planning a paper

Last week I was in Norway running a three part workshop on planning a journal article.

The workshop was based around a Tiny Text abstract.   As a planner myself, I use Tiny Texts for sorting out the contribution argument of a paper as well as developing a writing schedule.

In case this approach is of interest to you, here are the slides.

The workshop was based on Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler (2012) Writing for Peer Reviewed Journals: Strategies for Getting Published. Routledge

Of course you don’t get all of the chatter and banter and questions from these slides, but maybe it is still interesting to see what this approach can do.

And the books that I mentioned during the workshop were these:

On writing plainly  – Howard Becker (1986). Writing for social scientists: How to start and finish your thesis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

On not front and back loading your paper – Patrick Dunleavy (2003). Authoring a PhD: How to plan, draft, write and finish a doctoral dissertation or thesis. London: Palgrave.

On staying in touch with your writing – Jenson, Joli (2017) Write no matter what. Advice for academics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

On writing non-nouns prose  – Helen Sword ( 2012) Stylish academic writing. Boston: Harvard University Press

On daily writing or not – Helen Sword  (2017) Air & light & time & space: How successful academics write. Boston: Harvard University Press

Posted in academic writing, argument, contribution, journal article, planning, planning a paper, Tiny Text | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

peer support for you and your PhD

This is a guest post from Michelle Redman-MacLaren and Karen McPhail-Bell. Michelle is  based in the College of Medicine and Dentistry, James Cook University, Australia. She tweets as @shelmaclaren. Karen is a Senior User Researcher in the medical device industry, based in the Silicon Valley, U.S.A., and Honorary Research Fellow at the Poche Centre for Indigenous Health, University of Sydney. She can be found at LinkedIn, Twitter @Dr_KMcB and her personal blog.


Do you ever feel like the world is conspiring against efforts to complete your PhD? Are you hesitant to reach out for help? We all need friends during our PhD, and here we share our story to show how peer support helped us – and might help you.

Karen’s story

An 80km per hour impact changed my (Karen’s) life in an instant. A serious cycling accident left me with a fractured skull and brain injury. As a previously active, goal-oriented PhD student commencing my third year, I now struggled to plan and set goals, became easily disoriented and found it hard to break down tasks required for my PhD. Hours would pass of failed attempts to write, with only exhaustion, frustration, and anxiety to show for it. I needed support to structure my PhD progress, to re-learn how to write and plan. I reached out…

Michelle’s story

During the third year of my PhD, I (Michelle) was writing, retreated from my family responsibilities and part-time work in a peaceful, tropical environment – I was thriving. During this time, I noticed Karen’s SOS social media post asking “How many times is it normal to think about quitting your PhD?” This was unusual from my friend and colleague who was positive, high achieving person and rarely reached out in this way. I responded with a suggestion we share our plans to progress our respective PhDs, perhaps even weekly. A commitment was made, and a precious connection formed.

Weaving our stories together

During the next three years, we completed and submitted our PhDs (Michelle in 2015; Karen in 2016) and stepped into academic work. We wrote 215 emails (mostly weekly), had two face-to-face meetings (both two days in length) and three Skype meetings. Using co/autoethnography, we analysed the data generated and wrote into each other’s story through loops of reflection.

Three big ideas emerged from our co/autoethnography, with the details recently published in The Qualitative ReportBeing in Academia encapsulated our shared experiences and processing of what it is like to be an academic – how we grappled with juggling commitments, managing finances, connecting socially, and then managing post-PhD transitions, working worlds, and somehow maintaining our own wellbeing in the midst of that. Not unfamiliar to any PhD or Early Career Researcher (ECR), Michelle reported, I need some meditation, exercise and rest . . . there just feels too few hours to go around. (Michelle’s email to Karen, 3 May, 2015). In a market oversupplied with research candidates for available positions the temptation was and is to be the academic super-hero, as Pit and Mewburn describe it.

We both grappled with Doing Academia, including making progress with our research and goals relevant to academic careers. We developed methodologies, planned our research and wrote, to achieve our PhDs and become employable ECRs. We discussed our shared commitment to enacting research and practice according to our values, including participatory and decolonising research methodologies. When one of us got stuck, the other often stepped up and provided suggestions, alternate frameworks, and possible ways forward. Karen reflected on writing goals sent by Michelle, writing,“I like your word goals for the coming months. I’ve wanted to set some goals like that, but really didn’t know how… My supervisors say everyone is so different, it’s up to me to choose my own goals. Some days, word numbers help; other days, sections of pieces make better targets. Right now, I don’t know! :-). As peers we supported each other to become independent researchers.

