I run two-day writing retreats with RLF Consultant Fellow Katie Grant for Humanities PhD students, and we use different formats and approaches for Years 1, 2 and 3. In feedback, participants confirm the benefits of sharing experiences with others at a similar stage and they appreciate activities that focus on the type of writing they are doing at that time.

Year 1, we find, is about uncertainty — about the boundaries and nature of the project and the quality of writing expected at this level. Many Year 1 students lack confidence and carry baggage about themselves as writers. We give these students permission to go back to basics and ask fundamental questions like ‘What is academic writing?’ and ‘Why do we write in this way about research?’ We give them time to reflect on what constitutes ‘good’ academic writing in their discipline, and how to identify their own place and value as an academic writer. We reassure students that ambiguity and confusion are normal in a creative process. Although it feels uncomfortable, uncertainty allows us to keep an open mind and explore new avenues of enquiry.

Year 2 is about choice. Having done the groundwork, students see multiple possibilities. Many students come to this retreat feeling overwhelmed by too much material, unable to see the wood for the trees. Getting them to draw their emotional journey as a timeline, road or graph clears the air and helps them to assess their intellectual progress more dispassionately. We encourage them to write ‘elevator pitches’ for their project and summaries of their argument. Students who said they felt ‘daunted, intimidated and overwhelmed’ before the retreat were ‘calmer, more confident’ and ‘ready to write’ after it.

The Year 3 retreat is about developing good writing habits and improving productivity. Students at this stage tend to want focused and individualised support. They know their writing strengths and weaknesses by now; they need encouragement for the final sprint to the finish. We structure 45-minute writing sessions in a calm, supportive atmosphere and show them techniques to tackle writer’s block.

It’s possible, of course, to design writing training relevant to all PhD students, but differentiating between the years enables a more sophisticated learning experience. Some students organise their own writing groups following the retreat — a development we welcome and encourage.

10 October 2019

Orwellian versus stained-glass window prose

Susan Barker

Image credit: Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 4.0

George Orwell once said, ‘Good prose should be transparent, like a window pane.’ In other words, writing shouldn’t draw attention to itself and instead should be a clear medium for conveying meaning. The opposite of clear Orwellian prose would be ‘stained-glass window’ writing — flowery and ornate, and obscuring what it means to convey. And while complex, convoluted sentences can be creative and intellectually stimulating, they are inappropriate in some contexts.

I facilitate workshops on writing with clarity and conciseness for non-academic staff. We focus on writing emails, social media, blog posts and newsletters, as it’s disconcerting to see how these swift, digital methods of communication can be used to obscure the messages themselves.

It often comes down to a battle between writer and message. For example, an email should communicate directly to its intended reader, but is the writer stepping in front of Orwell’s transparent window and acting as a barrier? Perhaps the writer is using unnecessary obscure vocabulary in an attempt to appear more important — why use ‘adumbrate’ when ‘outline’ is simpler? The same can be said for an over-reliance on long, complex sentences that may look very business-like, but the resulting blocks of text run the risk of losing or alienating the reader.

Confusion may arise when the writer knows what they have to say, but is nervous of saying it. Perhaps the message will be unpopular with the intended audience, for instance, a reduction in overtime. It may be tempting to embed crucial information in long-winded preambles and apologies that not only obscure vital material, but also doubly infuriate the recipients who have to sift through them.

In these cases, it is essential that the writer makes sure critical information is first and foremost. This can be achieved by writing in short paragraphs and using bullet points for key messages. If the writer combines this approach with simple vocabulary that has a touch of warmth and sympathy to it – after all, being succinct does not have to mean being cold – the reader’s focus will be on content of the message, not the message itself.

In our workshops, participants are encouraged to take a step back from what they are writing to focus on getting key information across as clearly and concisely as possible. Miscommunication is one of the biggest sources of conflict between colleagues, but by keeping Orwell’s window in mind, we can make the workplace a more harmonious place to be.

6 June 2019
How writing starts to happen

How writing starts to happen

Image credit: Sophie Kandaouroff

I was recently working with a group of registered nurses who were starting a one-year Master’s degree in specialist public health nursing. I had been briefed that they were academically able but tended to be anxious about writing critically. ‘The minute critical writing is mentioned, they write a nice descriptive account,’ said their tutor.

What did they most need? Solid practical advice, certainly, plus an understanding of how critical writing – about theory, policy and their own practice – could be useful to them. But I felt neither of those things would be much use if we didn’t try to deal with their anxiety. I sensed from experience, both the students’ and mine as a writer, that anxiety started with a dearth of confidence about beginning to write. What do your tutors want? Where do you start? How does composing a piece of writing start to happen?

