Help! My student can’t write!

Writing matters and HDR supervision

By Claire Aitchison, Senior Lecturer, Learning and Teaching Centre

Frustrated_man_at_a_deskIt’s likely, that, at some time or another, you’ve heard an academic colleague express this sentiment. People hold very strong feelings about writing – and one person’s views are not necessarily shared by others. For example, what is considered convoluted and overly referenced in one discipline, may be considered quite normal in another.

Views about how writing is learned are about as varied as opinions on how to raise a baby. Some people think that good writers are born rather than made. Some think that learning how to write is a matter of knowing the grammar rules or of copying from good models. Others think it’s simply a matter of ‘practice makes perfect’. Even the most prolific writers differ in their attitudes and practices towards writing.When I first began co-authoring with a very well-published colleague I was surprised by how frustrating it was. We always began with a lively conversation on the topic and then agree on a plan, dividing up tasks and setting timelines for delivering new writing.

When we came together again, it was likely that my colleague would have had a new idea, her writing would have contained incomplete arguments and maybe even headed in new directions, while I arrived with more polished text that adhered to our plan.

It took me a while to realise what was going on. Although we both found that conversation and debate helped us form ideas and arguments – we were very different kinds of writers. I used writing in a more methodical way to solidify the thinking we’d come to, while for her, writing was an extension of those conversations – her writing was still clarifying the ideas. We were using writing for different purposes; I was drafting the text that represented the thinking, and she was drafting the thinking.In a great blog on the Thesis Whisperer (, Cassily Charles identifies these differences as writers who are Planners (that is, the thinking has been done; the writing is predominantly for executing the plan) and writers who are Drafters (these people use writing to ‘come to know’; to play with and test out their thinking).

This conception of different types of writers has major implications for supervision of higher degree research students. Consider this, for example. A student who is a competent and prolific writer submits well-written texts to their supervisor who returns these drafts with thorough and detailed feedback. The second iteration sent by the student, may bear little resemblance to the manuscript the supervisor had so carefully critiqued. If this continues for a couple of rounds, the supervisor is likely to feel puzzled or frustrated about the seeming lack of progress and the failure on behalf of the student to pick up on their comments. They may feel their time has been wasted. On the other hand, the student hoping for responses to their evolving ideas rather than sentence level feedback, may feel equally frustrated perhaps even resentful that all their hard work is not acknowledged.

When it comes to supporting a researcher’s writing development – supervisors have it tough. Unlike undergraduate writing where student writing is mostly a vehicle for conveying ‘known information’ and is ‘marked’ accordingly, the role of the HDR supervisor is far less clear, and their engagement is protracted and infused with evolving intellectual and personal relations.

What is the role of the supervisor vis a vis HDR writing development? What role does writing play in the development of the researcher and their knowledge and skills? How can supervisors nuture student writing capabilities and know-how? What is effective feedback in a supervisory context? These are some of the issues we’ll be discussing in a series of workshops for supervisors of HDR candidates.

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