Our trust-filled, reflective relationship enabled our Sharing in Academia. We shared struggles, resources, opportunities, connections, and learning. While these actions nurtured the sharing between us, they also produced benefits. Tangible results of this sharing including publications, expanded networks, job applications submitted, and a joint project. The support was, for us, priceless.

It is becoming increasingly common for universities to support formal doctoral cohort programs that involve face-to-face workshops, Shut Up and Write sessions and support from formal mentors (Michelle is a mentor in one such program). Much of the value of these programs is resultant peer connections and peer support, fostered through shared time, space and interests. Online platforms also support PhD peers to connect, such as Shut up and Write on Twitter. Whether the peer support is formally or informally established, our experience is that it can be highly valuable – with peers you can say what you want to say in an empathetic environment and it is not likely to be career limiting!

PhD scholar, do you also find yourself in a situation where you feel like quitting? We share this personal account of our vulnerabilities and support needs to let you know that your experiencing is not unique – you are not alone! We encourage you to consider to who you could reach out in your network. Take a risk, even a small one at first. We hope our story has convinced you it is a risk worth taking! 


Photo by Mathias Herheim on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, per support, PhD completion, quitting | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

PhD – plan B


Before I came into higher education I had a brief stint as a civil service strategic planner. I got pretty interested in the process of scenario planning – that’s where you develop a narrative about something that could happen in the future. Or better still multiple narratives. The point of scenario planning is to identify ways in which you might maximise the chance of your preferred scenario happening. But scenarios can also help you think about less welcome scenarios and how they might be dealt with if they actually occur.

The poster child for scenario planning is the Dutch Shell oil company. Shell’s planners researched events, places, people that might affect their business, even unlikely ones – and then asked What if?  Using scenarios, Shell anticipated what were almost unthinkable events – the 1973 energy crisis, the collapse of the oil market in 1986, the end of the Soviet Union, political conflicts in oil-rich territories. When the apparently impossible did happen, they had a Plan B. And a C and a D.

Now, something akin to scenario planning might be useful at the start of the PhD.

Most universities do periodically ask PhDers to develop a timetable to thesis submission. And most people make a plan that is their preferred outcome. So they finish in the shortest possible time. Nothing happens in their lives to disrupt the research or the writing. The research goes swimmingly, experiments all work out, people and places are all accessible and helpful. They can quickly make sense of the mountain of data they have amassed. They have no problems sorting out how to write a text and do the multiple revisions required. There are no issues in supervision. There are no issues in their lives for that matter – everyone around them stays well, and flourishes.

You can see where I’m going with this.

It’s sadly the case that there are some PhD scenarios that are relatively common. Unpleasant to contemplate I know.  But maybe there are benefits in thinking about the less-than-good.

Just imagine… What if?… The research doesn’t go swimmingly, experiments don’t work out, people and places are inaccessible and downright unhelpful. It takes far longer than anticipated to get the field work done. The mountain of data is hard to sort out. The transcripts take three times longer to transcribe than you thought.  Writing a big text turns out to be much harder than it looked. Those multiple revisions take forever. Lots of time is taken up with mandatory training. There are problems in supervision.

It’s research right? It’s not always straightforward.

Or… The landlord puts your house on the market. There are unexpected caring responsibilities for children or for elderly family members. Your partner is made redundant. Your own job is under threat. An already rocky  relationship is put under too much strain. You get sick. And in the UK context, the doctorate takes more than three years and you run out of money.

It’s life, right? Life happens during the PhD. Now of course your institution will have some processes that can help if any of these things happen – emergency funding, counselling, leave from the PhD for instance. But they can’t decide for you what to do when your best scenario plans go out the window.

Mmm. While nobody wants to think that things might go wrong, there may well be some benefit in being a little bit prepared. Shell weathered its first anticipated storm simply by being more frugal in preceding years. When the price of oil soared they had enough in reserve to manage the high price bubble.

Having a Plan B and maybe a Plan C might be a sensible thing for PhDers to do and to update throughout their doctorate. Of course you can’t anticipate everything and I’m not suggesting you can. Not everything is in your control. Lots of things aren’t predictable. Some things are unacceptable and need change, not you adapting.

