I stumbled across a useful trick for cultivating good writing for thesis students. If I frame my writing advice as ‘this will help you deal with your examiners’ then thesis students are more likely to act on the advice. My usual advice such as “make your sentences clear and succinct” had much less impact on thesis students, compared to advice like “the examiner will be confused if you write it like that.” Thesis students seem captivated by advice based on how their examiners will react to their thesis.
I liked this way of framing advice so much that I wrote two open-access articles about writing a thesis based on what examiners do. My first article was a systematic review of the literature that identified 11 things thesis examiners tend to do as they read a thesis. My second article developed advice for thesis students based on each of these 11 practices. These articles enable me to offer authoritative advice to my thesis students, such as: “We know thesis examiners tend to get annoyed with frequent typos and referencing errors, and then they doubt the candidate’s competence and start to read hyper-critically, so the advice is you should do a thorough edit before submitting your thesis.”
My insight about using thesis examiners to frame advice for thesis students didn’t come from nothing. It is based on several principles that underlie how I teach thesis writing. I’m not sure if these are universally applicable, but they are how I guide my own practice when working with thesis students from every department and discipline.
Advice is more or less useful depending on how it is framed.
The same advice framed in one way might be misunderstood or ignored, while if it is framed in a different way it may be transformational. It is not only what you say, but how you say it. My wife shared a lovely example of this with me yesterday: Her old dance teacher had told her for years to lean away from her dance partner, but this only gave her a sore back and made her lose her balance. Then another dance teacher told her to bring her chest and stomach into one line—doing this effectively means leaning back—and she suddenly understood what to do and had perfect posture. It was technically the same piece of advice about how to stand, but how it was framed made a huge difference.
Advice framed as general principles is better than advice framed as specific directions.
General principles enable students to judge what to do, while specific directions erode their autonomy. When students are given general principles about writing, they have to think how they will apply the principle to their specific piece of writing in their specific context, but if they are given specific directions they just do what they are told without learning to think like a writer. Also, specific directions will have frequent exceptions, unlike general principles. For example, thesis students often want specific directions about how long a literature review should be. But rather than telling them the number of words they should produce (which is likely to be inaccurate for many students in different situations), I instead offer the general principle that the literature review has to be long enough to do justice to the main ideas from the literature, and to make these clear for the reader. Of course sometimes thesis students just want to be told what to do, but they are training to be independent researchers, so we do them a disservice if we don’t ask them to judge for themselves.
General principle: Write for your reader
One general principle that I offer as advice to thesis students is to write for your reader, and in the case of thesis students, this mean writing for your examiner. This principle implies that there are two steps in writing a thesis. You should first write down what you want to say, but then you should re-write it so it is also clear, interesting and convincing for your examiner. So, the advice is to figure out what sort of writing would make a good read for the sort of academics who will be examining your thesis, and then emulate this writing. You can figure out what sort of writing your examiners would like by reading journal articles and theses in your field (and by reading the articles I wrote about what examiners tend to like in a thesis).
General principle: Give feedback about the reader’s reaction
Advice framed as feedback about a reader’s reaction is often better than advice about how a student should improve their writing (though advice about how to improve is also useful in its place). When we share our reaction to their writing, such as “I was confused here”, or “I couldn’t see the connection between this paragraph and the next”, we train students to make judgements about their own writing, rather than stealing this thinking work from them. They have to judge how to respond to the reader who says “I find that unclear” rather than just following instructions about how to fix the paragraph. They have to decide what made the reader think the writing was unclear, and therefore, how they can improve their writing: Was the sentence too long, so I need to make it more succinct? Did I omit an important signpost that explained how one sentence followed from the other, so I need to add ‘because’ or ‘a second perspective is…’? Did the reader have a different interpretation of the words I used, so I need to define what I mean by ‘emotion’? The underlying principle is that writers need to understand how their writing affects their readers, so they can then improve their writing for these readers. The gift of feedback is understanding the impact of our writing, so we can then make it better.
Golding, C. (2017) Advice for writing a thesis (based on what examiners do), Open Review of educational Research, 4(1), 46-60.
Golding, C., Sharmini, S., Lazarovitch. A. (2014) What examiners do: What thesis students should know, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 39(5), 563-576.
I also posted this on the DoctoralWriting SIG. Check them out for some great stuff about writing a thesis.