September 08, 2015

Talking to Your Supervisor about Writing: Tips for Grad Students

Have you ever needed to discuss your writing with your supervisor but struggled with identifying the questions you need to ask? Graduate Writing Advisor Rob Desjardins with the Student Success Centre shares his insights on getting the most from your conversation. 

Here’s a pop quiz for graduate students. Which of the following things are you least comfortable discussing with your graduate supervisor:
(a) worries about your work schedule;
(b) concerns about your RA salary;
(c) uncertainties about your research methodology; or
(d) questions about your writing?

If you answered “(d),” you’re not alone. Many, perhaps most, of your colleagues would say exactly the same thing. There’s something about the writing process — and the way we think about it — that makes many students feel insecure and defensive. “I can’t ask her for guidance in drafting my lit review,” they figure. “I’m supposed to know how to do this. I don’t want to seem ignorant and unprepared.”

As a result, many students forge ahead without getting good strategic advice. They spend many hours developing and drafting a key document or chapter on their own. Then, in many cases, their supervisors aren’t satisfied with the results. The students are forced to go back to the drawing board, spending many more hours on a document of which they are now growing very weary.

I’ve worked with many writers caught in this trap. Based on their experiences, I can confidently say: you have nothing to lose, and much to gain, by asking for strategic guidance early in the process.

And your supervisor won’t think any less of you for it — provided you ask the right questions, at the right time, in the right way.

Ask the right kinds of questions. If you’re like most writers, your first thought on getting an assignment is: “I have absolutely no earthly idea how to do this. Where do I start?” It’s natural to feel this way…but be careful, because this sort of open-ended question isn’t likely to win a helpful response from your supervisor. S/he may feel it’s your responsibility to inform yourself about the project; and s/he may simply be baffled by such a broad and unfocused question.

It’s best to approach supervisors with informed questions that reveal that you’ve already given some thought to the writing task (and looked around at exemplars to see how others have tackled it). For instance, if you’ve been assigned a literature review, do some focused reading, make a thoughtful plan for the document, and share the outline with your supervisor. Explain your tentative plan, noting that you’d like to get her or his sense as to whether you’re on the right track. That’s the sort of question that will pay dividends: it will show that you’re thinking creatively and strategically, and it will make it much easier for your supervisor to think critically about the project.

Time your questions well. Don’t be shy, but don’t be overbearing: find the “Goldilocks zone” between too many and too few questions. Generally speaking, it’s good to get input on a major document (such as a thesis chapter) quite early, as soon as you have crafted a general plan for approaching it. And then there’s nothing wrong with “checking in” with specific, focused questions on a regular (say twice-monthly) basis.

Frame your questions approproately. If you hope to get timely answers to your questions, keep in mind that less is more. Send your supervisor a 35-page or 60-page attachment, asking him or her to provide broad and general feedback, and you can expect to wait weeks, or longer, for a reply. But send him or her a one-page excerpt of your work, asking just one or two very pointed and specific questions reflecting your primary concern(s) (“Here’s how I’m tackling [a given problem]; does this seem to work?”), and you can expect a much quicker response. This has the added benefit of alerting your supervisor to any serious concerns early in the process, so that he or she can help you deal with them more effectively.

Here’s a trade secret that very few supervisors will tell you: they find writing challenging too. We all do. So there’s nothing wrong with asking for help. Do it effectively and you’ll learn an enormous amount — making the time and energy you invest in your graduate education even more worthwhile.