I called the session ‘Critical, But Not Life-Threatening’. They saw the joke, and I can vouch for the pleasure you’ll get when you make 50 nurses laugh. I told them about two kinds of criticism: the critical evaluation of ideas that’s central to academic writing, and the self-criticism that can sap your confidence.

To succeed at one you have to overcome the other. As Peter Elbow brilliantly said, ‘Writing calls on two skills that are so different they usually conflict with each other: creating and criticising’. If we let our conscious critical mind judge us, it can stop us getting started with the composing process. We become prone to telling ourselves that we, in the form of our sentences, are inadequate or useless.

We do better if we save the criticism for later by writing a first draft relatively quickly and not trying to solve every problem as we go. We can help to feed our unconscious creative mind by doing something associated with writing every day — a short activity such as re-reading our notes.

The session became lively. Hands went up; students admitted their anxiety. One volunteered that she felt more relaxed at the thought of writing like this, and another, an experienced nurse, summed up very well how this sort of composing can become a sequence of activities we can all learn.

‘I really didn’t know you could break down the process of writing into steps like that,’ she said. I like to think I could hear her confidence growing.

23 May 2019
Building a framework for writing

Building a framework for writing

As a non-fiction writer, I’ve taught myself never to start writing until I have a comprehensive plan in place. This approach is partly dictated by the publishing industry — a commissioning editor has to approve my plan before giving me the go-ahead to write the book. But I’ve also found it saves enormously on time and effort.

Over the course of delivering more than 100 books, I’ve developed a method that works well for me. I start big and then fill in the detail, stage by stage.

After some initial research, my first step is to draft the chapter headings for a book. Then I test my basic framework for strength. Does the order work logically and are there any gaps? Do some chapters cover too little or too much? When I’m happy with the structure, I move on.

The second stage is to decide the main headings within each chapter. Once again, I test how well they flow before moving on. Finally, I write the subheadings.

As the framework fills out, I make adjustments; some chapters may need to be divided into two, or I may need to rethink the overall structure. While I’m planning, I do more research to fill any gaps in my structure.

Building a sturdy framework takes time and effort, but it’s the most important part of the writing process. Once I’ve come up with a plan that I’m happy with, for me, the hardest task is over. To stretch the building metaphor a little further, filling in the words feels like pouring concrete into a mould.

I’ve also used this approach in writing workshops to help others get to grips with structuring their text. How can my planning method be applied to undergraduate essays, doctoral theses and academic papers? As in my work, it’s a step-by-step process:

1. Create the main framework: the section headings of an essay or report, or the chapter headings of a dissertation.
2. Fill in the next level: the point for each paragraph in an essay or headings within dissertation chapters.
3. Add more levels if needed: subheadings within chapters of a dissertation, then the point for each paragraph.

Keep your plan simple and always hold your overall structure in mind. Once you have a clear framework for your ideas, much of the stress can be taken out of writing, and you may even find yourself enjoying the process.

9 May 2019
Pictures make words

Pictures make words

Max Adams

Image credit: Kona Macphee / RLF

During workshops with undergraduate, graduate or doctoral students, I use images – anything from films to works of art – to help them to develop their sense of story and visualise its shape.

In great art, as in good writing, there is always tension. Take a look at Joseph Wright of Derby’s marvellous allegory of the Age of Enlightenment, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump of 1768.

The ten figures, portrayed in a room lit only by the light of a pale moon through the window and a candle behind a glass of liquid, are in a state of maximum tension; they are wondering if the scientist will let the bird die, each trying to process their own reactions. It is a moment of great drama. One figure is the protagonist — the character who will make the most profound emotional journey in the unfolding drama. But who is it? By exploring the web of tensions within and between the actors on stage, we are working out what is important to the story. How did this scene come about; what drives the action and characters; how is the narrative structured; what happens next?

The viewer must be emotionally or intellectually engaged in order to care. Will the bird survive? Will the tearful girl be traumatised for life? Above all – and this is the point of view of the protagonist – where will it all end, this toying with nature?

The drama is carefully structured, so that we know there is a past, present and future. For the academic writer, that past might be a literature review or introduction — and it’s vital that writers load these elements with sufficient tension that readers care about what happens next. Each character might represent a structural element (a theory or point of view) in a thesis or journal article. The experimental core of this painting’s story maps particularly well on to academic writing.

Good writers find a source of tension and raise the stakes (like the painter using techniques such as dramatic lighting) by suggesting a conflict or problem that must, somehow, find resolution. The props (for the painter, the costumes, furniture and landscape) are your data, which you need to manipulate to sustain the tension until you resolve them and satisfy the reader. In occasional instances, the tension is unresolved; this is a prompt for thinking or taking action.

