Growing as an academic writer: A list of handy resources (James Burford)

Photo by Sticker Mule | Unsplash

Learning about academic writing is a core part of becoming a researcher.

But, contrary to popular belief, academic writing isn’t something that researchers learn only once and then achieve mastery! Becoming a confident writer is something that researchers keep on developing over time and in relation to the nature of our research. Well-established researchers can often discover new things about academic writing and being a writer over their careers.

Given the importance of academic writing, we aim to schedule loads of opportunities for researchers to find their feet and explore what it might mean to become confident, stylish writers.

Earlier this year my colleagues Dr Lynda Chapple, Dr Dan Bendrups, and I coordinated three
workshops around the topic of academic writing: Writing with ConfidenceStructuring your Thesis and How to Write a Literature Review.

These were lively events with lots of La Trobe colleagues Zooming in from around the world to puzzle through writing questions and conundrums.

As many of you will know, one of the deep joys of our new Zoom-intensive working lives is the chatbox! Across each of these three workshops, the chatbox was a bubbling stream of links, suggestions, and emojis generously contributed by the 'facilitators' of the workshop and also our knowledgeable co-facilitators in the audience!

During the workshops, I noticed what a resource this chat archive offered for those who want to grow as academic writers. So, I have compiled a list of the resources suggested by La Trobe colleagues about academic writing across these workshops, and a few beyond!


1. The Academic Phrasebank
Anyone who has been to a workshop with me recently will know that this is a fave of mine. The Academic Phrasebank (created by John Morley) is a resource that offers writers useful phrases that we can try on as we write. The website is organised for phrases that might be handy for some of the main sections of a thesis (e.g. phrases for introducing, working with sources, methods, findings, conclusions etc), as well as general language functions of academic writing (e.g. how to be cautious, critical, how to give examples or write about the past, etc). If you find yourself lost for words, or receiving feedback that you aren't quite sure how to enact in your writing, this could be a good source to explore!

2. Susan Carter's "Voice in doctoral writing" 
Have you ever been given feedback that "your voice should come through more"? What does 'voice' actually mean in this context? And how might you think about claiming one? Take a look at Susan's blog post for some thoughts on how 'voice' in doctoral writing connects your identity, material, audience, disciplinary practices and own aspirations. The rest of the Doctoral Writing SIG blog is also an amazing resource for graduate researchers and their supervisors alike!

3. Pat Thomson's "Sending the thesis examiner to sleep"
All thesis-writing involves a meeting of writers and readers. For graduate researchers, the examiners are really important readers to be thinking about. In this post, Pat offers suggestions to avoid putting a thesis examiner to sleep!

4. Gerry Mullins and Margaret Kiley "'It's a PhD, not a Nobel Prize': How experienced examiners assess research theses
For this one, I think the title speaks for itself! This is an academic journal article; it reports on a study that focused on the processes examiners go through when they are examining theses. How do they make their judgements before they send off their reports? How do examiners typically warm up to the task of examining a thesis? It can be helpful to think of our reader and what they might be looking for in our writing.

5. Katherine Firth's "Reversing the outline"
In this post, Katherine offers some helpful thoughts for ordering and outlining our work. While lots of us start with a paragraph-level plan before we embark on a piece of writing, others don't. Some of us find that our careful plans can't quite contain the shifting sands beneath our feet. The reverse outline might be especially useful for those who prefer to do their writing first, and then go back and think about how it might all fit together. Katherine offers a useful 10-step guide to get writers thinking about how to outline their texts in reverse!


Colleagues shared lots of links to help us think about the purpose and possibilities of literature reviews. Each of these links is inflected with its own discipline-specific flavour (which I mark below), but they each can be helpful for researchers who are trying to puzzle together what is possible.

1. Cassily Charles' "Creating a structure for your literature review"
This online seminar by Cassily covers some key details for folks who are thinking about what their literature review might be doing, and how to structure it. The seminar was oriented to digital health researchers, so keep that in mind as you view it. Cassily covers the purposes of the literature review and what this means for designing our research. She examines the product of the literature review (e.g. by offering finished examples), and the literature review as a process that has stages that have to do different things (e.g. capture, organise, refine and structure ideas and information). She also discusses what it might mean to 'find the gap'.

2. Tara Brabazon's "A stroppy professor's guide to literature reviews"
In this video-blog, Tara offers some possibilities for configuring literatures work in your research. Tara speaks about both the purpose of literature reviews, and the work they do organise knowledge and confirm originality for the thesis writer. She also offers 10 suggestions for those who want to enliven their literatures work - offering some edgier alternatives to the 'one damn paragraph after another' model that many of us may be familiar with!

3. Tara Brabazon's "Note taking during the PhD"
Tara was a popular author that people dropped into the chatbox! As she notes at the outset of this particular video-blog: "A PhD is extraordinary. A PhD is distinctive". Yet great research relies on some rudimentary practices like great note-taking. Tara offers some possibilities for researchers to consider as they read their way into writing a thesis.


I mentioned to Jeanette in the RED team that I was assembling this list of resources and I asked if she had any picks of her own. Behold! Here are Jeanette's top picks:

1. Robert Brown's 8 questions 
What questions should researchers who are thinking of developing a manuscript for publication ask themselves?  Brown's 8 is an oldie and a goodie. It asks researchers to make explicit 8 key things that often need to be said in a manuscript. This can be super helpful for figuring out if an idea has legs or not.

2. Helen Sword's "Home Writing Retreat"
Stylish academic writing guru Helen Sword has offered us a 'home writing retreat' supported by a YouTube playlist. The full instructions are in the first video and there is a start of the day (intention) and end of the day reflection for each of the five days. As Jeanette reminds me, this could be done as a small group or in pairs or other clusters.

3. Wendy Belcher's "Writing your article in 12 weeks" 
This workbook by Wendy Belcher is a best-seller. Some academics swear by her techniques, which ask you to write information into various boxes and forms as you gradually assemble your article. Like the writing retreat idea, this one could be done individually or also as a Belcher Circle, where a group of people get together (e.g. on Zoom) to work through the workbook step by step. The idea is that, at the end of 12 weeks, you will send your article to a journal.

There you have it! I hope that this list of writing resources comes in handy. If you had suggestions to add to the list please let me know.

Like everyone else, I am a writer who is always growing and figuring out new ways to get those precious words onto the page.


Jamie Burford works in the RED team. 

He is currently editing a book called 'Re-imagining Doctoral Writing' with Canadian colleagues Cecile Badenhorst and Britt Amell. 

Chat with him on twitter @jiaburford