Helping Practice-based Researchers


This week I had a student come to talk to me about their practice-based dissertation. As someone who’s own work is primarily practice-based, I was confident in my knowledge of this type of research but I also realised that not everyone has this experience or understanding. I taught on a Research Methods class last year, helping second years in what is now the School of Music and Media build up their plans for their third year dissertations, and it certainly took a while to help those students understand more clearly what was expected in practice-based research – and this was in an environment where they’d probably been encountering bits of it throughout their education. So, while it is unlikely to come up too often, here is a brief explanation about practice-based research.

So what is practice-based research?

Practice-based research is becoming relatively common in creative subjects and, within Bangor University, it features prominently within the School of Music and Media as it allows students to apply their creative learning within a research context. It can also sometimes be seen in other fields, such as healthcare and medicine, where it can highlight conflicts between guidelines or controlled studies and the realities of practitioner experience (though my focus in this post will naturally be more on the creative side). Practice has to be central to the research being conducted; in practice-based research, full understanding can only come from the combination of both the practice (creative output) and theory. I find it easiest to think of as a creative experiment, with the practice being like mixing chemicals together to find the solution to whatever problem I’ve come up with. So, using myself as an example, I once wrote a screenplay adaptation of Cinderella where I completely changed the character’s personality to see how this impacted the plot.

What do the researchers need to do?

One of the biggest misunderstandings that newcomers to practice-based research have is what exactly is expected of them. In the classes I taught last year, students tended to fall into one of two camps. Some thought that they were just going to get to do a really big creative piece with a little bit of writing afterwards – with the mistaken belief that this was going to be an easy out for a dissertation! Others were passionate about doing practice but didn’t seem to grasp the value of it as research in its own right, so instead tried to add in surveys and focus groups to rationalise what they were doing. To both sides of this coin, I had to emphasise that the practice was their research and would form the evidence for the accompanying essay portion (though of course they need to incorporate relevant academic references too!). As with other forms of research, the aim of practice-based research is to contribute to the wider body of knowledge.

Our part

Aside from the practical element, practice-based research dissertation involves a lot of the same steps that any other dissertation and so we could theoretically find ourselves helping a writer at any point along their journey. As a loose guide, however, Skains (2018) proposes the following outline:

First, establishing the research problem. If the writer comes to us at this point, we’re most likely going to be helping them with idea generation and forming a plan. In the creative side, this can often present as the practitioner wanting to do a particular creative thing – say a fantasy short story – but don’t know how to funnel this into a research project. Alternatively, they may have noticed a knowledge gap – why don’t adaptation theorists talk about sci-fi much? – but need to fine-tune where their practice may come into this. As so much of practice-based research comes from the practical exploration itself, their research question(s) may be vague at this early point but having some sort of planning document to look back on later will surely help them as they move forward.

Conducting background research naturally follows this step. For us, this may present as writers needing some guidance about where to find resources or how to determine the reliability of a source.

Skains then suggests that the practitioner begin conducting their empirical research, which they may or may not accompany with further background research. Again, they may come to us at this stage to talk about finding resources or source reliability, but also they may visit to talk about their creative work (Eoin has a post about helping writers with their creative work here).

Finally, the researcher must form an argument. Hopefully by this stage their practice will have given them a good pool of evidence they can draw from and integrate with their knowledge of theory and we can help them with the essay planning, structuring, and fine-tuning.


Practice-based research can be really exciting to conduct but it’s important that the researcher – our writer – remembers that their practice is research. This means asking themselves why they are making certain decisions, looking at where it fits in in the field, and then building it up so that both the creative output and accompanying essay work together. From our perspective, it shouldn’t be too different from other aspects of helping writers. If in doubt, ask them why they’re doing something – if they know, you get a clearer understanding and if they don’t there’s a gap for you to help them through.



Practice-based Research: A Guide (Candy, 2006)

Creative Practice as Research: Discourse on Methodology (Skains, 2018)



‘The’ Writing Process. One size fits all?

The’ Writing Process. Sounds rather official, doesn’t it? The time honoured method that is taught in schools and held up as the Gold Standard method of structuring writing. ‘The’ Writing Process consists of four immobile stages: Planning, Drafting, Revising and Editing, each with a set of activities belonging to it, and each expected to flow naturally into the next. And to be fair, this method does indeed work for some writers.

But writing is complex and so are writers. When researchers in the 1970s and 1980s began to look at the ways many established writers actually write, they found that things weren’t always so simple. The stages could be merged. Editing and revising can happen throughout the writing process. An author may repeat stages, redrafting or replanning as more material is found. I personally like to proofread and tidy my work as a ‘break’ task, keeping my mind in the assignment while getting over writer’s block.

Many writers research as they go along, finding that one piece of information will lead to another, which can be added into a frame of pre-written work. Others find such a chaotic approach distracting and need a well researched initial plan. The same writer may even employ multiple processes, depending on what they’re working on.  How rigidly do you yourself follow the Plan, Draft, Edit, Revise model?

The main focus for us, as writing mentors, is to use this understanding to aid our clients. You may be able to work out a writer’s process simply by engaging with them as they write.  Questions such as “How do you normally plan your assignments?” “What would you usually do when you reach this stage?” or “So this is just your initial draft, isn’t it?” probe deeper. It may be that the mentee’s struggles result from using a process which is unsuited them. Or the process may normally work, but will need adapting for new writing styles- a common problem when entering the world of academic writing!

If it seems that an unsuitable writing process is part of the issue, here are a few tips which could be handy.