But that’s the point really. Foresight comes from thinking in part about how decisions that are out of our control might affect what we want to do. And then remedial action follows.

Take that holiday now so you’re not exhausted when you have to write. Don’t agree to extra paid work next year when you’re analysing data. Do take on extra paid work now and squirrel away the money in case you take longer than you want. Plan to replace the laptop. Address that difficulty in a key relationship,  including supervision, before it goes on too long. Join that action group.

Preparing a PhD Plan B which anticipates disruptions to your preferred Plan A may well help you to better deal with something less than ideal if it happens. It might also help you to think about any possible preventative behaviours which make actually using Plan B less likely. It isn’t a guarantee of smooth sailing but it just might make bad stuff a bit more manageable.


Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash



Posted in academic writing, completion, PhD, Plan B, scenario planning, starting the PhD | Tagged , | 6 Comments

the revision cave


Well, my current book is nearly done. But I was wondering, the other day, why writing a book never gets any easier.

I’ve written quite a lot of books. This one is actually the twenty fourth, although about eight of them are edited collections. Not the same as a monograph or trade book – although don’t get me wrong, editing is still hard work, but it’s different.

However this book feels a lot harder than some of the others.

I think that’s because some books were known territory before I started on them. They had already been the stuff of workshops or teaching or a pre-existing set of reports and conference papers. Others, like the one I’m doing now, are all new work. All new. So the task of writing is not only about getting on top of new material but also about constructing a new argument, one that is both coherent and logical and persuasive.

This book is probably not unlike writing a thesis all over again.

I’ve run really late on this book too and that hasn’t helped. I had to send a draft into the publisher. I’d been doing a lot of research at the same time as writing and really struggled to find diary space to get the manuscript together. So what I sent off was pretty underdone. The middle of the book – that’s where I was reporting the actual empirical work I’d done – was solid. However the topping and tailing of the material wasn’t up to scratch. There was too much description in the scene-setting chapters and the argument got a bit lost. The ending tailed off badly and the implications of the argument weren’t nearly strong enough.

Does this sound a bit familiar? It wouldn’t be surprising if it did, as these are problems that often appear in drafts of a thesis too. The stuff is there and mostly in the right order, but it just isn’t sufficiently honed and refined. What is also familiar, I am sure, is the work that I’m doing now to get the manuscript finished.

Revising and refining aren’t easy to do. They can be hard on the body, emotions and intellect.

I was vaguely embarrassed, particularly as someone who writes about writing, to have my drafty work go out to readers in such an obviously incomplete form. They were generally kind, I must say, and I do hope that they are pleasantly surprised by how much the final version has moved on from the one they saw.

But getting to this point? Well.

I’ve found myself waking up half way through the night a lot. I’ve taken to keeping a notebook by the side of the bed again, a sure sign that heavy duty thinking is going on, whether I consciously want it to or not. I’m asleep and then come to, realising that I am awake when I should be asleep, and I am actually rewriting. I have fully formed sentences in my mind, sentences for a section that I have scheduled to write that day. Or I wake up fretting how to fix those troublesome bits. And happily, I have woken up on two occasions knowing how to reframe the beginning and then the ending.

I can’t do big re-imagining work to order however, and there has been the occasional very scary moment when I’ve wondered if I am really up to the task. Waking or sleeping, I can still work up a good bit of terror about the prospect of being unable to fix-the-book.

Some people might call this fear imposter phenomenon – but I don’t think it is that. It’s just that thinking and writing something new can be fear-inducing. It’s perfectly rational to be afraid when you are standing at the edge of known territory and need to leap forward. Will I/we land safely and be able to march on? Or will I/we tumble and stumble in a prat-fall with the laughter of critical readers ringing in my/our ears?

So yes, there’s been any number of moments of self-doubt and anxiety. And I am sure they will go on for sometime, even after the book has been published.

But there are also moments of exhilaration – I found a way to bring these disparate ideas together! I made this point so neatly!  Yes chapter, I’ve got you licked, you are mine.

And moments of pleasure – Yes! I haven’t seen anyone say this in just this way.  Ha, I just dealt with a noxious piece of government policy in a few well-referenced sentences!

Right now I’m at the point of extreme boredom. I’m just so over revising. I have other things I want to get on and write. I’ve finished with the last chapter now and there’s no more imaginative or creative work to do. It’s only the time-consuming process of checking references and consistency in naming, looking for tics, word repetition and code words, making sure all of the figures are listed at the front, compiling a glossary… it goes on.

