Critical friends

I work in the field of staff and also student academic development with a particular focus on writing. I run a Writing Centre and we are often out and about telling students that all writers need editors and readers; that all writers need help with their writing and that asking for help doesn’t mean you can’t write or that there is something wrong with you. Stephen North wrote in 1984 that:  ‘Nearly everyone who writes likes – and needs – to talk about his or her writing, preferably to someone who will really listen, who knows how to listen, and knows how to talk about writing too’ (439-440). In other words, everyone who writes needs critical friends with whom they can share their writing and from whom they can get helpful feedback, at one or more points in their writing process. Critical friends are an essential part of a PhD student’s writing process.

There are some obvious ones, like supervisors (although sadly not always the case) and fellow students if you’re in a writing circle or group. There are also perhaps less obvious ones like partners, friends and colleagues who you may approach at certain points to discuss an idea, or a particular reading you are struggling with or have found enlightening. I would advocate for having a diverse group of critical friends who can listen to you in different ways and read your work in different ways too. This way you get a range of feedback, and have to consider different kinds of readers and how your text comes across to them. In my case I had my supervisor, who was a challenging critical reader and critic, but also very supportive. I had my husband, who only read part of my draft, but did a lot of listening and giving of verbal feedback. I had fellow students and friends who were at different points in their own PhD journeys, both in front of and behind where I was, many who were using similar theoretical tools or subjects of inquiry and could thus offer me both empathetic support and useful critique. Finally I joined a listerv-group online and a related Facebook group, connecting with other scholars around the world who were using the same conceptual tools I was and although I was too scared to post that often and share my often-shaky ideas, I learnt a lot from reading the posts of others and from my albeit limited engagement. So this is one example. Not everyone will have these resources, but everyone should have some of these resources to call on and use.

What happens, though, if your supervisor is not your No 1 critical friend; if they cannot and do not help you with your writing, thinking and reading in the ways you need them too? What happens if you are not part of a physical group of PhD students working in your area, and are rather on your own, studying part-time at a distance from your university? Where will you find your critical friends? The supervisor issue is a big one, and one many students very sadly have to deal with. Not all supervisors know how to use supervision as an opportunity to model the kinds of research behaviour PhD students need to adopt in their fields, and while they may be good researchers they are not necessarily good writing-respondents or tutors. If you are unable or unwilling to find a new supervisor who can assist you with your writing more ably, you could consider a co-supervisor who has a different approach and who will offer that additional support. If you cannot do this, then you will need to get a bit creative. Are you on social media? Post something and send it into cyber-space – ‘PhD student looking for critical friends to read and comment on writing. Happy to reciprocate in kind’. Hashtag it: #phdsupport; #phdwritinghelp and so on.  There may well be others in your shoes looking for help too. There are also online groups like Chapter Swap where you can sign up and connect with other postgrad students in your field, and swop chapters and papers to give one another feedback ans advice.

There are also other choices, like asking a spouse or partner to listen to you and give you their own feedback on what they hear and whether it makes sense to them. There are for many of us also work colleagues/friends who may be able to at least have a coffee and chat about ideas we are working on, or the reading we are doing. All this talk and conversation and connection really does help, if only just to give you a space in which to say something you are thinking about out loud so that you can hear it and see how it feels and sounds. Just that act of talking my ideas aloud often helped me to see connections or gaps without anyone else jumping in to do so.

I think the important thing when you work with your critical friends, wherever you find them and whoever they are to you, is to be really clear about what you need their help with. What are you asking them to read and why? What are you taking through and what do you need from them? If you are not able to ask for the help you need, you may not get it, and what you may rather get is a lot of less helpful comments that will take a while to sift through and may induce panic, doubt or a case of going-off-the-path-for-a-while. So, if you are going this route, and I think all PhD students should, think carefully about what you are working on and what kinds of listening or reading you want your critical friends to do and what you’d like them to offer you as feedback on your work-in-progress. Ask clearly and ye shall likely receive helpful feedback, be vague and ye shall likely be frustrated and confused :-). But regardless, reach out. Critical friends are out there; you are not in this alone.

North, S. 1984. The idea of a writing center. College English, 46(5), 433-446.


  1. Reblogged this on Dissertation Meditations and commented:
    This article is helpful. Sometimes it’s hard to find support when you’re off-campus and physically distant from others. Last week a friend and I started a virtual dissertatiin support group through a “secret” Facebook page. It’s been helpful to some extent. This article from PhD in a hundred steps blog, gives good tips on how to get support through “critical” friends. Being able to ask for help in a specific way is smart advice. I’ll try to put this in practice.

    • Thank you for the feedback. It is hard to work off-campus – I was off campus for pretty much all of my own PhD – so your support group sounds like a creative way to offer and get the help you need. All the best with it, and with your research! 🙂

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