academic writing – learning from practice

I’ve been thinking recently that one of the problems with writing is that, by and large, we can all do it – and we all DO do it. Being in a literate society means that writing is a bit like eating – we all have to do it in order to get by and get around. But anyone who has worked with adult or child illiterates – and in a former life I did work with adolescents who could barely read or write – understands not only that writing is simply the way that we live today, but also that it doesn’t actually come easy to all of us.

Maybe it is because writing is ubiquitous that we all assume that we ought to be able to just do whatever writing task comes before us. And we therefore feel inadequate when we struggle or find something that doesn’t come as easily as breathing, when we have the writing equivalent of asthma.

It’s interesting that we would never assume this of music for instance. We all recognize that it is not only learners who have to practice scales, and who rehearse and rehearse before they perform something in public. We also may know about artists and designers who keep sketch books of ideas, and do multiple trials and test pieces before they arrive at something that they are satisfied that they can and want to take to completion.

And yet this is not how we approach academic writing. Most of us seem to operate as if all we have to do is to sit down facing the screen and we ought then to be able to write. If we can’t write it’s because we have writer’s block. We might brainstorm first, or ‘dump’ some ideas on a page, but this is preparation, not practice. Even if there are multiple drafts of a piece of writing, we don’t see these as practice.

I’m intrigued by the idea that writing might be something that can be practiced, like musical scales, or mixing colour with paint, or throwing a pot.

In our book on doctoral writing, Barbara Kamler and I talk about writing along the way of the thesis. This is writing that is done simply to orient the thinking and the writing to come. As we begin to revise the book for a second edition, I’ve been thinking how we might think and write more explicitly of writing as something to be practiced.

When we do this we’ll owe a debt to Patricia Goodson. She’s just published a book entitled Becoming an academic writer which is designed to support practicing in academic writing. It contains 50 exercises, each of which uses a 10 -15 minute timer, so these might be especially interesting for pomodoro aficionados. She suggests establishing a routine of academic writing practice consisting of 10 -15 minutes each day. She suggests working on a relevant exercise over a series of sessions.

Her first tranche of exercises are arranged around general academic writing – daily writing, building academic vocabulary, identifying and rectifying your grammar mistakes, feedback and editing. The second tranche are designed to support the thinking about and writing of specific sections of a thesis – introduction, methods, findings, conclusions and abstracts. Goodson always provides a structure for the 10 -15 minute sessions. These are either in the form of questions to answer, or as skeleton sentences or prompts which focus the writing. She also provides some specific pointers for non-native speakers.

Let me give you a flavor of a Goodson exercise. Before beginning to actually write about literatures – for real – she suggests a sentence prompt exercise (it’s exercise 33, p. 149 to be precise), to be worked on for 15 minute sessions each day. Here are three of her questions/prompts for this exercise:

(1) These are the studies/reports that support (or validate) my problem, research question, or hypothesis to be tested….. (Compile all citations lending support to your topic). These studies/reports agree that my problem (research question or hypothesis) is worth studying , because…..

(2) These are the studies that contradict the importance of my problem, research question, or hypothesis to be tested… (compile all citations disagreeing that your topic is worthy of study or deserves testing). These studies/reports disagree that the topic I chose should be examined because….

(3) The sources (citations) that carry the most authority, regarding the problem, topic, research question or approach I am taking are these…. (compile all the citations carrying the greatest weight, the ones holding the most authority in your field). The reason(s) they carry such authority is….

This might seem an obvious thing to do, and indeed most of Goodson’s exercises don’t seem startling at first glance. But they are very tightly focused, and do require the kinds of thinking and writing that are used in academic writing/work.

Exercise 33 for example not only requires a review of the entire set of readings that have been undertaken but also categorization and evaluation. The exercise requires the writer to make a decision about where things fit. It explicitly works against what Barbara and I call the laundry list approach, where a set of texts are simply organised around a theme and no evaluation given at all. This kind of grouping and assessing work is fundamental to any work with literatures, and indeed to work with any form of data. The exercise also positions the writer to find the warrant for their work within the literatures and to identify the space in which they will situate their specific contribution. So it does a lot of work in an apparently straightforward bit of practice.

I don’t agree with everything that ‘s in the book of course. Barbara and I always begin with abstracts rather than leave them till the end. However, it seems to me that this is an extremely useful text which could equally be used by individuals, writing groups or writing classes. Its focus on practice is very helpful because it directs all of us to the work that needs to be done in order to write well. It’s certainly a book I’ll be recommending to my students and working with.

BTW, this was a book review post. I’m often asked what books I recommend, and this is one. I paid for it myself so it wasn’t a freebie I had to review! Just so you know.

Goodson, P (2013) Becoming an academic writer. 50 exercises for paced, productive and powerful writing. Thousand Oaks: Sage

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 book, academic writing, crafting writing, doctoral education, literature review, Pat Thomson, practice and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to academic writing – learning from practice

  1. Very interesting. I was thinking about this just the other day, in the context of trying to encourage music students to be better writers: I think the comparison with practising an instrument is bang on!


  2. Pingback: Learning the Craft: Academic Writing « mypaperlessphd

  3. Nolu says:

    This is really on time for me, when I am struggling to produce scholarly writing which I think it’s academic in this context. I just hope I’ll have the book as my companion in my journey. This is amazing!


  4. ameliecook12 says:

    The exercise requires the writer to make a decision about where things fit. How we might think and write more explicitly of writing as something to be practiced


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