Thank you to Natalie Edelman for the first entry to our second Hive Blog competition! She has submitted her top eight tips for improving – and enjoying! – your academic writing. Click here to find out how to submit your own blog post, for a chance to win three fantastic prizes! We are accepting entries until 29 February.
WRITING TIPS BLOG
Academic writing doesn’t come easily to me and so I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently – what I’m learning about it, and what is helping me to improve and enjoy it. I’m half-way through a 5 year part-time PhD programme at Brighton & Sussex Medical School and I’m writing this blog as I draft a paper I’m trying to publish on some of my PhD.
I’m working on version 7 of this particular paper- proof that a) I’ve still got some way to go with my writing skills but also that b) ‘learning’ to write, like most things, is something we never really stop doing. I feel fine about this, but 2 years ago that last sentence would have really depressed me. Because the truth is that I never used to like academic writing. This leads me to my main writing tip…..
1. Start to enjoy writing
This might sound strange – we can’t help how we feel right? But changing my expectations of the writing process, and giving the subject some time and attention has genuinely changed how I feel about it and how I experience it. I actually enjoy it now, which makes life a whole lot nicer! There are undoubtedly many things you can identify to make your own experience of writing more enjoyable, and taking time to work out what suits you best is a really worthwhile pursuit. ‘Enjoy writing’ is kind of my meta-tip. The tips that follow are all things that have helped me enjoy the process, and to write a bit better along the way….
2. Recognise that being an academic means you’re a professional writer
This gob-smacking idea was presented to me on the University of Sussex Part-time Researcher course (which I’d highly recommend by the way). Why did it help? Firstly it made me realise that I need to get over myself because I love research and that means writing…. Theses, papers, grants, protocols….For academics writing really is our bread and butter. Secondly, and more importantly, that word ‘professional’ REALLY helped me. I don’t like feeling stupid, and academic writing – because I don’t get it ‘right first time’ – was making me feel pretty stupid. Therefore I didn’t enjoy writing. But once it was pointed out that being a professional writer means the bar is set pretty high, I stopped feeling stupid. Instead I started accepting that I wasn’t just going to know how to do it; any more than I know how to design a sky-scraper or cut someone’s hair (as my best friend discovered on her 17th birthday, poor girl). Writing at a professional level is a skill that takes time to develop.
3. Accept that if you think you’ve got it right first time, then you’re probably doing something wrong
People always said this sort of thing to me, and I assumed they were just trying to make me feel better. But it turns out they were just trying to tell me something that is true. No-one sits down and writes a paper/thesis/grant perfectly the first time. This isn’t about lowering your expectations of yourself (which tip no.2 kind of is). It’s about changing your expectations of the writing process itself. Producing a ‘good’ piece of writing is an iterative process, fact. Once you accept that it’s SUPPOSED to be that way, your attitude towards your less-than-immediately-perfect writing will start to shift.
4. Discover that writing is like having a friend who is genuinely really interested in what you do all day
A doctorate can be a lonely experience. And that’s largely because you can usually count on two fingers (three if you’re lucky) the number of people who are actually interested in all that stuff you analyse and obsess about all day. This can be a real obstacle, as when we do get the chance to discuss our research it’s really helpful, and insights and solutions often present themselves as we talk.
But guess what? I’ve discovered that when you write, the same thing happens! This is the main reason why I have grown to love it (with the added bonus that people no longer cross the street to avoid me). So if you’ve had a eureka moment – or better still if you’re in need of one – start writing about it, for no-one’s eyes but your own and for no purpose other than to properly figure the thing out.
I regularly write messy, stream-of-consciousness narratives of ‘well there’s this issue, and if you address it that way you might get X – which carries the assumption of Y- but alternatively there is Z…. blah blah’. This is invariably cathartic and gives me a palpable sense that thinking is actually doing stuff, which is an especially nice alternative if I’ve been feeling stuck. Also what comes out can be surprisingly insightful and often reveals the best way forward (or at least a couple of properly-thought-through options I can then run past my supervisors). Sometimes I even end up with the kind of paragraphs that differentiate a thesis from a bog-standard research report J.
