exorcise the inner “doctoral student” from your writing

Some of us can probably remember the film The Exorcist. It was one of those “demon child” films so popular in the 1970s. It featured Linda Blair as a possessed young teen – her green-slime spitting, 360 degree swiveling head and manic, gravelly-voiced Satanic torrent of abuse kept many who saw the film awake at night.

Now, of course I’m not suggesting that there is anything about a PhD that is like this nail-bitingly scary film. Am I?

Well, many a doctoral thesis has left an examiner underwhelmed because it doesn’t seem to be written by an expert researcher. The writing is hesitant and deferential at the very times when the writer should be showing that they are assured and assertive. It’s as if the nearly doctor is possessed by an inner doctoral “student” whose writing is tentative, distant, impersonal, formal. And that “student” needs to be got rid of. 

So yes, I am saying that there is an exorcism needed when writing the PhD. It’s not an exorcism which features ritual recitations, candles and priests. It’s not one you get someone else to do. It’s an exorcism you have to do for yourself – although you can get some help from your friends. The exoticism I’m referring to is one which means hunting for, finding and removing the doctoral ”student” lurking within your thesis text.

How to do this? Well, here’s a few things to try out:

(1) The lurking doctoral “student” is risk averse, afraid to state their case. So, go through your text looking for all of the places where you have used words like “possibly”, “might”, “could” and would” and check whether these can be excised/removed. You may choose to keep some of these hedges  – but you may also decide to make some of your statements stronger and more confident.

(2) The lurking “doctoral student” is afraid to say things in their own words. They often hide behind the words of others. So, show your work to a colleague. Ask them to look for places where there are too many quotations and citations, places where you could provide your own explanation of other people’s work and offer your interpretation and evaluation. Rewrite these sections as if you were explaining them to your colleague. 

(3) The lurking “doctoral student” often writes difficult and complex sentences. Too many ideas jammed in together. Clunky writing that trips the reader up. So read some of your pages aloud. Does the reading sound as if it could be delivered as a key-note at a prestigious academic conference? Remind yourself what words and phrases are characteristic of the authoritative academic public speaker… Can you rewrite your pages using this kind of expert syntactical approach? Say it loud and proud.

(4) The lurking “doctoral student” feels as if they are writing in another’s voice. So, give some of your text to an academic colleague who knows you well. Ask them to find and mark a passage which they think “sounds like you”. Go through the passage(s) with them to work out what are the characteristics of this like-you writing – is it, for example, sentence length, variety in sentence construction and length, choice of terms, use of linguistic tools such as metaphor, the balance of active and passive voice, the judicious use of nominalized terms? Writer’s “voice” is largely conveyed through choice of language and the way in which sentences are constructed. Work around the like-you writing, spread its borders outwards.

(5) The lurking “doctoral student” writes for a reader they can’t imagine. So, choose a particularly difficult piece of writing, one you’re not happy with. Now rewrite it as if you are talking to a friend. Compare this more relaxed and informal writing with the original. What can you take from the second piece of text and bring into the first to make it less awkward and hard to read?

(6) The lurking “doctoral student” sees writing as a chore, or worse, as something to be endured. They are not prepared to practice the craft of writing. So, take some time out to look at the writing of others. Find your favorite writer and examine their prose to see how they construct paragraphs. Strip out the content from a passage you particularly admire to make a sentence skeleton, and then insert your own content. How did it “feel’ to take this rhetorical stance and present your work using this expert writing? Try to write a passage of your own taking the same rhetorical stance.

And of course writing other kinds of texts – blogs, media articles, short pieces for professional papers – all helps you to develop a sense of your own expertise and authority. Writing for a range of audiences and purposes is a very good way to develop your own expert researcher and exorcise the lurking “doctoral student” for good.

