When word counts count: Responses to last week’s post from @thesiswhisperer and @katrinafee

Photo by Jonas Vincent | unsplash.com
Photo by Jonas Vincent | unsplash.com

My post last week – “Your word count means nothing to me” – generated a lot of agreement and some high-fiving about raising the issue of obsessing about word counts.

I’m very aware, though, that it could also have alienated some readers and, indeed, friends.

For this reason, I ran the post past Inger Mewburn (The Thesis Whisperer and thesis bootcamp devotee; @thesiswhisperer) and Katherine Firth (Research Degree Voodoo and one of the thesis bootcamp creators from University of Melbourne; @katrinafee) before I published the piece last week.

Inger and Katherine are people I like, trust, and admire. I wouldn’t be comfortable with offending them in the interests of a bloggy rant.

They both responded with typical honesty, warmth, and generosity.

I really wanted to have their voices in on the conversation, and they’ve very kindly allowed me to post their feedback in full in this follow-up post. Thank you, Inger and Katherine, for your considered comments and insight!


From INGER MEWBURN  (The Thesis Whisperer and thesis bootcamp devotee; @thesiswhisperer)

Inger Mewburn (Photo sourced from The Thesis Whisperer blog)
Inger Mewburn (Photo sourced from The Thesis Whisperer blog)

I’m actually in furious agreement with you. The ‘write or die’ app is stupid and I think the ‘write all the time’ message is dangerous, not only on the thinking front, but because it keeps students away from all the other important professional development they could be doing.

The emphasis on the word count with thesis bootcamp (TBC) initially bothered me, too, but I was converted by doing it. People focus on the target, because it’s memorable. To my mind, it’s just the ‘sell’. It’s the sizzle, not the sausage. I hear of people running ‘bootcamp’ without any training from Katherine Firth, Liam Connell or Peta Freestone and get a bit frustrated because I’m sure it’s not the same thing at all. I feel a lot of those so-called bootcamps further entrench all those problems you speak of. I’ve many times considered changing the name to make it less ‘academic hunger games’ but it has strong brand recognition and I think that ship has sailed.

TBC is extremely clever. There are key differences between TBC and the ‘write or die’ approach that I think reinforce what you said:

  1. Timing is crucial. We only take people who are very close to submission. These people have a backlog of thinking that needs to find its way into words. The words that come out, we’re told, are better than you would have expected. Having done it myself, I now can actually verify this!
  2. We’ve modified the original University of Melbourne program a bit to include a lot more teaching. We teach generative writing techniques and structuring/diagram techniques on the first night and the weekend is really an extended chance to try these new forms of writing. The extended work-up to TBC that UniMelb designed helps people to get organised properly to write, sometimes for the first time ever in their candidature.
  3. It’s a supported environment. We work with them to see the word count as evidence of changing habits, not a contest. We debrief at the end of each day and counsel people along the way to get them away from unhealthy, self-blaming behaviours. We do yoga, eat together, and offer EAP support and my time (which they can’t access other ways). We want everyone to go home seeing their word count – whatever it is – as an amazing achievement.
  4. At TBC, we celebrate success. So many PhD student get-togethers spiral down into whinging and self-pity. At TBC, we try to change the narrative, but without being inauthentic. The stretch target is important here – and only here – in my view. The blocks work as motivators, but we added other things, like squeezy light globes, to recognise other forms of success. Again, I only get the stretch target now I’ve done it myself. Knowing you CAN do it, removes a little of the fear of writing. A bit like knowing you can do a thesis removes the fear that you are not a person who can research: think, create and write. It installs an ‘I can do it’ attitude.
  5. We use TBC to create ongoing communities of practice with the veterans’ days. People have made friends for life. It’s actually beautiful.

I’m happy for you to use any of these words if you want to because I think they illustrate your point – it’s complicated!

Reducing the act of writing to a slogan is dangerous and wrong.


From KATHERINE FIRTH (Research Degree Voodoo and one of the University of Melbourne thesis bootcamp creators; @katrinafee)

Katherine Firth (Photo courtesy of Katherine Firth)
Katherine Firth (Photo courtesy of Katherine Firth)

I agree with you TOTALLY that the ‘macho my word count is bigger than your word count’ culture is counterproductive for researchers, graduates, or undergraduates. You can write too early, and write without sufficient preparation, and that doesn’t help anyone. You can also focus too much on how many words you have written and not on how much progress you have made.

However, most theses are defined by a total word count (80-100,000 words, for example), so knowing how much you have written does help you track your progress, celebrate it, and know how much further you have to go. Word counts are perhaps the most reliable metric I find in my work for telling where a candidate really is on their thesis writing project.

At Thesis Boot Camp (TBC), we celebrate the writing successes with candidates who are normally at home with children, are working full-time, have had long-term illnesses, or suffered from extended writer’s block. We celebrate the writing success of international candidates who will finish on time and can go home to their families. And, for that, we celebrate the word counts as milestones towards completing their thesis, editing and polishing it, and submitting it.

We know that completing a thesis is the biggest challenge, that once you have completed you go from about a 75% to about 97% pass rate.

Personally, I think people who self-identify as over-writers are less obsessed by word counts than perfectionists who struggle every day to get up to 500 words. Indeed, in listening to people talk about their writing, people who write ‘500 good words’ in a day have often deleted more than twice as many words as they produced. So, we’re mostly all over-writing to some degree.

