Academic writing is a complex business. And it’s that complexity that makes it tricky.
When you sit down to write a thesis, book or paper you start off with:
- material that comes from a well designed project
- a defensible analysis and possibly, depending on discipline, a cogent theoretical explanation
- a good grip on the relevant literatures in order to situate the work and designate the contribution.
To get ready to write you need:
- well organised kit – files, bibliographic data bases, primary materials, transcripts and so on
- the right kind of gear at hand – a good computer, pens and paper, online access
- a place conducive to writing – this varies from person to person but noise, privacy or social are important considerations
- a manageable time slot – whether short or long, you need to be able to focus on the task
And then to the actual writing. You have to have:
- something to say – you need to know the point you want to make
- a clear picture of your readers – this is so you can connect what you want to say to their interests and prior understandings
- enough confidence to express in words your authority as an expert on the topic
- a view about what you want to happen as a result of the writing being read by your readers.
As if that’s not enough, you can’t do without:
- understandings of the particular writing form – its genre, conventions and disciplinary framings
- the secretarial stuff – you need to know how to write a sentence, paragraph, headings, handle meta-commentary and so on
- a sound strategy that you use to create the first draft – outlines, tiny texts, pomodoros, whatever works for you
- a diagnostic toolkit – a set of strategies that help you to sort out any drafting blocks and problems, and to undertake the revision and then editing
Whew. But wait, there’s even more. It helps if you:
- are a student of academic writing and are steadily building your criteria about what ‘good’ academic writing means for you. These criteria are what you use to guide your revision and editing.
- understand how to use language to convey a sense of who you are as a scholar – your writing voice – any piece of writing is an opportunity to improve your own artisanal writing practice.
Yes, academic writing really is all of those things and a bit more besides…. well, like the identity work involved in writing, just for starters.
But it is this totality, all these things combined, that makes up an academic writing practice.
It’s no wonder that it’s hard to find the perfect bit of writing advice. Most writing advice addresses some of the above but not the lot. That doesn’t make partial advice wrong – it’s just not complete. Learning more about academic writing and finding the right help is always a matter of piecing together bits and pieces from various sources about all of the different aspects of writing.
And it’s no wonder that what can seem to be a bit trivial – the lack of the right writing gear for instance, or half organised reference material or a fuzzy idea of what a journal actually wants – can make writing and finishing a paper really difficult. Most of the above list, if not all, do need to be in place and working together if the writing is to go smoothly and, yes, do its job.
This academic writing business isn’t simple or straightforward. It’s complicated.
So we ought not to beat ourselves up if we find it hard sometimes. It is.
Image credit: Isabelle Gallino, Flickr Commons
Thank you for this post. It can seem hard sometimes, but it is also a very enriching effort for the researcher, and a great opportunity for personal development, as I think you may appreciate. I, personally, enjoy the journey 🙂
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Many thanks for this post! Could you kindly refer me to an introduction of ‘tiny texts’?
A tiny text is usually an abstract of some description which forces you to really focus hard, see https://patthomson.net/2016/10/03/finishing-the-phd-write-a-tiny-text/. I use them all the time for planning purposes, as in journal abstracts before any writing. Barbara Kamler and my book Getting Published is all about using tiny texts.
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Thank you very much, I will try this out!
Hi Prof Thomson, thank you very much for this much-needed reminder that academic writing is hard. I am writing my PhD thesis now (final few months!) and I have long struggled with feeling inadequate because I couldn’t write well, and I always put it down as me being not good enough, on top of being an ESL writer. I feel a sense of vindication to see this acknowledgment from a distinguished scholar such as yourself that yes, academic writing is hard, so thank you, this is a timely boost for me to get through the final few months of my thesis writing. Also, I am wondering whether you could point to any resources about the diagnostic toolkit that you mentioned, the strategies to deal with writer blocks and other problems faced in thesis writing. Thank you!
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Printing this blog off as I type, framing it and hanging it on my wall next to my desk so that I can remind myself of the key components I presently lack but can at least now whittle it down and improve upon. Thank you Pat for this insider knowledge, I am at the half way point towards my Professional Doctorate and from time to time I struggle with the academic writing feedback as I simply don’t understand the comments. But this is a journey and I am on it, which in itself is phenomenal.