things they don’t tell you about writing

a joint post by Inger Mewburn, the Thesis Whisperer, and Pat Thomson

Did you plan to be a professional writer? Most academics we meet in our work don’t. What usually draws people to academia is teaching. When you think about it, teachers talk at least as much as they write. And their writing is related to planning and assessments, not the kind of extended paper writing that professional writers do.

It’s only when they start a research degree that many people realise that writing is more than ‘ passing’; it is the key to a successful academic career. It is hardly surprising, then, that writing is a source of much anxiety. There is a great deal of advice around about how to write and indeed, we have written some of this ourselves. Some people claim that it takes 10 years to become an expert at anything, but we would argue that one probably never really feels like an expert writer. Being a writer is an endless process of discovery. It is a little like becoming a professional musician; committing to being a writer means a lifetime of honing your technique through practice.

Becoming a writer is also a bit like becoming a parent. It’s not until you have walked the floor with a screaming infant at 4am that you can truly understand what all the talk about ‘tiredness’ is, but there are many aspects of parenting that no one tells you – or doesn’t think to mention. Like ear infections, strange phobias, weird little habits and so on. So it is with writing. Only by indulging in the practice of writing, day in and day out, do you really understand what it means to be a writer. Like parenting, writing can be full of surprises – both pleasant and unpleasant. We thought we would compile this list of “Things they don’t tell you about writing” in an attempt to prepare you for what is coming!

(1) They don’t tell you that once you get used to writing with a computer you can’t go back to pen and paper again – or only with great difficulty. They forget to mention that you become obsessive – and snobby – about the tools you use to write with and will bore for your country to unsuspecting graduate students about what they SHOULD use.

(2) They don’t tell you that writing ends up written not only on the page but also on your body – shoulders, neck, arms, wrists, back. Pat’s PhD led to carpal tunnel syndrome which makes your hand go numb . You wake up with a dead appendage on the end of your arm. Inger’s PhD ended up in her right shoulder and has never left. They don’t tell you how writing will affect your sleep patterns either. In the middle of a project you may find yourself waking at 3am with too many ideas whirling around your head. Indeed, some of this post was written in that witching hour.

(3) They don’t tell you to learn touch typing at school. When we were at school typing was only available to girls who they thought ought to be secretaries. The rest of us did Physics and Chemistry and now have to do versions of typist hunt and peck. This would be funny if it weren’t for the fact that kids in school still don’t seem to be taught keyboarding. All over the UK and Australia kids type on desk tops with two fingers. It’s no wonder that they prefer txting

(4) They don’t tell you when you buy your first computer that now you’re locked into an endless loop of consumer desire. You have to have the desktop, the tablet, the notebook and the phone… regardless of the fact that they all now work together. We both have cupboards full of old discs, disc drives, CDs, CD burners… which eventually end up at the local waste transfer centre.

(5) They don’t tell you that regardless of how intuitive it seems some software is always just a bugger to get to work properly. Case in point – TOC, tables, auto-formatting, auto-spelling. And don’t think that transferring from PC to Mac is entirely seamless either, despite what the blurb says. The professional writer has to be the professional digital trouble shooter.

(6) They don’t tell you that … What do you think? Are there aspects of writing that you are only now discovering? Let us know in the comments!

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to things they don’t tell you about writing

  1. Collette Snowden says:

    ..and nobody can explain how after all of the above, multiple re- writes, third party editing and proof reading, a typographical mistake or omission of significance is still possible.


  2. Simon Bailey says:

    They don’t tell you that often when you are doing almost anything else you want to be writing and when you are writing you would often rather be doing anything else.


  3. Rebecca says:

    They don’t tell you that everyone writes differently … they like to describe is as a process as if everyone followed the same process … the number of times I’ve heard “just get it down on paper”, when I know I’m not ready … because that just isn’t my “style”. I need my conceptual framework first … my point is, everyone writes differently, you need to discover what works for you.


  4. Donna Franklin says:

    They dont tell you that, you sometimes/ always have to let reading incubate and the meaning then trickle out over the course of a few days, weeks (in my case), ( especially when im standing in the food queue ;0). Its as though the pieces of the jigsaw come alive and begin to ‘arrange themselves’ at their own speed when ‘they’ are ready and then, you carefully gather these bits of ‘gold dust’ together on paper, asking continually ‘what’s the point that I am really trying to convey here?’ ….


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