Iterativity in postgraduate writing: making peace with the mess

Lovely husband and I were talking recently about a workshop we both attended on postgraduate study, and our respective conversations with our own postgraduate students about what postgraduate study involves them in, specifically the over-and-over again nature of the reading, writing and thinking. Iterativity, we concluded, is the name of the game at this level, and in post-doctoral academic research; yet, it is an aspect of working at this level that produces much frustration, self-doubt and struggle.

Ernest Hemingway famously said: ‘The first draft of anything is shit’. He was, certainly in my experience, right. If you look up writing advice on Pinterest, you will find many soundbites to inspire you; for example: ‘First drafts  don’t have to be perfect. They just have to be written’, ‘A crappy first draft is worth more than a non-existent one’, and writing first drafts as being like ‘shoveling sand into a box so that later [you] can build sandcastles’.  There is truth in all of these inspirational tips: first drafts are messy things: often incoherent in parts, full of both useful and useless information, lacking a proper focus. But, they are where we start any writing, and the key word here is ‘start’: writing is a non-linear, often chaotic, process, where we learn as we write, and our thinking develops with each round of feedback and revision.

This ‘logic of discovery’ is at odds, though, with the ‘logic of dissemination’ that we display in our finished thesis: the iterative process that produces the thesis is hidden from the view of the reader, as they are presented with our neat, polished, coherent argument. Many postgraduate students start their thesis process believing that these two logics are the same: that you start with Chapter 1, and the process unfolds neatly and logically from there. They become frustrated, then, when this turns out to be a lie:  when the truth is multiple drafts and mistakes, time spent writing paragraphs or pages of writing that have to be deleted when they are no longer relevant, and sometimes unexpected changes to your research questions, theory or methodology as the project evolves. This frustration can breed self-doubt if not carefully managed through supervision: many students believe that the more drafts you have to write, the worse you are as a writer; so many students I have met erroneously believe that the best writers don’t write that many drafts, and don’t make that many mistakes or revisions.

The opposite is the truth. The more successful writers, and postgraduate students, have learned to embrace the chaos and the frustration; they have learned to manage a balance between having a clear research plan and letting that process evolve so that they can still be surprised by what they find, or learn, as they write and work the data. This is a hard thing to do, live in a space where you know probably less than you don’t know, and where you have to be okay with the not-knowing, and move willingly between knowing and not-knowing over and over as your research moves forwards. This requires not just mental fortitude, but emotional resilience.

Researching and writing a thesis feels, at times, as if you are on a many-roaded route, trying to keep your eye on the GPS when it’s giving you more than one possible route and asking you to choose the best one to get you to your destination within minimal traffic and in good time. You may choose one route, and then find halfway you’ve made an error in judgement, and then choose to turnoff, and take a back road back to the main route you were on. There may be unexpected detours that the GPS didn’t know about and so couldn’t warn you of. You may feel like you are going around in circles at some points, and in a lovely, free-flowing straight line at others. A research degree, especially a PhD, represents a long road, with several possible routes to your destination. And it’s not a straight line. You may have to re-drive parts of the route at times, or try out different parts of the route than you expected to. But, if you try to trust the process, and make peace with taking your time and living with a bit of mess and non-linear chaos, you will hopefully get to your destination in one piece, and with a really good understanding of the area you’ve been driving around and around.

In research terms, this means getting more comfortable with the iterative nature of research, writing, and thinking. You cannot expect to write a chapter once, and be done. And you can’t expect to read something once and fully understand it, especially if it’s pivotal to your project, like theory. Writing multiple drafts, making mistakes, including knowledge and reading you don’t need along with that which you do, and making revisions that improve your writing, further your thinking and push your research forward is part and parcel of valuable, challenging postgraduate study that makes you a more capable researcher. Doing worthwhile research that pushes your field forward will require you to have a really firm understanding of that field, and the place your research can occupy within it. This means getting a bit lost sometimes, but having the means (through supervisors, peers, reading) to find your way onto your route again.

Terry Pratchett’s soundbite on first drafts is my favourite: ‘The first draft is just you telling yourself the story’. If you see your thesis as a story, evolving as the characters and plot take shape, and as the twists and turns reveal themselves through working with theory, methodology, data and analysis, it can be easier to embrace that uncertainty, and iterative rounds of writing, feedback, revision, and rewriting that push your research, and you as a researcher, forward. You start by telling yourself, and move to telling your supervisors, examiners and finally your wider audience – and you make a contribution that is valued and relevant. It won’t happen in a nice, linear way, but the depth of knowledge you gain, of your field and the research process, will be worth all the ‘driving’ in the end.