TBC was designed and developed specifically for late stage candidates (mostly not candidates ‘lost in the wilderness’). It is part of the much broader training and support network that the University of Melbourne provides, which includes support from the Library, Academic Skills, the Centre for the Study of Higher Education, Faculties, Schools and supervisors.

Late stage candidates have read, thought and processed so much, for years, before they attend a TBC. They are expected to have researched and planned the chapter before they come. 20,000 words (or 5,000 or 10,000 – we celebrate them all) is not something you should be achieving regularly at home. It’s something that happens once in your candidature, when you are almost done, and is based on extensive research on international best practice.

For candidates at earlier stages, the University of Melbourne does not allow people to attend TBC at all, but encourages them to try a different kind of writing weekend. Getting together and writing is useful, and making regular progress in completing chapters is important for every stage of candidature, but it’s only in the last 6 months of your candidature that a real focus on smashing out words is productive or to be encouraged.

However, some of the skills of generative writing, of what Ted Hughes called managing ‘to outwit his own inner police system’, of allowing ourselves to draft, are useful for researchers at home where perhaps we might achieve a few thousand words on a really productive day, particularly with a discussion chapter or writing up already-analysed results.

Our experience is that most late stage candidates really can ‘just sit down and splurge’ the writing out, and that the writing often has better flow and clearer prose, though it still needs rigorous editing and polishing!


  1. Great post, thanks Tseen, Inger & Katherine. A question for Katherine – I didn’t quite understand this sentence ‘We know that completing a thesis is the biggest challenge, that once you have completed you go from about a 75% to about 97% pass rate.’ I’m not sure how a PhD can be passed without completing it?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks! The biggest reason by far for people failing the PhD is by not completing it. 25-30% of candidates will not complete–and that is of course sometimes due to sensible life choices, but in many cases we work with, candidates would like to complete, they just can’t quite get the thing finished and handed in. I don’t think I know of a single person who had a complete first draft who didn’t then get over the line to submission either!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoyed reading this post and the previous related one regarding word count. I am a recent law school graduate working in my first firm, and reading these entries reminded me of my very first semester in law school. During the first year, students used to using superfluous language to fluff their undergraduate essays struggled with legal word count. The art of legal writing is fitting as much content into as few words as possible. We were generally assigned 2-3 major legal points to argue, and we were tasked with doing so in 1,750 words or less. The idea behind that is a judge responsible for multiple cases will respond most favorably to a terse brief which gets right to the point without taking him down a winding path of unnecessary verbiage. The truly great legal writers are those who can provoke deep thought or even humor into a condensed package. It’s interesting (and refreshing!) to see that other professions stress this point as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think clarity of expression in writing is valuable across all sectors and professions. And esp so in legal/law areas where so much info must be conveyed in short spans of time. It can take a long time to come up with the right short piece of writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great follow up and great responses from your two colleuges. I know I’m coming from a different perspective as I’m neither a student nor a doctorite, but it’s enlightening non the less.

    I have the greatest appreciation for what Katherine said about supporting people who have had a long-term illness. Having a lack of motivitain is one thing, having the motivation but not have the energy to do anything about it, is demorilising and a very lonely experience.

    I didn’t know about my conditions as a child and because of the “standardised” format of education found it very difficult to be proud about my school work. Health conditions highlights how each individual has their own pace and level of achievement. A fact that is overlooked in the more general scheme of things as it’s not that obvious when you are healthy, yet so very important in my opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I completed a thesis boot camp towards the end of my candidature and I found it wasn’t the focus on words that made it a successful endeavor for me but being forced to make plans for extended childcare to spend an extended period of time on writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I agree that there are times when writing to a word count is useful. The other thing that is useful is having an extended period of structured ‘thesising’ to do other things, if you are at a different stage of your candidature. I find that as a part time candidate with a full time job, if I can put aside a whole day to do pomodoro-style sessions with other students, I will get more done than I do in the same number of hours spread over a week, because I don’t have to work out where I am up to before I do new work. It is good if unis canoffer both styles to HDR students. And I keep working if other people are there. 🙂 Unfortunately, in HDR as in moast aspects of life, there is no one magic solution and I get deeply suspicious of anyone who tries to convince me otherwise – so this obviously doesn’t inlcuestseen, Inger or Katherine. Thanks for your helpful posts.


    • I agree, Judy, that anyone purporting to offer a magic solution should be treated with the deepest suspicion. So much of writing and research depends on individual motivations and contexts (conditions of work, for example). Sure, there are frameworks or support activities that can enable and sustain, but ultimately people must choose what works best for them over the longer term to see out their project. And I know processes and one’s attitude to them can change significantly over time – those don’t need to be written in stone at all.


  6. As someone who has regularly posted my weekly word count progress this year as I have focused on getting in to written words the thesis that has been percolating in my head for the past years of my candidacy I agree with virtually everything written above. My personal word count progress has been just that, a way to measure my personal momentum from a blank Scrivener file to 85k words as of this afternoon. In making this daily progress I have seen my thoughts coalesce into real, meaningful findings and see my daily word record as a measure only of my personal progress from the 75% to the >90%. I don’t have a hard target I force myself to achieve each day, more one of capturing my thoughts of he day in a cohesive way. Still a bit of original writing to go and a lot of editing and polishing but, I recognize that without a draft I have nothing. What works for me though may not work for others, avoiding a one size fits all is definitely something to keep in mind.

    Liked by 1 person

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