What can I write about?: The rhetorical question for PhD students and their supervisors

Dr Rowena Murray,
Centre for Academic Practice, University of Strathclyde

What do we know about writing?

Paradoxically, it is generally assumed both that PhD students will have the necessary skills for writing a thesis and that supervisors will have the knowledge to help them develop those skills during the course of the PhD.

In reality, students and supervisors find writing challenging, and most are unaware of the vast literature on academic writing, composition and rhetoric that they could access not simply to provide ‘remedial’ support to students who struggle but also to help students who want to improve their writing.  In spite of the potential benefits of advanced writing development, most universities in the UK provide no formal writing training for undergraduates, postgraduates or academic staff, and there is no general acknowledgement of the need for it.  It is generally assumed that we have these skills and/or can develop them from reading, mentoring or in some other fashion, and at the very latest, if not before, in the course of writing a thesis.  There are, clearly, many holes in the argument that postgraduates know what they need to know to write a thesis.

A body of literature on academic writing provides a potential repertoire of writing strategies for supervisors and students to draw on in answer to those recurring questions: What can I write about?; am I ready to write?; do I have anything to say yet?  These are not rhetorical questions for PhD students; they are questions rhetorical knowledge would help to answer.  Until PhD students – and their supervisors – acquire rhetorical knowledge, skills and orientations, they will still be in the dark, even those with the best intentions, about the question of how they should go about writing.  This may be why students often fix their sights on what to write about, particularly in the early stages of the PhD, rather than on how to write about it.  They are not routinely, systematically educated in the writing activities appropriate to the stages in a large writing project or in the modes available for different types of written academic argument, or for sections of developing arguments.

The purpose of this paper is to draw attention to modes of writing development that have proved successful in helping thesis writers and supervisors and to highlight one strategy that has been spontaneously taken by one group of students from my book How to Write a Thesis (2002), and seems to provide immediate solutions on both the conceptual and rhetorical levels.

The general solution proposed in this paper is to educate students and supervisors in a wider range of different strategies than appears to be currently adopted and to enable them to develop an integrative approach to academic writing, integrative in the sense that they learn to combine cognitive, psycho-social, behavioural and rhetorical strategies.

It has to be pointed out that while this paper draws on several academic disciplines, it is not contextualized for thesis writing in any one discipline.

The case for a PhD writing curriculum

An interesting and challenging approach to providing writing training in the PhD is proposed by Mullen (2001): a ‘curricular writing model for graduate students’ that includes ‘structured writing process (that is individualised with group elements), paragraph writing, paragraph sharing, phase 1 writing, phase 1 sharing, subsequent phase writings, continued sharing, finalisation of manuscript, writing refinements, and dissemination (Mullen, 2001, p. 121).  This provides writing development for all students and it is proposed that they can all benefit from group and individual work on writing.

A cornerstone of Mullen’s argument is that any intervention in student writing, any writing development activity and any ‘curriculum’ – in any sense – of writing should be research-based.  This is sound, some may say obvious, advice, but in my experience supervisors, and academics generally, are not aware of the literature on academic writing.  Once they become aware of it, and once they have read it, they are, it has to be said, quick to develop an interest in and understanding of this important field.

What would a postgraduate writing curriculum look like?

Mullen’s approach raises a number of interesting questions:

•           How would such a curriculum be drawn up?

•           What would the learning stages be for the students?

•           How would these stages be assessed?

•           What criteria would we use?

•           Would other aspects of the PhD be assessed separately?

•           How individualized would the curriculum be?

•           Would there be an underlying core for all students?

The stages in writing a thesis can be defined: the process of becoming a thesis writer has been tracked in, for example, an email trail (Murray 2002b).  In this case, and perhaps in others, analysis showed that there were three stages in the development of the thesis writer, which can be characterized as (1) ‘problematising’, (2) ‘personalizing’ and (3) ‘professionalising’.

