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 The risk is appearing vague and out-of-date, and confusing to readers.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.

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Why grammar matters

Does grammar matter? Yes, as shown in a recent article titled “War of words: why journalists need to understand grammar to write accurately about violence” on The Conversation by Annabelle Lukin, Associate Professor of Linguistics at Macquarie University.

In a reminder of the power of grammar to convey responsibility for an action, the article highlights the impact of grammatical structures such as:

  • using active or passive voice
  • using main versus dependent clauses
  • turning verbs into nouns to avoid human responsibility.

Passive voice in particular can be problematic as Lukin explains: “The passive voice puts the object of the action first. Because the passive voice puts the people or things acted on before the verb, writers have a choice about whether or not to name the agent of the action.” The many comments on the article highlight some of the difficulties in determining who is responsible for an action.

As well as grammatical structures, choice of individual words such as verbs, nouns and adjectives is also important. In media articles, choices of headlines and accompanying photographs and captions have high impact.

Don’t dismiss grammar. Grammatical choices help present our view of the world to others, so think carefully about choices.

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A thesaurus: friend or foe?

A thesaurus is a book or an online resource which has synonyms for common words. It can be both useful and dangerous in writing.

It is tempting to use a thesaurus to introduce variety into writing. To avoid using the same word twice in the same sentence, paragraph or page, you check a thesaurus for a synonym – an alternative or substitute.

But if you choose the wrong synonym, you may be changing the intended meaning. English can be very complex with subtle variations in meaning, as a good dictionary can show. Consider these pairs of similar verbs:

  • diminish and reduce
  • retain and maintain
  • represent and resemble
  • accomplish and achieve.

Often it is appropriate, and best, to repeat the same word if that is the best or most precise word for the context.

Be careful when using a thesaurus to paraphrase text to avoid plagiarism. If you are unsure how to reword someone else’s work and retain the meaning, it may be better to use quote marks and provide the source to indicate the words are a direct quote from a reference.

Used thoughtfully, a thesaurus can be a friend of good writing, but take care it is not a foe.

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Dealing with diverse and conflicting feedback

Authors often seek or gain feedback from many sources when writing something important. The feedback could be from co-authors, colleagues, clients, supervisors, reviewers, examiners or editors. The feedback can also be in many forms from correcting errors and specific wording changes to broader comments about direction, arguments, emphasis or content. But how to handle diverse and conflicting feedback to finalise the writing?

All feedback is useful but it can be impossible to address all feedback in the one document.

  • Be clear about the overall purpose and audience, and any specific requirements of the writing.
  • Focus on the most important elements, particularly if there is a word limit, space constraint or deadline.
  • Consider what feedback can be addressed most easily and quickly, particularly if there is a deadline.
  • Consider when feedback can be addressed – now or in later versions.
  • Consider who is providing the feedback, and why.
  • Explain how and why feedback has been addressed or not. There may be a formal mechanism for this such as a response to reviewers or examiners.
  • Recognise and accept you can’t always meet all the needs of everyone involved.

Editors can help writers evaluate feedback and focus on the reader and purpose.

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Elsevier’s tips for turning your thesis into an article

Scientific publisher Elsevier has recently relaunched its free e-learning platform as Researcher Academy. Yes, it’s free with great resources for researchers, particularly on getting published.

One of their new resources is a webinar on How to turn your thesis into an article. Watch the one hour video or read the two-page tips summary here.

The most obvious difference between a thesis and an article is length – a thesis is much longer than a journal article. But where to cut the words? It’s not just a matter of selecting a few paragraphs from your thesis to cut and paste into an article. You will have to write concise new material. Think about your key messages and what you want to emphasise. There is likely to be more than one publishable paper in a thesis.

Elsevier’s 8 tips are:

  1. Identify the appropriate target journal.
  2. Shorten the length of your thesis.
  3. Reformat the introduction as an abstract.
  4. Modify the introduction.
  5. Tighten the methods section.
  6. Report main findings in results.
  7. Ensure discussion is clear and concise.
  8. Limit number of references.

These tips assume the traditional thesis format, but thesis by publication is increasing in popularity. In this new format, a thesis may present several articles published during the candidature, with a synthesising introduction and conclusion.

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Getting a grant – how editors can help

Being successful in a grant or award application means relying on someone else to make an important decision. And when relying on others to judge your work, it helps to know and meet their criteria as closely as possible.

Make it easy for grant assessors by meeting their requirements in several areas.

  • Content: provide the content asked for at the right level of detail, and use any suggested headings.
  • Length: be aware of word count limits for specific sections, or even character counts.
  • Format: provide information in the format required, which may be attachments, tables, budgets, plans or photos.
  • Deadline: be aware of the submission process, allow time to complete all the steps of the process, and submit by the deadline.

Other tips

  • Allow plenty of time to read the requirements, prepare a draft application and review it.
  • Ask people who have successfully applied for the grant or award for tips.
  • Learn from feedback, either generic or specific, on previous applications.

Sometimes instructions can be very long and detailed, added to over time to address common issues or mistakes often made, and it can be easy to overlook specific requirements. An editor can increase your chances of success by reading the grant requirements and your draft response, highlighting unmet requirements and suggesting improvements. Editing can be an excellent return on investment for grant, award and job applications.

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