Finding a growth mindset for graduate writing

Finding a growth mindset for graduate writing

Despite being at grad school, one important part of academic life that is not always on the syllabus is academic writing. Drawing on work for her recent book, Thriving as a Graduate Writer, and blog, Explorations of Style, Rachael Cayley suggests three ways for graduate researchers to shape their approach to writing.

Most academic writers start their writing journey as graduate writers. Graduate school is where people tend to have their first serious encounter with the challenging array of practices that comprise academic writing. This commonplace observation is important because most graduate students (PhD or postgraduate researchers outside the North American context) struggle with the writing process.

The reasons for this struggle are varied. Graduate writers may be unclear on the new genres that they are meant to be using. They may feel uncertain about their new identities as researchers. They may be baffled by the opaque technical requirements of complex scholarly prose. They may be working in a new language or an unfamiliar cultural context. They may find that writing gets lost among the competing imperatives of a graduate student workload. All these issues can lead to feelings of bewilderment, inadequacy, and stress as they undertake the writing that will determine their professional success.

Over the past fifteen years, I’ve worked with hundreds of graduate students at the University of Toronto; overwhelmingly, they identify writing as the hardest thing that they do. And while writing is indisputably difficult for everyone, I don’t think it has to be as painful as it so often is. Witnessing so much strain around scholarly writing in graduate school led me to develop a blog, which then led me to conceive of a book that could speak to the specific experience of graduate writers.

Over the past fifteen years, I’ve worked with hundreds of graduate students at the University of Toronto; overwhelmingly, they identify writing as the hardest thing that they do.

A key aspect of this experience is an implicit expectation that writing capacity will simply develop as a side effect of other efforts. However, graduate students can have a strong research agenda and an impressive work ethic without automatically becoming proficient writers. Instead, they need explicit support as they work to acquire those skills. That support can come at an institutional level through writing centres; it can come from departmental commitments to supporting writing; it can be come from supervisors who are expert in providing writing feedback. Since graduate students currently have uneven access to those types of support, I decided that a comprehensive guide to writing in graduate school might be beneficial.

Thriving as a Graduate Writer is my attempt to meet graduate writers where they are with practical advice on managing the writing process. I decided to focus on thriving as a graduate writer because why not? Why not try to support graduate students in building a more positive relationship to writing? In my experience, merely surviving the writing process can have deleterious consequences for a writer. Surviving once may be okay; surviving repeatedly can become demoralizing. Instead of developing a sense of growing competency as academic writers, many graduate students worry that they are managing despite a lack of competence. These fears can actually make writing harder as time goes on; the sense of not-improving makes each subsequent writing project more daunting.

The overarching theme of the book is that it is possible to build a new mindset as a writer. This mindset shift can take a graduate writer from feeling unprepared, unqualified, alienated, and isolated to feeling committed, determined, engaged, and supported. While such a mindset shift is valuable for most graduate writers, it requires cultivation. It is emphatically not my intention to suggest that graduate writers just need to think differently about writing. Instead, I’m suggesting that a shift may be possible with the help of key writing principles, concrete writing strategies, and consistent attention to writing habits.


Are important because writing is a thing to think about as well as to do. A consistent approach can save writers from some of the uncertainty and self-doubt that naturally attends writing. I suggest four principles that can ground the practice of graduate writing: that writing is a form of thinking; that writing is essentially iterative; that writing must attend to the needs of the reader; and that writing requires significant authorial presence. These principles can help graduate students tackle the arduous process of academic writing with the intentionality that helps withstand the inevitable hurdles.


Are important because writing is a craft that can be improved. Needless to say, writers simply need to know more about how to do it. Writing needs to be learned through concrete instruction around how to manage the structure of a text, how to craft effective sentences with clear grammatical constructions, and how to provide the reader with momentum. Since most writing decisions are best made once a first draft is in place, I present these strategies in the context of a thoroughgoing revision process.


Are important because writing is ultimately a way of behaving. Even if a writer has a strong approach to writing and a familiarity with the hallmarks of strong academic writing, they will still need to create the conditions for successful writing routines. They need to understand how people work and what gets in the way their best efforts. They need to understand the psychological toll of making our work public. They need to understand the effect of unnecessary isolation on academic writing. Writing is too complex an activity to respond to simplistic tweaks or hacks, but every writer needs exposure to a wide range of perspectives on productivity to allow experimentation and growth.

These three elements are designed to help graduate writers make measurable improvements in their experience of writing, in the efficacy of their writing, and in their capacity to accomplish their writing goals. For many graduate students, thriving as a writer can feel totally impossible, but building a better relationship to the activity at the heart of academic life is surely worth trying.


Rachael has a blog, Explorations of Style, which discusses a wide range of topics associated with graduate writing, and is the author of a new book, Thriving as a Graduate Writer (University of Michigan Press, 2023).

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