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Pat Thomson

March 3rd, 2020

Writing advice – How to tell the good from the bad

0 comments | 53 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Pat Thomson

March 3rd, 2020

Writing advice – How to tell the good from the bad

0 comments | 53 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

A simple search for academic writing advice, or a trawl through social media hashtags, such as #AcWri, will produce a huge amount of information about how to undertake academic writing. In this repost, Pat Thomson, presents a simple rubric to help researchers pick out the advice that is most relevant to their research.

Advice. Loads of it. Coming out of our ears.  And on every possible topic, including research and writing.

Advice needs readers. But we readers also need to be, as Ernest Hemingway put it, “crap detectors”. Howard Rheingold has worked up this idea, using Hemingway’s terminology. Rheingold has developed a little protocol that can be used to check out how much faith you should put in online information. This is his Crap Test:


  • How recent is this information?
  • If viewing on a website, how recently was the site updated?


  • What supporting information is available?
  • Is this source mainly opinion? Is it highly one-sided?
  • Does the source use outside references, or does it self-reference (an example of circular reporting)?


  • Who is the author?
  • What are the author’s credentials?
  • Where was this published?
  • Is this sponsored information?
  • What kind of advertisements are on the page, if any?

Purpose/Point of View

  • Is this fact, opinion, or opinion presented as fact?
  • Does this information appear biased?
  • Do you feel like the creator or author is trying to sell you something?

Now, I think that there are some additional and different questions you might want to ask if you are looking at advice about doctoral education, research and writing advice.  (And you might also want to junk some of those that Rheingold proposes.)

I’ve made a start on a reworked Rheingold crap test – a test for writing and research advice for PhDers.

So – here goes my own doctoral research and writing crap test.


  • Who is the author?
  • Do they have a background in the subject they are writing about – are they either formally trained in the area or they have been systematically researching it?
  • Do they have professional knowledges they are drawing on? What?  Where?
  • Are their cvs available? Can you trace them to a reputable employer, an ORCID number or a publisher?) (And yes, I’m very happy if you want to apply this test to me in the first instance! Make a start here with my google citations.)

Reliable and trustworthy

  • Does the advice giver situate their work in the research on writing and doctoral education? Do they offer strategies that are well grounded in research and practice?
  • Do they offer a one-best solution – or do they recognise the diversity of disciplines, pathways and possibilities? Do they offer the same solution for all situations?
  • Is their advice primarily designed to sell you a service?  (That is, it only gives you a teensy teensy snippet of information, stops before it gets to the useful bit and then tells you to buy a package or service. If the advice giver is self employed you need to check the person out, go back to credibility.)


  • Do peers recognise this advice-giving author’s work?
  • Is their research available? Are they well published?
  • Is advice all that the person does? Do they teach what they are advising on? Do they edit a journal? Run a learning or research support service? Supervise and examine? Have they done any of this in the past? (See credibility)
  • Do they overclaim – if this is a shared story of experience (that is, n=1) , is this acknowledged?


  • What discipline(s) are they working from and with?
  • What traditions are they working in? Is what they say necessarily  going to be applicable?
  • What is their stance on knowledge, writing and research – is it the same or different from yours?

There you go. A beginning crap test to apply to writing and PhD advice. Caveat emptor – buyer beware.

Well, yes I’ve left things out, it’s a start. What else would you add?

P.S. And here is another rubric to check out.


This post originally appeared on Pat Thomson’s blog, Patter, as writing advice – caveat emptor

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

Featured image credit: Trompe l’oeil. Brevvæg med kamfoder og nodehæfte.Breve på en bræddevæg. Trompe l´oeil, by Gijsbrechts, Cornelius Norbertus via National Gallery of Denmark (CC0).


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About the author

Pat Thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education at the University of Nottingham. Her current research focuses on creativity, the arts and change in schools and communities, and postgraduate writing pedagogies. She blogs about her research at Patter.

Posted In: Academic writing

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