Stuck in the depths of the revision cave looking out on what could be. So this is just like the last stages of the thesis – yes?

I know there is one more read through to do yet. I can’t simply shove the whole thing into a zip file and press send. Not now. So it’s gritted teeth time. Time to summon up will power and the power of routine. I’m sitting at my computer. I have work to do. I just need to get on and do it.

So yes, I am writing a blog post when I should be proofing. I am checking my email when I should be proofing. I am on twitter when I should be proofing. And I am sometimes thinking about the next bit of writing and becoming very frustrated I can’t get to it.

But there’s a deadline of end of month and I’m going to make it.

As will you, thesis writer. As will you.


Photo by Jean Gerber on Unsplash

Posted in academic book, academic writing, book writing, revision, thesis revision | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

when you’re older than your professors

This is a guest post from Dr Noelle Sterne. Noelle runs a coaching and editing practice and in 2015 published Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles.



Marlene was one of the brightest and most conscientious doctoral students I’ve ever served in my academic coaching and editing practice. An older student, she had returned for her doctorate after three of her four kids were grown and out. Marlene held down a full-time job in medical billing, and her youngest was now in high school, so Marlene embarked on a lifelong dream—she enrolled in a doctoral program. We were working together on her dissertation.

When I answered the phone, instead of greeting me, Marlene raged for ten minutes. Her professor had track-changed almost every page of her paper and added a four-paragraph single-spaced memo stuffed with questions. Marlene shouted over the phone, “I’m calling the doctoral police!”

I understood why Marlene was so upset. At fifty-two, she had (bravely) entered graduate school. The professor was younger by at least fifteen years. She had done well in her courses but now, with the dissertation, he challenged Marlene at every turn, and just about every sentence.

Older Students Are Increasing

Marlene’s situation is not unusual. Like many other older students, she chose an online program to accommodate her full-time jobs and family responsibilities. Although with a passionate interest in helping primary-grade reluctant readers (as two of her children were), she had neglected graduate study for decades because of her job and family.

Most doctoral candidates I help to complete their degrees are in their forties and fifties, with a surprising number in their early to mid-sixties. They often blurt out their ages apologetically, and I ignore the self-deprecation and immediately congratulate them for their guts, spirit, and drive.

But they find working with younger professors—who could be their children or even grandchildren—difficult. The students may resent and resist the professors’ critiques and advice, and the issues that arise threaten to sabotage the degree programs and dissertations.

Why Do I Get All the Critiques?

As I told Marlene, expect revisions throughout your doctoral program, and especially your dissertation. if you’re an older graduate student and in a similar situation, your professors’ cries for revisions can stem from one of two main motivations. The first may indicate their perfectionism, vindictiveness, and pettiness and point to less-than-healthy desires to prove themselves and show you who’s boss. The professors may also recall their own tormenting doctoral tribulations and want to extract revenge.

The second motivation may be more wholesome. Your professors may push for revisions because they recognize your abilities and want a quality work for you and, by reflection, for themselves. Their comments aren’t personal, and they’re not out to get you. They genuinely want to help and so press you to live up to your potential. Probably too they see a publishable spinoff (with an acknowledgment to them) in your postgrad future.

From the other side of the doctoral program, U.S. dissertation advisor and distinguished sociologist Michael Burawoy (2005) candidly observes how he formerly handled his advisees:

I used to make detailed comments that would go on for pages and totally overwhelm and even paralyze you. Sometimes you would never come back. It was rather disingenuous of me to complain about your retreat since I suspect that my barraged aimed to establish my authority, my credibility as a young sociologist—with little thought as to what might be helpful to you. (p. 47)

Burawoy’s confession is admirable. If, though, you’ve received a sheaf of critiques such as he describes or Marlene received, whatever you do, don’t act like an irate graduate student I heard of. Without an appointment, he stomped into his professor’s office, threw down the marked-up manuscript, which he’d peppered with own brigade of sticky-note soldiers ready for battle, and argued with every point the professor had made. Needless to say, the candidate only reaped more endless-revision reprisals.

As an Older Student, You Have Advantages

As an older student, though, you have some assets, so take heart. Research confirms you’re more persistent than younger students in reaching academic goals, more self-reliant, and more purposeful in mastering the required skills (Bertone & Green, 2018; Deshpande, 2016; Dunn, Rakes, & Rakes, 2014; Offerman, 2011; Spaulding & Rockinson-Szapkiw, 2012).