Rethink Revision

Not only a case of which stage, but how to revise. Heavily? Touch-up-as-you-go? Get it nearly right first time? Some writers are the mad creative type, who plunge into making and tidy up afterwards. Others are more perfectionist and want to write a high quality essay in one go. On the other hand, worrying too much about getting things right can stop the writer doing any writing to start with. Editing and proofreading can also be a semi-procrastination exercise, positive or negative. Some writers find it editing a relaxing exercise, others frustrating. Where is the mentee’s comfort zone in all this?


Flexible planning

Forming a rigid plan at the start of an assignment can cause writers’ block, stress and poor flow, as well as prohibit the addition of new material. While some plan is generally needed, (or form part of the assignment brief), don’t get bogged down in it. Reviewing the plan midway through can be helpful. It is even possible to just ‘get everything down’ and then edit and give meaning afterwards, especially with the miracle of the word processor. The plan is there to give support and direction, but heavy editing afterwards can give a similar finished product, depending on the writer.

Encourage Metacognition

Metacognition, or ‘thinking about thinking’ is a handy tool for reflection, development and linking different parts of the writing process together. Questions such as “who is the expected reader?” “How helpful was the planning process for this piece, and how could you improve on it?” “Do you think this piece clearly covers everything it set out to?” can help with this. Basically, try to encourage the writer to think deeply and broadly about not just their writing, but how they write it. It can be so easy to get buried in an assignment, just taking a step back to assess the way you’re going about it can iron out issues.  Some of these may be obvious to the onlooker, but not to the individual themself. Hence the mentor’s role as a sounding board! Metacognition generally aids independence of both thought and study. To grow into an independent, confident writer, developing the ability to see the ‘big picture’ will aid you. Not just as a writer, either.

Academic Writing for Non-Native Speakers

Recently, a lot of my sessions have been with ESL (English as a Second Language) students. Many of these students have provided information prior to the session, and indicated that they are struggling with “writing skills” or “academic writing”. I have found in many of these cases, when we really start to discuss the problem, the issue is often that the student is not confident in their ability to effectively communicate their ideas in English.

I have found an interesting book from the University of Helsinki called “Academic Writing in English”. It is, as it says, an academic writing resource for writers where English is not their first language. This book covers lots of subjects in detail, and is great to pick up helpful tips and techniques for mentoring ESL students. This book is available in the “Resources” folder on the U Drive (U:\Service Departments\Student Support Services\Study Skills\Tutorials\Resources\ESL), and also by following this link: academic-writing-in-english-for-non-native-speakers.

Below is a help sheet that I have created which is essentially a summary of (potentially!) useful books, websites and university resources. This document is also available in the “Resources” folder on the U Drive (U:\Service Departments\Student Support Services\Study Skills\Tutorials\Resources\ESL).

Resources for Improving Academic Writing Skills, and Writing in English as a Second Language.

Below are some resources which may be useful to explore to help improve postgraduate academic writing skills, as well as helpful information for studying/writing in English when it is not your first language.


  • Crème, P. and Lea, M.R. 2012. Writing at University: A Guide for Students. 3rd Berkshire, England: Open University Press.
  • Murray, R. and Moore, S. 2006. The Handbook of Academic Writing: A Fresh Approach. Berkshire, England: Open University Press.
  • Osmond, A. 2013. Academic Writing and Grammar for Students. London, England: Sage Publications Ltd.

Online Resources

University Resources

ELCOS – The English Language Centre for Overseas Students (ELCOS) provides English language and study skills courses to overseas students at Bangor University. ELCOS have their own Writing Advice Service.

“ELCOS runs Writing Advice Sessions for international students on degree courses at the University. The purpose of these sessions is to help students improve their written English and become more independent learners. Students can have up to three hours of individual, consultation with an ELCOS tutor per semester. Students should bring to the session the written work they want help with and it would be helpful if they have some general ideas about the kind of help they need with that work (for example, with organisation, coherence, paragraph structure, grammar, referencing, etc.). Tutors will work with the student, make corrections, offer advice on how to make improvements in structure and form and enable the student recognise and be able to correct errors in the rest of the written work themselves.”

Contact – “E-mail the ELCOS office on to request an appointment for that day and time, giving your name, School, level of study (undergraduate, Masters or PhD student). An appointment will be made for that time and day if available or you will be offered some alternatives; you will also be given the name of the tutor and told where to meet him/her. (Usually Neuadd Rathbone on College Road).”





Writing an abstract for proposed research…

An abstract is used to present either proposed research or completed research to be published. Information on the latter is readily taught and readily available. However, in sessions recently I have noticed that abstract guidance for literature reviews or proposals is quite scarce. Also, it is around this time of year that students may be submitting such proposals, abstract included. Furthermore, writing an abstract for a proposal is an extremely important skill for the future as it may be required to obtain research funding (Black, 2014).

As opposed to a research dissertation abstract, writing a summary for a literature review or project proposal requires slightly different questions to be answered.

For a research proposal abstract the following elements are important (UNLV, 2013):

  1. A rationale for the choice of topic indicating its importance within the field or discipline for which you are writing.
  2. A brief summary of your review of the existing published work
  3. An outline of the intended approach or methodology
  4. Expected finding/s
  5. Implications of such finding/s

When writing an abstract for a literature review, the first two points above may be considered and described in more detail.

The word count of a proposal abstract can vary depending on the purpose of the summary. Within the university setting, for assignments, the guideline is usually around the 150-200 mark. However, for submissions to funding agencies students should be aware that the length of these abstracts depends on the requirements of the funding body and may be up to a page/500 words in length required. When affiliated with a company or presenting proposed research from a research group a WHO, WHAT, WHERE, HOW, WHEN and WHY approach is suggested as a way of covering all of the essentials about the work you intend to carry out (Biscoe, n.d.).


Web links to sources:

Black, C. (2014). Retrieved from:

Biscoe, B. (n.d.). Retrieved from:

UNLV writing centre. (2013). Retrieved from: