5 strategies to help your research student to write

Many research supervisors that I know, comment that learning research skills is the easy part of doing a research degree – learning to write about your research is the hard part. For many research supervisors, if all you were exposed to in your candidature was the imperative from your supervisor to ‘just write!’, then you may not be aware of the range of strategies that can be used to help a student do just that…

1. Get them to answer specific questions then add together the answers to all the questions.
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:
a. What did you do?
b. Why did you do it?
c. What happened?
d. What do the results mean in theory?
e. What do the results mean in practice?
f. What is the key benefit for the readers?
g. 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 and is the site of the greatest learning in the research project. Brown (1994) suggests word limits for the first six questions but no word limit for the final question.

Brown, R. (1994). The ‘big picture’ about managing writing. In O. Zuber-Skerritt & Y. Ryan (Eds.), Quality in postgraduate education (pp. 38-50). London: KoganPage.

2. Help your student 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 and 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 their writing about their research.
When you help a research student to understand these devices you are teaching them the philosophies that underpin research practice, and also guiding them about how to argue against these devices if they are trying to write their research differently to the ways that are the accepted norms.

3. Get your student talking and have them record and transcribe what they have told you.
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 particularly 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 about their research. When you capture these sorts of dilemmas in your methodology write up it adds to the authenticity of undertaking research.

4. Work with a group of other students sharing your writing and commenting on each other’s writing.
Research can be a lonely journey. Alison Lee and David Boud
(2003) talk about writing groups, and how these can be beneficial for groups of academics as they develop their 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.

Writing groups can be a helpful strategy for your own students. 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.

Alison Lee and David Boud (2003) Writing groups, change and academic Identity: research development as local practice Studies in Higher Education, 28 (2), 187-200

5. Give pertinent and specific feedback on your student’s writing.
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 one of the most useful tools as it allows quite specific location of the feedback in writing and is legible to compensate from my 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 and then can 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.


About the (research) supervisor's friend

I work at a university helping university academics who are supervising research students. I am a research supervisor myself and also work as a research coach for people undertaking their research I was originally in a Management Faculty and when I completed my doctoral studies on 'doing a doctorate' I started working with research supervisors to help them improve their practice.
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