The role of writing support in PhD completion rates

Many factors affect PhD completion rates, as identified and discussed in a 2018 article on The Conversation  by Dr Tim Bednall from Swinburne University of Technology.

Setting aside debate about just what the true completion rates are, completion factors relate to students themselves, their supervisor and the university environment.

Students write so many items throughout their candidature including proposals, funding applications, conference papers and journal articles, as well as the thesis itself, that good writing skills and good practices make life easier.

Writing support is part of the university environment and different forms of support are available. Bednall noted that universities do provide research training and related training and support to increase the skills and capabilities of students. To overcome bad habits such as busyness, procrastination and disorganisation, Bednall described helpful actions such as scheduling dedicated writing time, reframing difficult tasks as learning opportunities, and developing a work routine.

Bednall also noted that some universities have Shut Up and Write sessions, which turn writing into a social experience and limit distractions, and there are supportive online communities and blogging which can be useful.

Is writing a social experience? I’m not sure. Perhaps social in the sense of support, rather than writing in a group. It depends on the writer.

Students should check courses at their university learning centre on writing in general and specific aspects of academic and research writing. Experienced editors are also a source of advice on writing for students and academic staff. With or without support, there’s no substitute for actual writing.

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Avoid the former and the latter, respectively

The former and the latter, and respectively, are often used to avoid repetition and save words. But thinking of the reader, it is better to write more clearly so there is no doubt about the intended meaning and what refers to what.

Readers might be reading quickly, skimming and scanning the text, and not familiar with the content. It can be hard to track words in very long and complex sentences. Not all readers know the former refers to the first of two things (remember f and f), and the latter refers to the second or last of two things (remember l and l). Don’t risk a confused reader.

The use of respectively might appear to save words, but it is better to rearrange a sentence and be absolutely clear. The example below shows how the former, the latter and respectively can be avoided without wordiness.

Compare these three options:

  1. Two surveys of employees and employers were undertaken. The former is discussed in Chapter 6 and the latter in Chapter 7.
  2. The surveys of employees and employers are discussed in Chapter 6 and Chapter 7 respectively.
  3. The survey of employees is discussed in Chapter 6 and the survey of employers in Chapter 7.

It’s all part of the make it easy for the reader mantra.

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NaNoWriMo or why targets and deadlines work

Is NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) relevant for non-fiction writers and thesis writers? Yes, indeed. The month shows the power of a target and a deadline.

The concept of NaNoWriMo is based on writing 50,000 words of your novel between 1 November and 30 November. There’s no limit on how many people can win! Everyone can be a winner.

Targets of words per day, week or month can work for writing tasks when you know roughly what your target word count is, and can divide the total by the time available.

While both the word count and the deadline in NaNoWriMo are arbitrary, the targets do seem to work for many people and can help achieve a first draft.

It is easier to edit and improve work once the words are on the page. Knowing something is a just a first draft to be refined later also helps overcome writer’s block or the need for perfection the first time.

NaNoWriMo also answers the question: what do I do after the month is over? If nothing else, congratulate yourself on your hard work.

For more, see my previous related blogs on:

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High impact headings

Headings are so important in guiding readers, I’ve already written about Are your headings helpful? and Make your email headings clear and informative. Here’s more on two approaches for high impact headings.

1. Use alluring alliteration

Alliteration is the repetition of the same or similar sound in a series of words, usually at the beginning but sometimes within the words. Alliteration usually refers to a consonant sound (known as consonance), while assonance is the repetition of a vowel sound. Alliteration captures readers’ attention without them even realising. It is memorable and flows.

If a simple word change retains or enhances meaning, try alliteration in headings. But don’t overdo it and don’t distort the intended meaning just to achieve alliteration. Keep it for more informal or casual writing.

2. Use questions or answers

Headings can be phrased as questions or provide answers. Questions like who, what, why, where and how provide a good structure if it suits the topic. These work well for shorter documents like explanatory brochures or factsheets.

For longer document, headings worded as answers or statements can save time for readers, and the table of contents becomes a good summary of the document. Avoid generic headings which do not have high impact.

See more on high impact headings with a table of contents:

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Font type – is there a right font?

Here’s a follow up to a previous blog on Font size – Is there a right size? Just as there is no right font size, the choice of font type depends on the purpose and audience for a document.

A font can be used to stand out or fit in, so consider what you want to achieve and what your readers are expecting to see. The font type has a huge influence on the look and readability of the page or screen, often without the reader even realising why.

The impact of font type depends on many design choices such as:

  • font size
  • alignment of the font: left justified or fully justified
  • spacing between lines and paragraphs
  • bold and italic forms of the font
  • contrast between fonts for text and headings.

Graphic designers experiment with all these elements for creative impact, but for academic writing, stick to what is most common and expected. For academic writing such as a thesis, Times New Roman is popular. A draft journal article in a font designed to look like handwriting, such as Comic Sans, is likely to be poorly received by reviewers, despite its merits. Using Courier font will make your work look like it was typed on an old-fashioned typewriter – fine if that is the intention.

It is common to choose between a serif font such as Times, Cambria or Palatino or a sans serif font such as Arial, Calibri, Geneva or Helvetica. Experiment with different fonts to find what works best for your document and audience, whether print or digital.

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Tips for PhD students to improve their academic writing

This post was inspired by an anonymous PhD student who started a blog to improve their academic writing. My advice to PhD students to improve academic writing is simple: read academic writing and write academic writing.


There are many books and resources about academic writing, but the best way to understand conventions is to read academic writing such as PhD theses, journal articles and conference papers. Start with recent PhD theses in your discipline, from your university and others, and note similarities and differences, strengths and weaknesses.

For new PhD students, it is particularly important to understand the form and structure of a thesis which is the ‘final product’ of the PhD research and assessed by examiners.

Then read journal articles. Read fellow students’ work. Accept offers to be a reviewer of journal articles. Consider why you might find one piece of writing hard to read and another clear and easy.


Any writing is good writing practice, but learn and practise the conventions by writing journal articles, conference papers and thesis chapters. The more you write material for your thesis, the easier it becomes. Ask others for feedback on your writing and see if your institution has a writing group or training. See my posts on:

Here are some writing resources I like:

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When recently is not recent and currently is not current

In my editing work, “recently” and “currently” appear in much of the material I read, particularly in literature reviews. But the studies referred to are several years or even decades old and no longer recent or current at all, particularly as research methods are ever-changing and improving.

It is tempting to use recently and currently to avoid being specific about dates, and thus keep interpretation open and avoid being wrong. The risk is appearing vague and out-of-date, and confusing to readers.

  • Does “currently…” mean today, this week, this month, this calendar year, this financial year or this term of government?
  • Does “recently…” mean this century or last century?
  • Does “in recent decades…” mean the last two decades or the last three or four?

Recent and current are only useful for readers if is very clear what timeframe is being referred to. Context is important. Recently in geological time is very different from recently in the daily news cycle. Both the date the writer is writing and the date the reader is likely to be reading need to be clear and known. Will “currently” written at the beginning of a PhD still be current 4 years later when examined?

Think about what you want the reader to know and use a more specific time indicator than recently or currently wherever possible.

To help decide when recently is recent and currently is current, please contact me on