Here’s encouragement by Offerman (2011):

The contemporary doctoral student is older, more mature, and brings into the learning situation a wealth of real-world, career experience. The effective faculty member understands this and expects to learn as well as to teach, to act more as a colleague at times than a supervisor. (p. 27)

Hopefully, your professors embrace such an ideal perspective. If they don’t, you can nevertheless navigate successfully through your doctoral experience by keeping several points in mind.

What You Can Do

  1. Forget age and age comparisons (“He’s half my age, already tenured, published in five top journals, with twenty-three grants!”). Remember why you’re a graduate student and what your degree will do for you.
  2. If you’re an online student, your status can be a blessing—you don’t have to stare into that impossibly fresh face two or three times a week (unless the professor insists on Skype conferences).
  3. With your extensive experience in your field, swallow your pride and tamp down your knowledge.You may know a lot more about aspects of your topic than your professors, particularly if your dissertation investigates a problem in your workplace. And you may seethe at some of their critiques. But keep in mind that they likely know what’s acceptable for your dissertation.
  4. If, though, yours is an applied dissertation to suggest solutions to that problem at your workplace, and some of the professors’ critiques are based on inexperience with procedures, diplomatically verbalize your corrections shored up by your experience.“Professor ____, I realize you may not be familiar with . . . . but . . . .” (They have egos too!)
  5. After you get back your blood-red track-changed paper, arrange a meeting.

Admit your doctoral frailties, be open to the critiques, and ask for clarification. As Offerman (2011) and Cassuto (2013b) say, good advisors collaborate with their students. If you don’t understand, persist.

  1. Don’t whine or unburden about your other worries. Your professors have their own problems.
  2. In person, in the phone, or in email or text, act professional, as you do on your day job. You will gain the professors’ respect.
  3. Remember your real-world experiences in other testy situations with colleagues and family and how you resolved or responded reasonably and creatively. Transferring and applying your abilities can help you weather the tempests of an advanced degree program, and especially the dissertation.
  4. Treat yourself with self-respect. You have a right to your professors’ guidance and explanations (after all, you’re paying for it).
  5. Seek outside help if you feel you could really benefit from it (a peer, a recently-graduated colleague, a coach, an editor).
  6. Do the work diligently and consistently and do it well.

See how these suggestions can work for you. As an older graduate student, you’ve plunged into a highly challenging educational path that others half your age often avoid. (If they start, they frequently quit, most often before completing the dissertation.) So, wear your age proudly and be grateful for your life experiences. When you’re older than your professors, use your previous encounters, interpersonal skills, and infinite patience to complete your long-awaited degree.



Bertone, S., & Green, P. (2018). Knowing your research students: Devising models ofdoctoral education for success. Postgraduate Education in Higher Education, 471-498.

Burawoy, M. (2005). Combat in the dissertation zone. American Sociologist, 36(2),43-56.

Cassuto, L. Remember, professor, not too close. Chronicle of Higher Education.Retrieved from

Deshpande, A. (2016). A qualitative examination of challenges influencing doctoralstudents in an online doctoral program. International Education Studies9(6), 139-149.

Dunn, K. E., Rakes, G. C., & Rakes, T. A. (2014). Influence of academic self-regulation,critical thinking, and age on online graduate students’ academic help-seeking. Distance Education35(1), 75-89.

Offerman, M. (2011). Profile of the nontraditional doctoral degree student. NewDirections in Adult Continuing Education, 129, 21-30.

Spaulding, L. S., & Rockinson-Szapkiw, A. J. (2012). Hearing their voices: Factorsdoctoral candidates attribute to their persistence. International Journal of DoctoralStudies, 7, 199-219.

Photo by Wolfgang Rottmann on Unsplash



Posted in 'mature' doctoral researcher, academic writing, doctoral experience, doctoral researcher, feedback | Tagged , , , , | 12 Comments

peer reviewing your first paper


Patter now has over 800 posts. It’s pretty hard to find things on here, even when you know what you’re looking for. Some of the elderly posts are, I hope, still useful. I’ve decided to start an occasional ‘best of’ set of posts – well best of in my view – to recover some material that I still get asked about.

In 2012 I wrote three blog posts about how to review a journal article.

The first post was about how to read a journal article you have been asked to review. What do you look for and how do you decide what might need to be done?

