One of the frustrations that writing consultants and PhD students alike share at the end of a high-energy workshop, when everyone is feeling thrilled with the progress made and insights gained, is how to keep the momentum going. Specifically, how do you embed best practice when the writing consultant disappears back into their own world and the students are alone again, faced with having to write tens of thousands of words? They will have plenty in the way of critique to guide them, but perhaps little writing support.
Over the past two years, alongside Dr Sarabajaya Kumar, who until recently was head of PhD development at the London School of Economics (LSE), I have been pioneering lunchtime workshops designed to create Writing Coaching Groups among the research student population. Ideally, each group should number four to five students, preferably from different disciplines (so as to minimise departmental griping and maximise communication across disciplines), and run for the course of an academic year. We encourage students to meet monthly, creating a peer-supported space in which they can review each other’s work.
I have come to think of launching these writing groups as rather like setting boats off over the calm blue sea from the shore. I give them life-rafts and provisions in the form of writer’s group etiquette; writing guides; tips about how often to meet; how large a writing sample to exchange, and so on.
In terms of etiquette, the key message is that students providing feedback should not approach the task as if they were undertaking a critique of each other’s work. Instead, I recommend a three-step process. First, they need to express empathy. After all, they are all in the same boat, trying to convey a logical argument in an engaging manner: they need to say, ‘I understand what you’re trying to do here’. Then I task them to come up with an appreciation. This involves celebrating how well the writer has achieved what they set out to do. It helps a student enormously to understand where their own strengths lie. Finally, I encourage the feedback group to articulate the struggles they had in understanding the writing sample. The aim is to alert the writer to the need to express themselves more effectively.
One of the groups we launched in this way at the LSE bonded so well and finished their PhDs in so timely a manner that we decided to interview them in detail about how and why it worked for them. We then invited them to promote the Writing Coaching idea to a fresh intake of third-year PhD students.