Supporting Students’ Writing and Publication

By Professor Rowena Murray, University of the West of Scotland

I have three suggestions for supporting students’ writing and publication:

  1. A pilot study,
  2. Analysing published writing
  3. Running writing retreats for your students, or having someone else run them, which makes more time for your own writing.

A Pilot Study

My first suggestion, a pilot study, has the benefit of prompting students to run the method. This grows their knowledge and understanding of what it is they’re doing and ‘lessons learned for the main study’ can be a section in a thesis chapter.

A pilot study can also be written up for a conference presentation and publication. If they get accepted for a conference, I encourage my students to spend the slot in the programme after their presentations writing up the questions and feedback they got and drafting or completing their journal articles. That slot is when they are most focused on their work, and this helps to focus their writing. A further benefit is, of course, that the conference and journal provide peer review, which adds to their developing knowledge and profile.

Given the universal pressure to publish, and given the benefits for students’ careers, I ask them to consider writing their findings chapters as papers. Each findings chapter can have a bit of literature review, methods, report on findings and discussion. Each chapter-paper could be targeted at a different journal, which might mean that each is very or somewhat different in structure and style. The alternative is to write the thesis and then convert chapters or sections into papers. In some instances, this takes too long.

Analysing Published Writing

My second suggestion is to spend time analysing papers in your/their field. I know from talking to supervisors that not everyone likes this idea. Supervisors are not writing teachers. Some say they know when something is wrong in a student’s writing but struggle to define exactly what it is.

What I’m suggesting is, for example, looking at all the abstracts published in the student’s target journal in the past year. Analyse the first sentence of every abstract. Describe how it defines the research problem addressed in the paper. Analyse the last sentence of every abstract. Describe how the research ‘contribution’ is defined. If the word ‘contribution’ is not there, which words were used in that journal in the past year to define research contributions?

This is not to say that we want students to copy published writing – and it may be important to say that explicitly – but we want them to be able to analyse how journal articles are constructed in your field. You don’t have to be an expert in academic writing to be able to facilitate this analysis. During or after this analysis, get students to write a few sentences to use in their papers. This lets you check that they got the point about not copying, and you can give them feedback.

Running Writing Retreats 

My third suggestion is to run a structured writing retreat for your students (Murray & Newton 2009). This is a great way to boost their writing, develop their confidence and motivation and increase their awareness of writing as part of the research process.

You can suggest specific writing tasks for them to do, and you – and they – can monitor the extent to which they achieve them. This can develop their self-efficacy in relation to writing. When you give them feedback during a writing retreat, they can act on it right away, and you can give them feedback on their next draft or revision.

You can also get some of your own writing done at the same time.

A two-day residential or on-campus writing retreat is a good way of compartmentalising writing for publication. While students’ main writing task is to complete the thesis, they can move to this different form of writing for two days. I find this brings my discussions with my students closer to their writing, so to speak. There isn’t such a gap between their writing and our discussion, or between our discussion and their next piece of writing.

As a supervisor, I get more immersed in their research at writing retreat, and it keeps me in touch with where they’re all at. At the same time, they’re all sharing their experiences of writing, comparing notes on where they’re at, what they’re reading, how they’re analysis is going, among many other subjects, and this in-depth, cross-project talk has added benefits and can be very stimulating and motivating for them, and for me too.

Questions

Here are some questions on the topic to consider. We would welcome you leaving your response in the comments section below.

Which journals do you want your students to write for?

Have you discussed how you write journal articles?

What have you told them about the writing process?

Are you using the ‘stepping stones’ model – low-ranked journal first – or aiming high?

Do your students understand research assessment in your discipline?

Do your students have a publishing plan?

Do they understand how to make time for publications while they are writing their theses?

Resources

For an overview of different writing activities, written for supervisors, detailing writing activities you can use with your students, see Lee and Murray (2015).

For writing activities that students can use, see How to Write a Thesis (Murray 2017).

For guidance for students and colleagues on writing journal articles in different disciplines, including analyses of published writing in different fields, see Writing for Academic Journals (Murray 2013).

A forthcoming ebook for supervisors to complement the student-oriented How to Write a Thesis is available in 2017: How to Supervise Writing – A Guide for Doctoral Supervisors.

For guidance on how to run a writing retreat for your doctoral students and why this might be a good thing, see my chapter on Writing Prolifically in Carter and Laurs (2017).

For an introduction to Structured Writing Retreat approach, see Murray and Newton (2009), and for information about writing retreats running now, see anchorage-education.co.uk.

For information about many aspects of thesis writing, writing for publication and students’ experience of writing and supervision see the Thesis Whisperer and the Research Whisperer blogs.

References

Aitchison, C. & C Guerin, C. (Eds.) (2014) Writing Groups for Doctoral Education and Beyond: Innovations in Theory and Practice. London: Routledge. Pages 94-109.

Carter, S. & Laurs, D. (Eds.) (2017) Developing Research Writing: A Handbook for Supervisors and Advisors. London: Routledge.

Lee A & Murray R (2015) Supervising writing: Helping postgraduate students to develop as researchers, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 52(5): 558-570.

Murray, R. (2013) Writing for Academic Journals, 3rd edition. Maidenhead: Open University Press-McGraw-Hill.

Murray, R. (2017) How to Write a Thesis, 4th edition. Maidenhead: Open University Press-McGraw-Hill.

Murray, R. & Newton, M. (2009) Writing retreat as structured intervention: Margin or mainstream? Higher Education Research and Development, 28(5): 527-539.

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