Writing strategically

Here is some advice I recently gave a doctoral candidate. They had just had a draft of their introduction chapter torn to shreds by their supervisor, and wanted some advice on how to go forward.I read their chapter, and could see that there were some serious issues.

It might look like the issues here are a load of tiny writing details, but actually they are all strategic moves that put the writer in a position of power and expertise. Secure in this powerful position, the candidate is able to convince the supervisors, their panel, their examiners, and take their place as an expert peer scholar.

I thought it might be useful to some of the other readers of this blog, so thanks to the candidate for letting me share the advice I gave them!


I can see why your supervisors were concerned about your writing. Reading your chapter with potential examiners in mind, there were a number of issues that would put up warning flags and might delay your successful move towards completion.

  1. Citations. Use citations strategically (as I have suggested in ‘The Power of the Reference‘), to position your work in the field and to back up claims. Most social science discipline academic texts use multiple citations for every sentence in an introduction. A first sentence with 6 or more citations is not unusual. The current lack of citations makes this work look under-researched, and unscientific.
    Moreover, you are clearly alluding to research you have done, and the lack of citations makes it hard for me to correctly attribute your allusions, leading to quite a lot of misprision, particularly for theoretical texts.
  2. Hard data. Social sciences use a lot of numbers to establish authority. When you use approximations like ‘the overwhelming majority’, they can be read as ‘blood in the water’ (Petre and Rugg, 2006, read pages 145-6): an ‘unnecessary indication of serious weakness in your work’ that encourages a feeding frenzy of academic shark attacks. Use exact numbers instead.
  3. Signposting of your argument. Alter your topic sentences from being descriptive of content/structure to being summative of your argument by using the Thesis Whisperer’s judgment verbs and powerful paragraphs. While you regularly signpost where you are in the writing, it is not always clear where you are in the argument. This means that your signposting is descriptive rather than analytical.
    It also means your signposting words provide a sequential cohesion, rather than building a logical and compelling argument.

These three are writing strategies that help the words on the page reflect the research and knowledge that you have; and the move to becoming an expert, which is so central to the doctoral journey (as discussed in Kamler and Thompson, 2006).


The candidate said this really helped them to understand the comments their supervisors had made on their manuscript. If you are getting notes like ‘need reference here’, or ‘where is your argument?’, you might find these comments helpful too.


Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


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