I started by saying this:

Before even beginning to read, the first thing to get clear about is the STANCE you have to take as a reviewer.

Once you’ve clicked ‘agree to review’ and you have the article in your inbox, you now have to put aside all of those debates about whether blind peer refereeing is a good or a bad thing, or whether it’s here to stay or on the way out. You’ve got the article and you need to do a good job. The author(s) has spent a piece of their life writing it, they have put their faith in the reviewing system – that’s you – and there is probably a lot riding on whether it gets published.

The job of reviewing is about deciding whether the paper is of sufficient quality to be published, not whether it ‘s the most ground-breaking piece of research you’ve ever come across. And you have to read the text, not as if it’s the paper you would have written if you’d done this bit of research, but rather as the research and writing that has been done.

This is reviewing as an appreciative critical stance, rather than one which is dominated by

I offered a four stage process for reading and twelve questions that could be used to guide the reading process.

The second post looked at the process of making a judgment about what the writer needed to do. And it addressed the thorny question of what to recommend to the editor. I started by looking at what reasons we might have to reject a paper:

Aside from the obvious things – it’s a rant not a reasoned piece of argument, it’s a piece of journalism, it’s a blog, it’s been sent to the wrong journal , it’s plagiarised – here are some possible reasons for rejection:

(1) It’s straight from a thesis chapter – it’s a trawl of the literature, has far too much to say about methodology and/or theoretical resources, has no argument and no conclusion
(2) It’s bad research – the quants are wrong, the interpretation of the qual data is dodgy, you can drive a truck through the claims made
(3) There is no analysis – it’s a plodding report of a survey or a set of interviews and nothing else
(4) It’s unethical – people may be harmed if this is published, it’s sexist/racist/homophobic/ableist
(5) It’s got too many ideas in it – you can’t follow what is being said at all, there isn’t enough space devoted to each part of the argument, the various bits don’t seem to relate to one another
(6) The argument doesn’t make sense – you can’t follow what is being said at all, there isn’t enough space devoted to each part of the argument, the various bits don’t seem to relate to one another
(7) It’s not significant – there is no answer to the So What question. That is, it’s too local, it’s too small in scope to say anything… it’s naracisstic and self-indulgent, and/or the conclusion is what we already know and there are heaps of other articles which say the same thing and/or it doesn’t seem to say anything much at all.

We ought not to reject something because it’s written in a style we don’t like or it uses big words or we disagree with its party politics. We can raise all of these objections as reasoned arguments in a response which might, in the case of party politics, require revision to recognise different points of view.

We also ought not to reject something just because it’s boring. Again, that’s for revision, unless the reasons for it being boring are any of (1) – (7) above.

I then went on to look at how we might decide what level of revisions might be required.

The third post looked at how to write helpful feedback . I suggested there were four things that mattered when writing feedback: (1) Write the kind of comments you expect to get; (2) Use a structure for the feedback which allows the author to follow what you are saying; (3) Be clear and (4) Don’t tell them to read all your work – unless you really ARE the key figure in the field.

Here’s what I said about structured feedback.

Remember that the author/s now know that they need to do more, so they are reading with a sinking heart. So you need to be specific as well as kind.

I generally aim for three quarters to a page in length, unless it is an accept without change – this is usually just a paragraph or two saying what I think is great about the paper.

I have a bit of a formula I use for reviews. So here’s what I do – it’s not the only way to write feedback of course, but it’s ONE way to approach the task.

(1) Write two to four sentences summarising what the paper is about. So something like… This paper addresses… and presents evidence that … . The author/s argue that… This gives the author the chance to see whether you have understood what they wanted to say. If you haven’t got it, they can then consider how they might have produced this misreading.

(2) If you really enjoyed reading the article, say so now before you start with the concerns.

(3) Write something about the contribution, as in… The article clearly makes a contribution to/has the potential to add to what we know about/will make a significant addition to … This might be linked to a caveat such as… but needs further work in order to bring this to fruition/realise its potential, needs some revision in order to achieve this.

(4) Then, if there are suggested revisions, say whether they are major or minor and how many there are, as in .. I have two suggestions for major revisions and one more minor point… or I offer some issues that the author/s needs to consider in the methodological section and a recommendation for some restructuring of the findings…

(5) Then dispassionately state the changes that you think are necessary, based on your reading of the article. Try to focus on the things that are the most fundamental.