The idea of exorcism and the exercises in this post have been adapted from Chapter 4; Rankin, Elizabeth (2001) The work of writing. Insights and strategies for academics and professionals. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in "doctoral student", academic writing, authority in writing, style, voice and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to exorcise the inner “doctoral student” from your writing

  1. Thank you once again Pat, spot on! I recognise all of my hesitancies as a PhD candidate – having submitted four years ago, I realise that I still need to remind myself to write the way I now feel – far more confident in what I have to say and to contribute after all those years of research, experience and ongoing learning/reflection. Thanks again for your insights.


  2. laurammonk says:

    Thank you for this, Pat. I recognise that I use ‘hedges’ very often. Reading this post, I realise that I use these in order to avoid being accused of making ‘making wildly unsubstantiated claims’ as my supervisor put it.
    On reflection, I think this problem is associated with the intro/literature v. discussion issue that I told you about. It is clear to me now that I should not be writing tentatively and using hedges at all. Instead, if I make a point in the intro/literature, I should back it up with evidence. If I make a statement in my discussion/conclusion, it should sound strong and confident. I think I am getting it.


    • Laura and Pat,

      I have taken to, when appropriate (see that hedging there?), making more assertive claims about “these participants” as I can certainly claim about those in my research, even if it isn’t more widely (or wildly) generalizable.

      Finding the right expert researcher voice which neither overclaims or undercredits feels like walking a long, iterative balance beam to . It’s taking me some time (at the Discussion/Conclusion end of PhD where I am part lurking-doctoral-student and part becoming-my-unapologetic-researcher-self) to put my own work up front and to evidence my claims without supporting everything with what others have said and done. I talked a bit about that struggle here: http://wp.me/p4TJTj-aZ . Work in progress!

      Luckily I do love the writing!



      • laurammonk says:

        Thanks Deb – another useful blog to guide me in my writing. This is all helping me as I get to grips with what should be going where in my dissertation.


  3. Emily J. says:

    Great advice! I’m a fourth year doctoral candidate right now, and I’m struggling with this. I want to make the leap from student to scholar. I’ve just written an article that I think would be well received in my field, but I’m hiding behind others voices and hedging throughout. I think I’ll look at it today and use your tips to get it ready to submit for publication, instead of being afraid. Thanks!


  4. rivathuds says:

    Good ideas about sharpening up the readability and voice but that point about hedging has been nagging away at me all day. My worry is that I will sound arrogant without those hedges. After all, I’ve only just started on my research so Isn’t it more honest to talk about coulds and mights?

    Liked by 1 person

    • pat thomson says:

      It’s the Goldilocks principle. Not too cautious not too arrogant. The strategy is to check your hedges to see whether you have the balance right. Too many coulda and mights and you just sound tentative. Some of course are likely to be necessary.


  5. Although I am nowhere near the end of my PhD, I think it is worth remembering why we embarked on a PhD in the first place: presumably, this is because we have something to say, something that we think is worth is listening to, and we ‘simply’ need the theory/evidence to support it! At the start, this ‘something’ is probably still quite a raw passion and semi-evidenced intuitive impression, but by the end of the doctoral journey, that ‘passion’ (I hope!) becomes more principled, refined, peer-reviewed (in the sense that supervisors and significant others have read bits of what we are up to), up-dated, and legitimised, so, by the end, it should be clearer where and when some of our claims can and should be bolder than others … ?


    • laurammonk says:

      Yes Julia! Thank you for this comment. I wasn’t sure if it was okay to think this…. but yes, I absolutely need the theory and evidence to support what I want to say 🙂


  6. hyangwoo says:

    Thanks for this. Extremely useful advice!


  7. Emily Nelson says:

    A cool drink on a hot day Pat. I recognised this lurking doctoral student especially in the complex and long sentences point! If I print off any more Patter posts to help guide my current writing projects I am going to run out of wall space (a good problem to have) but this one is a must for newly minted doctor writers!


  8. Kip Jones says:

    Great advice, Pat, once again.


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