1          In the problematising stage writing is represented as a stream of questions for which the writer had no answers, making writing more demanding than other academic/research tasks: ‘I seem to be developing a habit of writing down my thoughts and listing problems.  Could this be a way of externalizing my thought process?’ (p. 231).

2          In the personalizing stage the writer identified weaknesses in his writing strategies and took responsibility for addressing them: ‘I have been putting off sending you a message because I had achieved so little this week.  I find that the e-mails are putting pressure on me to get on with research or … reading just so that I have some progress to report to you.  That is a good thing!’ (p. 232).

3          Finally, in the professionalizing stage the writer began to see his writing as a professional task to be fitted into professional time and integrated into the his professional life, a goal recognised as an on-going challenge: ‘At last the exam papers are finished and I can concentrate on my research for the next couple of weeks….  It is now Tuesday night and I am surprised to find that I have beaten the targets set on Friday’ (p. 233).

This case study raises questions for thesis writers and their supervisors: for example, do we have enough information about what students need at different stages in the thesis writing process?  Do we engage in sufficient dialogue about academic writing practices?  One supervisor, reading extracts from this case study reported above, was convinced that the student was wasting valuable time that could be spent ‘writing the thesis’ instead of writing about not writing it.  This misses the point.  There is value in discussion of writing practices – as hectoring, mentoring or developmental as you like – particularly as they are still 'under construction'.

The other important point that this supervisor missed was that formal education – in the form of a Masters module on Academic Writing – and informal support – in the form of a writers’ group had provided a solid foundation for the thesis writer’s quite considerable development and output: as a result of formal and informal development, this writer appears to understand more about what thesis writing requires, he has more strategies for progressing it, including facing up to time management and ‘just doing it’ challenges, and, above all, he met his targets.

Using a range of strategies

Most academics are well versed in the thesis structures and styles appropriate to their disciplines; what they are not so well informed about is the range of writing tasks that can be incorporated into the thesis writing process, many defined and illustrated in How to Write a Thesis.

For example, the question ‘what can I write about?’ could be a topic for freewriting or generative writing, while ‘am I ready to write?’ could be for a research journal and ‘do I have anything to say yet?’ could be reconfigured as several, potentially quite different, focused prompts.

Setting word and time limits for each writing tasks would help students to find answers to their questions – or to move beyond them – by means of writing activities.  In this way, writing becomes, quite literally, part of the researcher’s thinking process.  If, however, this type of strategy is excluded from the thesis writing process – for whatever cogent reason could there be some form of dislocation of writing and thinking processes or practices?

Writing a page 98 paper

Another solution to writing problems has been developed by students in the early stages of the PhD.  I recently found out about a group of students who were using page 98 of my book How to Write a Thesis (2002) to write an paper about their thesis topics, referring to it as, literally, ‘writing a page 98 paper’:

What can I write about?  The context/background

•           My research question is … (50 words)

•           Researchers who have looked at this subject are … (50 words)

•           They argue that … (25 words)

•           Smith argues that … (25 words)

•           Brown argues that … (25 words)

•           Debate centres on the issue of … (25 words)

•           There is still work to be done on … (25 words)

•           My research is closest to that of X in that … (50 words)

•           My contribution will be … (50 words) (Murray 2002a: 98).

The value of such lists of questions is that they provide a framework for students’ writing.  They generate text.  If the questions are well written, they can generate logically structured text; if they are not, the student can be steered towards analyzing why some prompts worked better than others to generate text and/or to develop their thinking.

Teaching students about frameworks for academic writing, and enabling them to adapt them to suit the thesis and/or discipline, is surely one of the supervisor’s tasks.  But students can, clearly, cover some of this ground, and achieve some of these benefits, on their own.  The 'page 98 paper' example shows how quick PhD students are to realize the value of such frameworks and, more importantly, how adept they are at adapting a method of using them to progress other writing tasks and other stages in the thesis writing process.  They are also pleasantly surprised to find that their first drafts are better when they start out with some kind of framework.

