By Anna Maguire |

My students constantly surprise me – asking challenging questions and taking seminar discussions in unexpected directions. But there are also less positive surprises. These always seem to rear their head in marking season as a series of increasingly exasperated questions and exclamations: Who are you referring to? Where is your argument?? This needs to be restructured! Syntax!!

As an expected part of the PhD experience, teaching can be an opportunity to exercise a different skill set from that of research. But as has been highlighted before, teaching, and marking in particular, can be treated as a way to check in on our own work.

This week, my students, second year historians, took a week out of their module for an essays workshop – a personal writing bootcamp of their own, in preparation for a substantial written assignment. Both the lecture and the seminar covered the dos and don’ts of essay writing. As my fellow seminar tutors and I planned our teaching together for a collectively delivered lecture, there were more than a few sheepish looks as we reflected on our own practice.

Marking or editing? ⓒ Nic McPhee

Marking or editing?
ⓒ Nic McPhee

My theme for the week was how to plan: how to harness all that energy and enthusiasm that research can give you and think it through so it doesn’t become an underdeveloped disappointment on the page. Zero drafts, storyboards and topic sentences – these were the tools which I offered up to my students. But when was the last time I’d tried any of these things? I, like them, was often guilty of diving head first into a chapter for it to be returned covered in my supervisor’s red ink.

How often do we take the time to reflect on the writing process with our peers? How often do we practice what we teach? During my last months of writing up I was fairly isolated, dependent on the reading and feedback of my supervisors and others I’d rounded up. But as I redrafted and edited and proofread each chapter, was I potentially reinforcing bad habits developed from back in my undergraduate?

So whether you’re in the middle of marking and preparing to give your students feedback about their written work or you’re starting some writing on your own, here are some points of reflection on the process that might be as useful for you as for them.

  1. Note taking. I raise my hands at this one – I often end up with unwieldy notes that fail to capture the core argument of an article or book chapter. Writing a summary of the argument of what I have just read is certainly going to be one of my New Year’s Resolutions.
  1. Planning. How do you plan your chapters? From someone who has frequently relied on bullet points in a word doc, a zero draft or a storyboard can help you think more strategically about how you organise your writing.
  1. Deploying evidence. As hard for PhD students with precious source material as it can be for undergraduates with secondary literature. How do you enter into a conversation with other historians? It comes back to how you take notes and plan your essay but also something to review at the draft stage.
  1. Drafting and redrafting. When I asked my students in the seminar about how many drafts they wrote, I was stunned by how many guilty looks I got. But I’ve also sent in things that have only had a quick proofread and washed my hands of them. When I was writing up, I revised my drafts in a number of stages: the argument; the overall structure; sentence structure; spelling and grammar; footnotes. Focusing on one element at a time helped to highlight things I missed completely when I was trying to do everything at once.

What this week pushed me to do was to think about how I could get out of my own writing comfort zone and try some new things that have the potential to make the process better. As we near the end of the year, what could you take from your students into 2017?



Anna Maguire has recently submitted her PhD at King’s College London and the Imperial War Museum, researching colonial encounters during the First World War. She is a contributions editor for Pubs and Publications, when not facing the unknowns of the job market and getting ready for her viva. You can find her on Twitter.