You may just outline the problem (s) and suggest that the author/s needs to find a way of resolving it/them. You might offer one or two suggestions. Or you might have something very definite in mind. Any of these is OK, although just outlining the problem can be a bit scary for the author/s when they come to revise. Whatever, you just need to be explicit about which of these you are doing.

If there is reading that the author/s need to do, give them the references, don’t just say there is literature out there that they ought to know about.

If you are suggesting major revisions, then there probably isn’t much point in outlining twenty five specific things for the author/s to do; it’s the big bits that are the most important for the author/s to grasp. Too much detail and they will be completely confused/overwhelmed/dispirited. And if it’s major revisions you will get another look at the paper, at which time you can pick up any small things that still need resolution.

Finally, succintly list any grammatical, proofing and referencing problems.

(6) Conclude with some encouragement. This might involve repeating the potential contribution and the importance/value of the author/s continuing to work on the piece.

You might want to follow up these posts in full.


Photo by D A V I D S O N L U N A on Unsplash




Posted in academic writing, feedback, journal article, peer review, refereeing, reviewing, reviews | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

writing the thesis from the middle

This is a guest post from Dr Milena Popova, a rogue scholar and activist. They offer one-to-one academic tuition, and tweet as @elmyra.


As I hit the start of the second year of my PhD, one of my supervisors casually said to me, “Oh, you should probably aim to write your literature review this year.” It is very common for supervisors to suggest the literature review as the first thesis chapter to actually see daylight. And in many cases it makes a lot of sense: you will have spent a large chunk of your first year reading and familiarising yourself with the state of your field. The jump from reading to writing can be rather daunting, and a literature review may be within your comfort zone at that stage. And depending on your research design, you are likely to be deep in data collection in your second year, and therefore have nothing to actually write about yet. So in the interests of getting you to write *something* (which is an excellent idea!), many supervisors push for a lit review early on.

If this works for you, that’s great, but I’m here to tell you that there’s more than one way to write a PhD, so if the “lit review first” approach doesn’t work for you, there are others. Despite my supervisors’ best efforts, I wrote my thesis from the inside out.

Personally, I struggle to work from the theory down, and so I knew that any lit review I wrote in year 2 would have to be rewritten pretty much from scratch once I knew what my data actually said. A certain amount of editing and rewriting is inevitable in a PhD, as your ideas develop and you work out what you’re trying to say over time (and there’s a chapter in my thesis that I did rewrite three times), but some rework is avoidable. If, like me, you prefer to work from the data up, writing your thesis from the inside out might be the approach for you.

What I mean by writing the thesis from the inside out is writing the data chapters first. For me, those were the three case studies that formed the core of my research. Having more or less completed those chapters, I then wrote my literature review and discussion chapter side by side in my third year, followed by the conclusion and introduction at the very end. This approach has several advantages. For me, the data chapters were much more concrete, and having written them first meant I knew what the data was and what it was saying. That then gave me the foundation to build the theory on. Writing about my data early on also meant I developed a much better understanding of it, as the writing process became an extension of the analysis process. This approach also forced me to plan and do my data collection and analysis in a way that allowed me to start writing about the data early on. I was able to split the data collection into three separate stages (one for each of the data chapters) and do different tasks for each of the chunks in parallel.

Once I was past the data chapters, something I found important and helpful was to write the lit review (finally!) and the discussion chapter side by side. This allowed me to make sure that anything I was relying on in the discussion chapter had been adequately covered in the literature review. It’s a bit like Chekhov’s gun: if you’re going to shoot someone with it in Act 4, it had better be on the mantelpiece in Act 1. The final layer of this inside-out writing were the conclusion and introduction, which I also wrote more or less side by side, but really, the introduction came last because that was the point at which I knew what I was introducing.

The inside out approach won’t work for everyone. You may find it easier to work from the theory down than from the data up, or your data collection and analysis may be structured in a way that doesn’t let you do any early writing about your data. The important thing here is to be open to experimentation (both as a PhD researcher and a supervisor), as that is the only way you get to work out what works for you. I use the inside out approach for most of my research writing to this day, and I wouldn’t have found out that it was the right approach for me if my supervisors hadn’t trusted me when I said, “Um, I think I’m going to write something else actually.”

Milena’s approach is one I often recommend to PhDers too.  I completely agree that it helps to know what you are going to write about, your results, before you structure your argument and your text. 


Photo by Martino Pietropoli on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, IMRAD, thesis | Tagged , , , , | 15 Comments