This guest post is written by Dr Geof Hill, the managing editor of “The research supervisor’s friend” blog. In this post Geof tells supervisors some good strategies for helping research students to write. But of course, you don’t need your supervisor to try some of these out! I recommend having a longer look at the Research Supervisors’s Friend if you have a moment – it has a lot of useful advice for all of us.

Learning research skills is usually the easy part of doing a research degree; learning to write about your research is the hard part. Many research supervisors repeat the advice of their own supervisor – ‘just write!’ – and may not be aware of the range of strategies that can be used to help a student do just that… Here are some suggestions:

Answer specific questions then add together the answers to all the questions.

In his chapter “The ‘big picture’ about managing writing” , Robert Brown (1994) details a scaffolded approach for getting students started with their writing. He suggests that you have students write short answers to the following questions:

What did you do?
Why did you do it?
What happened?
What do the results mean in theory?
What do the results mean in practice?
What is the key benefit for the readers?
What remains unsolved?

The first five questions add up to a working abstract. The sixth question is one which evolves with the research document and helps the writer to keep in mind the potential readership. The seventh question is a contrast to the others in that, while the others deal with what is known, it deals with what is unknown – this is the site of the greatest learning in the research project. Brown suggests word limits for the first six questions, but no word limit for the final question.

Understand why academic writing uses some of the devices it does.

Having taught Grade four students how to write a ballad, I am very aware that the research proposal and the dissertation are genres of writing. Both are filled with a range of writing devices that are at the heart of what it is to do research.

For example, the preference of some research writers to use the third person is a device to give the appearance of distance from the subject or objectivity. For some researchers they see this as a crucial element of their research practice and therefore in their writing about their research.

When you explain these devices you are teaching students the philosophies that underpin research practice, and also guiding them about how to argue against these devices – especially if they are trying to write their research differently.

Stop writing and start talking 

Not everyone works well in the written medium. Some people are better at talking than thinking through the writing of their ideas. This can be a strategy for capturing the knowledge that a student already holds in their head and transferring it to the written word. I find this a helpful strategy when I am working with a research student for the first time. I ask them to tell me about what it is that they thought they would investigate and how they thought they might investigate it. Once they have heard themselves speak this, it is often easier to then write down what they have remembered from the conversation, or better still, transcribe the conversation that they have recorded while we have been talking.

This also works well when students are well underway with their research and you ask them how it is going. As they answer this question you can then check whether the dilemmas they tell you about are recorded somewhere in what they have written. Capturing these sorts of dilemmas in your methodology section adds to the authenticity of your account of the research.

Start a Writing Group

Research can be a lonely journey. Alison Lee and David Boud (“Writing groups, change and academic Identity: research development as local practice Studies in Higher Education”, 2003) talk about writing groups, and how these can be beneficial for developing academic writing skills. As the group learns to critique each other’s writing they also develop the skills to improve their own writing. There is a camaraderie of working together which provides a necessary contrast to the oft quoted claim that the research journey is a solo one.

If you have a number of students then you might want to organise a writing group and you all develop the writing and critiquing skills together. Or you can encourage your student to form a writing group with fellow research students.

Get pertinent and specific feedback 

There is no more pertinent way to help a research student develop their writing skills than by providing feedback on their writing. This feedback needs to be specific and, if possible, help the student to understand where you have faced problems in reading their work, rather than simply editing the work and suggesting how it should be rewritten. Editing and rewriting your research student’s writing begins to tamper with the research student’s authorship and may prevent them from developing their own academic voice.

I find the comment function in word documents a useful tool as it allows you to locate the feedback in the writing and is legible (I have atrocious handwriting!). I read a student’s writing ahead of a scheduled meeting with them so that they can have read my comments before we meet. This helps them make choices about what they require in elaboration or discussion. This I find transfers the responsibility for the meeting to the student and makes my role as a supervisor more a help rather than a controller.

What other strategies have people found helpful? We’d love to hear about them.

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