All good academic writing needs these elements, and using art or film to visualise them can be extremely helpful in finding and structuring a narrative.

Have you spotted the protagonist in the painting yet?

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump 1768

Image credit: National Gallery and Wikimedia Commons

11 April 2019
Inspiration plus perspiration

Inspiration plus perspiration

Doug Johnstone

Image credit: Chris Scott

Doug Johnstone

I write gritty crime novels and also have a PhD in nuclear physics — people frequently have trouble getting their head around this combination of facts. They ask how I made the giant leap from science to the arts, but that’s a misguided question; I feel deeply that the adversarial idea of science versus art is a false dichotomy.

Creative writing involves a modicum of inspiration, but it’s mostly hard graft, trying to fit the pieces of a puzzle together. And on the other side, science can be utterly creative and drawn from inspiration. I don’t know of a more creative piece of thinking than Einstein’s theory of relativity, in which he realised that time could be relative.

Inspiration and logical thinking combine in both science and the arts, and that’s true when writing about them too. Last summer, my RLF Consultant Fellow colleague Cherise Saywell and I ran an immersive writing ‘bootcamp’ for PhD students at Heriot Watt University. All were science or technology students, and the objective of the workshops was to help them with their theses, using narrative techniques from creative writing.

It quickly became clear that hardly any of them thought of themselves as creative people, yet when we got them to talk about their work, they each described moments of inspiration combined with huge amounts of legwork, just as when I write my novels. They all had the raw material for a fascinating story – fracking problems, 3D printing or revolutionary textile production – but they struggled to see the bigger picture, the compelling narrative in their work.

One of the most effective exercises was also one of the simplest: an icebreaker at the beginning of the day. When the students arrived, we had a table laid out with an assortment of random items – toys, trinkets, a compass, binoculars – and told them to pick one that spoke to them. Then we asked them to write without stopping about how the item related to their PhD. It’s a version of free writing or writing to a prompt that Cherise and I often use; it always results in wonderfully creative writing and frequently contains a compelling narrative. On this occasion, one chemical engineering student eloquently used the shell of a small organism living millions of years ago as the starting point to discuss how shale oil is created, moving on to talk about the current problems associated with its extraction.

By the end of three days, we had encouraged the researchers to view their work and writing differently, as a blend of science and art, storytelling and logistics, inspiration plus perspiration.

28 March 2019
Think in points

Think in points

Image credit: Anna Barker

Anna Barker

Recently, while working with some undergraduate students, we discussed what happens when they receive their essay assignment. Most said they immediately started thinking about the content they needed to include. They would then write an essay that they felt ticked all the boxes, including details about the subject the essay question had asked them to explore. Unfortunately, these students sometimes received feedback that their writing was too descriptive; it lacked critical analysis. How can you make sure that your essay contains critical analysis as well as the right content?

When you are planning your essay, it helps to get yourself into a critical frame of mind. You are setting out not just to describe what others in your field have said, but also to offer a line of reasoning, an argument, an analysis of the current research and thinking. Consider which points – or statements – you can make that will answer the question and deliver your argument. Points usually begin new paragraphs. Think of a paragraph as a container for a point. It might look a bit like this:

I – Identify one point or statement in your argument that relates to your essay question. (1–2 sentences)

D – Define or add detail to your point. (1–2 sentences)

E – Give evidence that underpins the point. What proof can you provide to substantiate what you have said? A study? Some statistics from a journal article? (3–4 sentences)

A – Analyse the evidence — explain the significance of your point. How does it contribute to your overall argument? What might the limitations be? Are there any other reliable sources that present a different view? (3–4 sentences. If your paragraph is becoming long, begin your analysis in a new paragraph).

Thinking about points you can make in your essay puts you in a critical frame of mind right from the beginning. Describing evidence will get you marks, but presenting a point that you underpin with critical evaluation of the evidence will be marked higher. When you are planning your next assignment, start with an open mind, do some reading and think about which points you can make.

You can find out more about thinking in points in Step 3 of the RLF’s free essay-writing tool, ALEX.


14 March 2019
Managing feelings about feedback

Managing feelings about feedback

Anne Wilson

Anne Wilson

Feedback – on writing and in general – can arouse strong emotions, from relief, to delight, to incandescent rage. To enjoy praise and to feel defensive when criticised are both very human responses. Our reactions to feedback, including comments on our writing, can tap into childhood experiences of approval and disapproval. Every professional writer knows what it’s like to have their prose picked apart, but they also know the satisfaction of improving their writing through constructive criticism. So how can we clamber over the hurdle of our feelings and use feedback to improve the way we write? Here are some tips that I share with postgraduate students in my workshops on feedback.