Are there other writing tasks that could be abstracted from this book – or from others – or from other sources, including discussions with and among students?  It could be argued that there are specific sub-tasks and related writing tasks, requiring specific skills and frameworks, such as writing abstracts, which would also benefit from a framework.

There may be writing tasks that could be repeated during the course of the PhD, although the concept of repetition as a thinking and refining tool is not well established as part of the doctoral learning process.  In fact, the words learning process – like curriculum are not traditionally used in the same sentence as the word doctoral.  There is some pressure on supervisors always to come up with new ways of stimulating their students, regularly to find new solutions to their problems and consistently to find new ways of motivating them to write.

Identifying the many sub-tasks that make up the writing of a thesis is one way of drawing up a curriculum for postgraduate writing development, if that is the goal, or at least of defining lessons about writing that we want students to learn in the course of writing their theses.

The complexity of the PhD thesis, both as a learning process and as a written text, surely requires more than one type of writing strategy: it should encompass both structuring and generative strategies.

Unless you do your PhD in an English department in the US, it is unlikely that you will have a range of rhetorical modes at your finger tips: analysis, classification, proposal, evaluation, refutation and so on, each with their own form and function in the thesis argument. Each of these could be the subject of study and discussion between student and supervisor, with analysis of examples illustrating the practice of different rhetorical modes in the discipline.

Key learning points

In the absence of formal rhetorical development, however, there is, in the meantime, research-based guidance we can offer on thesis writing practices:

1          Writing throughout the PhD, a bit of a cliché, but worth working out what exactly it means, what might constitute appropriate early, middle and late writing activities;

2          Writing to learn – not just writing to document learning – is a key shift, but how do we know which we are doing when?

3          Using different strategies, knowing what they are, how they work and how they can help in the writing of a thesis;

4          Trying new strategies and making writing practices – not just products – a routine subject of student-supervisor discussions;

5          Knowing your own learning style – and that of your student/supervisor – in order to understand why you prefer to work certain ways, even if they are not effective, and why you find some new strategies counter-intuitive;

6          Becoming a fluent writer requires strategies that ‘force’ writing, without procrastinating, producing a rough draft that can be worked on, rather than waiting until you feel sure of what you want to write and confident that what you are writing is perfect, or even good enough;

7          Developing your own frameworks for writing, listing questions that you know work to generate relevant text in a form that makes you write;

8          Finding confidence in your writing and making this a legitimate goal of the PhD;

9          Learning about mistakes new writers make as they are developing the skills of written argument, such as overstating the point, demolishing the opposition, giving only one side of the argument.  Instead, learn how to modulate your points without losing them, to critique others’ views without losing ground and to counter refutation by writing it into your argument.

10        Taking stock of learning throughout the PhD, even if there is no ‘curriculum’ as such.

A common core

There are recurring ‘weaknesses’ in postgraduate students’ first written arguments.  Some are not even familiar with the term ‘argument’ in this context.  Some think ‘rhetorical’ is a pejorative term.

But are these really ‘weaknesses’, or are these the early stages of learning at the doctoral level?  Students need time, and specific guidance, to become rhetorical in their handling of knowledge, not just of text.

If these are common weakness – and any supervisor could make up his or her own list – then perhaps these are learning points in the PhD process.  Could these be on the curriculum for postgraduate writing developments?  Should they also be on supervisor training programmes?


The main argument of this paper is that supervisors should not only ‘introduce’ students to a range of writing skills, but work with them as they perform a range of writing acts, listening to their reports of how they write, the barriers the face and the solutions they find for overcoming them.

We can learn a lot about thesis writing form observing how students manage it; equally, they can learn a lot about academic writing from how we conceptualise and perform it.  Such discussions of writing could, therefore, be mutual.


Works Cited

Mullen, CA (2001) The Need for a Curricular Writing Model for Graduate Students, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 25, 1, 117-26.

Murray, R (2002a) How to Write a Thesis, Open University Press, Maidenhead.

Murray, R (2002b) Writing Development for Lecturers Moving from Further to Higher Education: a case study, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 26, 3, 229-39.