Seeing feedback and peer review as a gift rather than a curse

I have been in the fortunate position of sending off five papers recently that I have been working on for the last several months – a mix of single and co-authored work. The upside is that I have lots to report to my postdoc funders and I have learned even more about writing for publication; the downside is that I am going to be receiving a flurry of feedback on these papers within quite a short space of time, and will have to ingest, consider and respond to this feedback like a grown-up. This part I am feeling apprehensive about.

thewritingcampus.comFeedback, as many of us know, is not easy to receive and hear, even when it is positive. Feedback means more thinking, more reading, more writing; in short, feedback almost always points to more work. Most of the time, when you are finished with a paper or a chapter and you send it off you just would like to be done with it. You have other writing to be getting on with and other things to be doing. Yet, the paper or chapter will come back, with comments, suggestions, criticism and critique (although hopefully more of the latter). You, as the writer (on your own or with co-authors), will need to read all the comments and suggestions, probably a few times, note your responses, and then go back into that paper or chapter you would like to be done with and make changes, revise parts of it, do a little more reading, perhaps revisit data analysis, edit long sentences (if you’re me!). It can feel overwhelming, even when the overall thrust of the feedback is positive and the journal wants to publish your work, or your supervisor thinks you are almost there.

Cally Guerin has written about learning to see feedback on your writing as a ‘gift’ – as something that can enrich your thinking and writing, rather than take away from it. I like this idea – about giving and receiving feedback. I try, whenever I see the email in my inbox indicating that an editor has reached a decision on a manuscript I have submitted, or a critical friend has read and commented on my work, to remember this: that they are trying to give me a gift. They are offering me another opportunity to think about and revise my work to make it stronger, clearer and more persuasive and convincing to readers.  Even if the decision is to reject this version of my paper, the peer reviewers are not trying to break me down and make me feel terrible about my writing. Rather, they are offering me their insight as readers who would be interested in reading my paper, and perhaps using it in their own research. They are offering me a way of seeing my own work through their eyes, and comments and suggestions that can help me to clarify vagaries, shorten long sentences, bring out my contribution more firmly and so on.

I know that not all supervisors or peer reviewers use their powers for good: there is much feedback students and writers receive that is criticism, and is hurtful, unkind and unhelpful. But, as a journal editor of a few years’ standing, and a writer who is becoming braver at sending my work out to journals that is now receiving feedback, I can say that most peer reviewers really do want to help you develop your ideas and make your paper even better. Most peer reviewers do see their role as giving writers feedback that is a gift, rather than a curse. I spoke to a colleague recently, for example, who has reviewed many articles and supervised many students, and always asks himself: ‘Is the writing ready to publish/move on from? If yes, is there anything that can be improved further, and if no, why not and how could this writer get there?’ If supervisors and peer reviewers worked with a version of these questions, and I believe many do, they would certainly be offering writers new ways to re-read and revise their own work. The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper
The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper

For me, the challenge is always confronting myself, my own fears, insecurities and beliefs about myself as a researcher and writer. Even when reviewers are positive, I hone in on the negative. I read reviews with fear and trepidation, always prepared for them to say the worst about my writing. I am invariably surprised – even papers that have been rejected have garnered some positive praise, and following the reviewers’ advice tends to build my research up, makes my papers better, and makes me prouder of them and myself. So, I am learning to believe that I have something to say that is of value; that I can make a contribution to my field that people will want to read. It is an ongoing battle, but what I have learned is this: the more you ask for feedback, from the right kinds of people – people who are your readers and would be interested in your work – and the more you work with that feedback to see the strengths and flaws in your writing and develop it further, the easier it gets. Like the Little Engine that could, the more you think you can and try on that basis, the more you can actually accomplish. The writing gets a little less difficult and onerous the more you write, and the feedback gets a little less scary the more you read it, engage with it, and accept it as a gift that will ultimately make you a better writer.

Making the jump from M to (Ph)D: supervision and literacy development

Although this blog is primarily focused on writing a PhD thesis, and more latterly on writing for publication, I have become aware fairly recently that I have several readers who are Masters students. This post considers the move from masters to doctoral study, and the supervision needs to scaffold further development in (Ph)D students’ literacy practices, building on the M(A).

Perhaps a good place to begin is with a generalised sense of what an MA thesis is, compared to a PhD thesis. A colleague recently commented that, if you want to be an academic working in some form of higher education institution these days, the Masters is the new school leaving qualification and the PhD is the degree. This signalled to me that, certainly in academia, the PhD is the basic standard if you want to be taken seriously, and in all cases I know of you need an M degree of some kind (MA, MSc, MPhil, MFA etc) to apply for and be accepted into a PhD. A Masters degree by coursework, involves a good deal of reading, writing shorter and longer papers on aspects of your reading, both assigned and self-selected, and culminates in the researching and writing of a thesis of around 30,000-40,000 words; an MA by research only involves choosing a research focus, designing an appropriate study, and researching and writing a thesis of around 60,000 words.

Giuseppe Momo's spiral staircase at the Vatican (

Giuseppe Momo’s spiral staircase at the Vatican

The point about an MA being a prerequisite for PhD study implies that completing a Masters degree would act as a form of preparation for PhD study, and that if you succeed, you will be well able to make the step up from MA to (Ph)D study. I have to say, in my own case, I did not find this to be quite true. My own MA degree, a mixture of rigorous coursework and writing shorter papers with a longer research paper (during which I was not well supervised), did a rather poor job of preparing me for my own PhD, which I started five years after finishing my MA. I did well in my MA – it felt mostly familiar to me as it was structured similarly to my previous Honours degree. The literacy demands were greater, especially around the reading and seminar preparation, but on the whole it felt manageable. My first year of PhD study was a shock to the system.

The main reason for this shock, on reflection, was that I really had no clear idea of what a PhD actually was or what researching and writing a thesis entailed, and working on my own, on one (huge) research project just felt like far too much, too soon. It was not really like my MA at all.

PhD thinking capA key difference between the (Ph)D and the M(A) is the demand for an original contribution to your field. The M degree generally does not require originality; rather, the requirement, generally, is that you show that you are able to design and conduct a research study, and create a well-written account of it in the form of a thesis. If you do make an original contribution that is a bonus, but you won’t be failed or held back from graduating with your MA if you do not. With a PhD, however, treading solely over previously trodden ground and making no new contribution to your field is considered to be a failure to meet one of the basic requirements, and may well result in you having to make significant revisions, or even being failed by some examiners. This, I think now, was behind the shock to the system: how was I going to up my game as a reader, thinker and writer to make this original contribution to my field? What previous literacy practices and skills could I draw on?

This points me to an issue that does not seem to be as readily realised in academia as it should be: that at each level of study, from first year to final year of an undergraduate degree, and in each different postgraduate degree, as well as beyond postgraduate study, the literacy demands made of students and writers change. Yet, the support offered to students post-first year seems to fall away at varying rates, based (it seems) on the assumption that the literacy practices they have been taught and expected to master (!) early on will carry them through the rest of undergraduate study. Postgraduate supervisors often seem to assume that the literacy practices and skills mastered in undergraduate study will carry through to and adequately support postgraduate reading, thinking and writing, and supervision does not often seem to involve helping students with developing their PhD-level literacy.

Without turning to the research on this, I think anyone who has been a student or taught students at both under and postgraduate level can see the problem here. Literacy demands change, and writers have to change to meet them, but without relevant support, teaching, feedback and guidance at each level to make the demands and shifts clear to writers, there will be repeated shocks to the system as writers progress through their levels of study. Believing yourself to be a good writer, based on your success at school, and then finding that you are not doing the right kinds of writing expected at university can knock your confidence enormously; by the same token, doing well in an MA and then finding yourself completely at sea starting a PhD can have the same effect. And knocks to confidence lead to other kinds of issues, like slow progress, self-doubt, strangled writing and misery.

Jorge Cham

Jorge Cham (

Thus, I suggest (as a start) that we need to think far more carefully about the ways in which MA and PhD study connect, especially in terms of the literacy demands (taking into account the differences between writing and researching an MA versus a PhD in different contexts). We need to critically examine the connections (and gaps) between the literacy practices involved in completing an MA and those in completing a PhD, and finding clearer ways to supervise and guide students at PhD level that can scaffold them up from MA to PhD level. This is not a task for students to work out alone and without clear guidance – that way dropping out lies. Rather, this is a task for students to work on with strong supervision that not only focuses on the knowledge that students are writing about, but also how they are writing about it, and what they need to be doing with their writing to move up a level in terms of their ability to read, think and write more independently, more critically, and with a view to finding a strong voice capable of making an original or novel contribution – even in a small way – to their field of research and practice.