The first step is to acknowledge how you feel and give it space. Are you furious that your supervisor hates your chapter? That’s understandable, so punch a pillow, have a rant, work it out at the gym. Maybe think about what exactly is upsetting you. Is it about your relationship with that person? Are you taking the comments personally? Do you feel particularly fragile at the moment? Identifying the source of your feelings helps to separate the personal from the professional, the emotional from the intellectual. When you’ve cooled down, take another look at the chapter. The chances are that your supervisor doesn’t hate it entirely, but has singled out certain aspects for criticism. In the cold light of day, you may think some of the criticisms are fair. But there may be other points on which you completely disagree.

Start with the points you think are fair and consider how to edit to accommodate them. Then, consciously choose which points are worth defending and develop a cogent counter-argument about why they should stay in. How you manage this depends, of course, on your relationship with the person giving you feedback and on the power differential between you. But even if, in the end, you edit your work to please them, you will feel better having stated your case.

If you are passionately involved in your topic and believe in your own arguments, it’s natural to feel disappointed by negative feedback. But if you can name your feelings and articulate their source, you are less likely to let them swamp your intellect. Improving your writing by using feedback will make your writing stronger and give you the tools to keep improving.

28 February 2019
Communicate and collaborate

Communicate and collaborate

Lucy English


Image credit: Simon Goldstein

As PhD students and researchers, communicating with people outside our discipline can open our minds, expand our horizons and help to develop our thinking. It can also lead to fruitful collaboration.

In a session for PhD researchers about communicating research, I put the participants into pairs with someone from another discipline and asked them to describe their work to each other. They had to avoid jargon and were encouraged to listen carefully to the questions they were asked. Somebody from a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subject might ask an artist, ‘Why are you doing this?’ — just as an arts student might ask a scientist, ‘Please explain it simply’. The researchers found it instructive to communicate the vision of their project to a non-specialist.

Communicating with others outside my own specialism led to a collaborative project for my practice-based PhD. I am making short films with film-makers for an online poetry film project. Previously, I hadn’t thought about how my ideas would translate to the moving image, but I’ve learnt a lot by collaborating with people from the visual arts. Interpreting a poem in a film is not how I thought it would be. For example, for my poem ‘Daisy Chain’, where I link daisies in the grass with the nature of transience, my film-maker used images of a snowy landscape. The words of the poem, about summer meadows and blossom, are in stark contrast to the snow and frost, but capture beautifully the essence of the poem, where daisies and youth will eventually fade.

Why not see if you can communicate your research to people outside your field and find a collaborator from another discipline? Funding opportunities exist for collaborative bids from PhD students and researchers for inter-disciplinary work, particularly between the arts and sciences or social sciences. PhD forums within universities are a good place to start looking. Working with someone with a different perspective can be a humbling experience as you accept your ignorance about their field and adopt an open mind, prepared to learn. Removing the blinkers of your discipline can spark off ideas and take your research in a fresh direction.

14 February 2019
Think around your research question

Think around your research question

Image credit: Anna Barker

Anna Barker

On a writing retreat recently with students from the Arts and Humanities, we were talking about how research is about finding answers. You start – typically after much deliberation – with a research question, and everything that follows is about discovering answers. It seems simple enough, although of course it’s rarely that straightforward. The research takes you on a journey down rabbit holes, around blind bends, up steep cliff faces, and every now and then you can feel like you’ve hit a wall: obstacles, unexpected deviations, surprises. Suddenly, what you’ve got in front of you seems a long way from answering your research question. Unsettling as this might be, it’s all part of the research story.

When your research journey hits a wall, it can be useful to take a step back and forget for a moment that you are searching for answers. Instead, dig for more questions. This not only helps you to recalibrate your research question, but it can also open new doors and push your thinking into new, previously unexplored territory.

The technique works well for essays. Having received your essay question, you might set off immediately to answer it. But by taking some time to think of additional related questions, you can work out what you know about the subject already and where you might focus your thinking and reading. Take this essay question as an example:

Critically evaluate the suggestion that problems of overcrowding, bullying and poor conditions have always been, and will continue to be, of concern to penal reformers.

  • What is the extent of overcrowding and bullying in prisons — facts, figures?
  • What is meant by ‘poor conditions’ and what are the causes?
  • What has contributed to this situation — has it become worse over time, and why?
  • What are the reasons overcrowding might concern penal reformers — it leads to less time for penal education/other activities that encourage rehabilitation of inmates?
  • Examples of other activities?
  • Evidence that education/other activities enable rehabilitation?
  • Opposing views?

Once you have a list of additional questions, you can begin reading and note down some possible answers. Your notes might even prompt you to ask further questions. Best of all, you’ll have focused your reading time and begun to get some words on the page that can later be used to shape a first draft.

31 January 2019