Writing trouble

This post is by Associate Professor Inger Mewburn, Director of research training at ANU and one half of the Supervision Whisperers editorial team.

I’m pleased to announce that I have signed a contract with Open University press to do a new book with my excellent colleagues Shaun Lehmann and Katherine Firth (of the Research Voodoo blog). The book will be called Writing Trouble: why it happens and how to fix it. This book will take as its starting point the most common types of poor feedback we see on PhD students’ drafts. It wasn’t very hard for us to compile this list. All of us have seen so many instances of poor feedback over time

Part of the problem with research education is so much supervision practice is autobiographical. Hardly anyone has formal training on how to give feedback, so most of the time we just copy the kind of comments we have received in the past. As a consequence, sometimes we write things on drafts that kind of make sense to us, but make little or no sense to our students.

I hope this new book will be attractive to supervisors as well as candidates. Poor feedback can cause anxiety in even the most confident student, which is why we think a book specifically on how to analyse poor feedback and respond to it is badly needed. With this dual audience in mind, Writing Trouble will be a ‘swiss army knife’ of a book. It’s not designed to be read cover to cover (other than the first chapter). Rather, it will help students and supervisors solve problems by identifying the problem and working back to finding a solution from a range of possible strategies and tactics. The strategies and tactics will be presented in the form of short remedy ‘recipe sheets’, grouped under the most common types of student complaints about inadequate feedback. We’ll be writing this book partially in the open, on our various blogs. This is a great way to keep us on deadline and help us test material with you, the intended audience.

I work with a lot of students in our thesis bootcamp program who have struggled to progress their writing without good feedback. I don’t want to judge their supervisors too much – I’ve given plenty of poor feedback myself. The beauty of writing this book with two excellent and experienced writing teachers is I get to learn some new tricks myself. I’ll bring you more as the book progresses, but to start off, here are three pieces of bad feedback and some suggestions for how to do it better:

“Your writing doesn’t sound very academic”

When we give this feedback we are usually responding to ‘novice text’: writing that makes the student look like an amateur. The problem with this advice is that what ‘academic’ means is so broad. There are many reasons that writing can sound amateur – so try to be more specific about exactly what is going wrong. For example, one obvious amateur mistake is to make sweeping generalisations and use enough ‘hedging language’. Hedging language is a way to set limits around what is known and not known. For instance, recently a student of mine wrote something like:

“Architects like to use historical precedents”.

I wrote on the side of the page: “Which architects like to use historical precedents? This is an example of a generalising claim. How can you ever prove all architects do this? Look for other times you have failed to modify the word ‘architect’ and modify to make it clear which architects like historical precedents”.

This comment prompted the student to think about how to limit the knowledge claim without correcting the sentence for her. I also gave her a strategy for working her way through the rest of the text. Correcting all the time is disempowering and doesn’t promote learning.

“Your writing doesn’t flow”

My favourite type of bad feedback – at least, it’s feedback I have written on many a draft. Again, the problem with this feedback is there are many reasons why writing doesn’t flow. In our book we will tackle sentence structure, signposting, theme and rheme progression and tenses – amongst other things. Helping a student achieve good flow is a lot of work. Do you really have time – and are you the right person to do it? Next time you are tempted to write this bit of feedback on a draft stop and think – is it time to call in the experts? Sending a student to the academic skills people, instead of trying to fix it via endless feedback and editing, will probably save you both a lot of time and aggravation.

“Where’s your discussion section?”

Sometimes we can impose the wrong structure on a piece of writing. I’ve written before about the ‘dead hand of the thesis genre’ – a tendency to conservatism in thesis writing as a genre. Obviously the sciences have more fixed conventions – for good reason – but other disciplines have more freedom. Sometimes there just is no point separating discussion from literature or results. The most difficult kind of thesis to write, in my opinion, is a thesis that spans two distinct disciplines. In these cases you might have to go to extraodinary lengths to help readers from different backgrounds access the work. For example, you might encourage the student to consider having two literature reviews or even two different conclusions.

I hope this little tour of some poor feedback has been helpful. Now I’m wondering, what kinds of things do you write on drafts that help your students learn? Do you find it difficult to give feedback that results in learning, or do you have some great tricks up your sleeve that you are willing to share?

Related posts

What is ‘that’ and other feedback tricks

Avoiding the writing monster


Thesis Whisperer

Associate Professor Inger Mewburn (better known as @thesiswhisperer) was born on Nuenonne country, which is now known as Tasmania, Australia (always was, always will be, Aboriginal land). She has a background as a designer and a researcher, which was nurtured at the University of Melbourne and RMIT University. Since 2006, she has worked exclusively with PhD students and early career academics, helping them finish complex research projects with (sometimes very) demanding stakeholders. She’s passionate about people reaching their potential as researchers and helping to create a kinder, more inclusive academy. Inger is currently the Director of Researcher Development at The Australian National University where she oversees professional development workshops and programs for all ANU researchers. Aside from creating new posts on the Thesis Whisperer blog, she writes scholarly papers, books and book chapters about research education, with a special interest in post-PhD employability. You find out more via her Linkedin profile, Amazon author page, or view a selection of her non-blog writing on the Thesis Whisperer About page. A full list of her scholarly work is available via her Google Scholar page or OrcidID.


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