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When your writing mistakes aren’t so ‘silly’

I’ve been talking to lots of students this week, and I’ve noticed a pattern, so I suspect this is more widely relevant to readers of the blog. These students have been identifying an issue of making lots of ‘silly mistakes’ and ‘small errors’.

These mistakes are never silly, they are important, but maybe not in the way people think. (To be clear, I suspect students use these terms because they are the terms that teachers use. So this is also relevant for academics giving feedback.)

If someone who has made it to university and cares about their studies is making a persistent error that most students can avoid, it suggests a systemic glitch.

In these cases, it’s actually unhelpful for a supervisor or advisor to correct the error every time it appears. The student doesn’t need an overwhelming number of individual corrections which can obscure other significant feedback, and doesn’t address the reason why the student is making the mistakes.

I’m not saying you should ignore the mistakes, it means you should instead look for the pattern. If you can find the pattern, you can start looking for the root cause.

The cause is very unlikely to be motivation or attitude in this cohort. PhD students are just not inherently lazy or uncommitted. It’s not a thing! They can be exhausted, demotivated, discouraged or facing seemingly insurmountable hurdles. But with their academic and professional track record, and making the choice to pursue a PhD and to keep on doing a PhD… talent, commitment and perseverance can be assumed.

So if the ‘silly’ and ‘small’ mistakes can’t be fixed by working harder… what can we do to address them?

1. Does the pattern look like maybe the student has misunderstood a basic part of the material? Fundamental misunderstandings about ‘what counts as research’, ‘how we analyse in this discipline’, ‘how we use jargon in this field’ and ‘how do I use theory’ are common issues.

Students’ initial training may have been some decades ago, in a different education system, or in a different field: lots of people are teaching themselves to code, to do stats, to read manuscripts, or draw themes out of interviews, and might have missed something. Don’t assume they should know it all already!

2. Does the pattern look like a problem with writing? Academic writing is unusual, with features not found in professional or creative settings. It also varies significantly across disciplines and countries, and across languages. It’s quite common to be a bit confused about how to use semi-colons in citations, how to structure information-heavy sentences, or what to do when reporting other scholars’ work.

It’s worth pointing out that supervisors and peer readers may not be best placed to identify and solve the root causes in academic writing. A surprising amount of my consultations consist of me saying ‘that’s not actually your grammar problem’ to students whose feedback has diagnosed ‘passive voice’ or ‘lack of English skills’. There are academic language experts at your uni—go talk to them!

3. Issues like disorganisation, missed deadlines, negative moods, persistent ‘mix up’ errors, tuning out, or unusually slow work, are commonly assumed to be problems with attitude.

‘If you just applied yourself’, teachers often say, ‘you could live up to your potential’.

But as I said above, PhD students are great at applying themselves.

PhD students do often struggle with: perfectionism, imposter syndrome, exhaustion, and bullying. They might need some support ramping up their project management skills, or enforcing boundaries, or taking time for self-care in the face of the mammoth challenge of wrangling their first solo academic project.

Financial, professional, health and family challenges can impact students and their projects. If they are happy to disclose these challenges, universities may be able to be supportive: whether through financial aid, health or counselling services, or variations in timelines (for example extensions or going part time).

Sometimes the student hasn’t been diagnosed with a disability, but you suspect it might be an issue. If you suspect atypical neurology, hearing or sight impairments, or mental illnesses, then supervisors and students definitely shouldn’t be diagnosing them! A medical specialist is the only person qualified to work out what exactly is going on for students with dyslexia, short sightedness, depression… and the only person who is able to recommend the right adjustments for them (whether that is more time, glasses, medication, training or therapy).

However, a sensitive supervisor is often well placed ask the initial questions and then suggest a referral. A thoughtful referral can also help assure the student that they will be safe and supported if they do get diagnosed and need accessibility adjustments.

‘You are smart and committed, but maybe it would be good to check out if X is going on for you. I’d recommend starting by going to see [insert expert here],’ is something I’d like to see more teachers saying.

In conclusion: the mistakes aren’t silly, students aren’t silly. And whatever is causing them is likely to have a solution… but you won’t always find it by just working harder. Students and academics may need other experts, but together we can make a massive difference!

***

I’ve given more advice on all of this in my last book Academic Writing Trouble, and the two new books out in the next few months, Your PhD Survival Guide and Level Up your Essays.

Order the paperback, hardback or eBook of Your PhD Survival Guide direct from the publisher with the code X018 for 20% off. 

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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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