How to talk with your mentor about writing (and why)

All of us write, and all of us learn to write; but virtually none of us do so alone. Which is a good thing, both for the doing and the learning! For that latter part: there’s an early-career phase in which you work closely with a mentor. Most often, that mentor will be an honours or graduate supervisor, and you’ll be working together while you write a thesis, or perhaps a manuscript for publication derived from a thesis. This kind of close collaboration can be extremely helpful as you learn the craft of scientific writing; but it can also be frustrating for both parties.

Before going further, it’s worth acknowledging just how much can be involved – on both sides. For the developing writer: writing the thesis is an enormous project that consumes many months (if not years). For most, it’s also a time of rapid learning. And the stakes are high, because the entire graduate program culminates in the thesis, and the first few publications have outsize weight on an early career CV. For the mentor, it’s also a big deal and extremely time-consuming. A mentor might read and comment on three or four drafts, or maybe a dozen, of each of your thesis chapters – and they aren’t likely to have a single mentee, so you can multiply that by the population of a lab.

So if the collaboration can be either helpful or frustrating, it’s very much worth trying to push the needle towards the former and away from the latter. Here are some ways you can do that.

First, when you hand a draft to your mentor for comments and advice, make it easy for them to give you the kind of feedback you need:

  • Allow plenty of time for feedback. Sure, your manuscript is only 10 pages long; but your mentor may have six other students handing them drafts, plus everything else they’ve got going. Two to three weeks is a reasonable expectation.
  • Offer them a choice of formats – Word, PDF, paper, etc.Yes, even paper – some of us old fogies still find it useful to wield a physical pen instead of a digital one.
  • Number your pages and number your lines. This sounds obvious and trivial, I know, but it’s astonishing how often I see documents lacking these aids. They’re a huge timesaver. They let your mentor write “what you say at line 422 seems inconsistent with your argument at 127-129” rather than having to spend time either counting lines down the page, or quoting sections of text. Less time bothering with that sort of thing means more time for careful thought, and that’s how you get comments that help!
  • Direct their attention to specific aspects of the writing. Let them know, for example, that you’d particularly like feedback on flow in the Introduction, the content of the Discussion, paragraph structure, or whatever you’re currently bedevilled by. If aspects of your draft are deliberately unpolished, tell them that too. It’s perfectly reasonable that you haven’t worried about sentence structure before figuring out the content – but tell your mentor that’s your approach, so they don’t waste time and effort marking up aspects that are deliberately unready.
  • If you’re handing them a second (or further!) draft of something they’ve seen before, let them know what’s changed – and even more, what you haven’t, and why. You can use marginal comments, Word’s Track Changes, or an informal “Response to Reviews” document. [You can read about constructing one of those in Chapter 24 of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing.]

Second, when you get comments back, think carefully about what kind of interaction you and your mentor are having. Grad school (and perhaps a year or two on either side) is a time of transition for a developing writer. As an undergraduate, you were mostly writing assignments to be graded, and possibly (but not always) corrected. Because of that experience, it’s easy to slip into the belief that there’s one right way to write a manuscript; and that your mentor will see if you’ve found it, and if not, tell you what it is. But that’s not what’s going on. Think instead about a discussion, and about how that discussion serves not just the writing of the document in front of you, but your future writing too. And think about evolving from a student whose work is being graded to a coauthor and valued collaborator. So:

  • Think globally, not locally, about edits or suggestions. If “comma splice” is marked at lines 11 and 23, you’re not simply being asked to correct two mistakes. Instead, you’re being alerted that errors of this kind occur in your writing. Very likely, your mentor didn’t see it as their job to mark every one, so check the rest of your draft for similar errors.
  • Along similar lines: keep a list of errors (or dubious style choices) you make often, and add to it each time you receive a marked-up draft. Then check your next piece of writing for these personal bugbears before anyone else sees it. We all have that list (mine includes excessive use of parentheses, and look what I’m doing right now…) There’s nothing more frustrating for a mentor than pointing out the same mistakes in the fourth thesis chapter as they pointed out in the first.
  • Recognize that there are different kinds of things a mentor may mark on your draft. Some marks really do correct errors – perhaps you’ve misspelled a word or made a grammatical mistake. Others may be strong suggestions about writing conventions in the discipline – perhaps your language is rather informal, and you should consider whether there’s a good reason for pushing the boundaries of convention in the particular passage you’re writing. Still others will be matters of personal preference – authorial voice, if you will. I’ll admit that mentors often don’t communicate these distinctions clearly. Some may not even have figured out yet that these distinctions exist. Just as it takes many years to learn the craft of writing, it takes many years to learn the craft of mentoring writing.
  • If you don’t agree with a suggestion, push back – with a good argument, and recognizing that you might or might not be right. You might say “you recommended doing X here, but I’m not sure that’s best. I had done Y because of <reasons>. Can you explain further?” A good supervisor will be happy to see you make an argument (when it’s supported by reasoning, of course); they’ll be ecstatic the first time you win one.

Does all this sound like extra work? In the short term, maybe. Perhaps it’s easier to hand in a draft, get it back with some Track Changes, and hit “accept all”. But the goal isn’t to make this document good enough; it’s for your mentor to help you practise – and one day, master – the craft of scientific writing. You can make that mentoring easier and receive it more thoughtfully, and in the long run, both you and your mentor will be a lot happier.

© Stephen Heard  April 5, 2022

Image: © Phoebe via CC BY-SA 3.0


1 thought on “How to talk with your mentor about writing (and why)

  1. amandalynnstubley

    This is really great to read! I’m a college writing teacher and also a writing advisor in a lab and I’m madly taking notes and saving this post to share.
    Amanda Lynn



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