5. Write as you go along
Everyone says this but I am finding it SO helpful, especially as a part-timer (in 5 years’ time, how else am I going to remember the detailed rationale for why I dropped that record from my systematic review?). Once you’ve realised that writing is your friend – see tip 4 if you’re a non-sequential reader – writing as you go along doesn’t feel so bad. What does ‘writing as you go along’ mean? Personally speaking, I’m not demanding of myself that I produce a beautifully constructed thesis as I go along. Rather I’m aiming to produce two things: 1.a massive audit trail/aide-memoire of what I did; and 2. some chewy bits of writing that discuss a problem, a recurring theme, an underlying assumption, a critique, a brick-wall or whatever. They slot into the ‘what I did’ narrative to explain the twists and turns in the tale, to give it depth and context. Whatever way you choose to write as you go along, it has the added bonus of allowing you to develop your writing skills as you go along. Hopefully this means that when you come to THE BIG WRITE-UP you will have a massive editing job to which you can apply your wily writing skills, instead of confronting a blank piece of paper. (That’s what I’m aspiring to anyway – ask me in 2018 how this one panned out!)
6. Get someone to help you ‘bake the cake’
Bear with me on this analogy… No matter how carefully I follow a recipe my cakes NEVER rise. Being told each time that my cake has turned out flat again gives me a few clues as to what might be going wrong, but isn’t actually terribly helpful (though my kids seem convinced that it is). I’ve come to realise that what I need is someone to watch how I make cakes.
In the same way I was told repeatedly that my academic writing was dense and too onerous to read. I realised one day that these were ‘cake-after-it’s-been–baked’ type comments, and that’s why they were of limited use and I kept getting the same feedback. I’m lucky enough to have a supervisor who has taken the time to deconstruct what it is about my writing which makes the reader experience it that way. Find someone to do this for you, it’s brilliant! So far she has worked out that: 1. my sentences are way too long; 2. I use overly formal language; and 3. I tend to give the rationale for something before I say what I did (so the reader has to ‘hold’ too much in their mind as they reading). Applying this kind of feedback my writing is now improving so much that I may even have another go at cake-baking…..
7.Anticipate that you will get feedback in steps
Those three things my supervisor told me about my writing didn’t all come my way at once. First I was just advised to shorten my sentences and I naively went away thinking ‘now I’ve got this thing fixed’. So I was disheartened to find that I then needed to work on my language…. A bit like Tip 3 you’re not going to improve your writing in all ways all at once. I’m still working on my flowery language and on giving rationales before I say what I did. But I now fully expect that when I’ve nailed those things, my supervisors will have something else for me to improve on. This doesn’t mean I’m really rubbish, it means I’ve done so well at addressing the first lot of feedback that I’m ready for more (hooray… sort of…) The same applies not just to how you write but to what you write. I admit to being disappointed that v6 of my latest paper wasn’t quite on the money. But as I draft v7 I’m consciously dropping the expectation that v8 will be. It’s a luxury that I get to stumble and hone my skills like this in the relative privacy of doctoral supervision.
8. Find your style and know yourself
It’s obviously important to take on feedback from those who have taken the trouble to give it to you (especially when it’s done in a nice way). But you will always have your own style of writing, and the best way for you to produce writing will also be unique to you. There’s quite a lot out there on the web about ways of writing which is helpful… this vitae page about generative versus planned writing styles for example. They also have loads of practical stuff about structuring your thesis etc…
I’m only in the early stages of getting to know myself as a writer but it seems to me to comprise three things:
1. Finding out the conditions that make writing enjoyable and productive for you (for many including me that means scheduling carefully for solitude and peace to write).
2. Discovering the tricks that help you personally to write well (e.g. I’ve discovered that giving a sub-heading to mini bits of text helps me to keep track of what I’m writing, and that generating a Table of Contents from those sub-headings then helps me play around with the structure to find a good narrative)
3. Finding the best way to apply feedback (e.g. I’ve discovered that too much attention to sentence length and paragraph structure as I write it stops me thinking, so instead I ‘proof-read’ and reconstruct after).
This is the only the second blog I’ve ever written and it’s a style of writing I’m really unfamiliar with. Writing about writing has been a chance to ‘practice what I’m preaching’, so I make no apologies for it being gloriously imperfect, even though I must have done about ten drafts! Happily though, the act of producing this blog has helped me to recognise and consolidate what I’ve learnt so far about the writing process and I very much hope it gives you something too.