academic writing – trust those gut feelings

Please note, I write my blog on weekends. It is not part of my workload, nor in my job description. I support the #USS strike.

I started writing a paper a while ago. It’s from a large-scale mixed methods project. We have mountains of data and we need to start producing journal articles.

About two thirds the way through the first draft of the first cut paper, I realised I was way over word count. It wasn’t that the argument wouldn’t work, it was just going to take a lot more words than I had to make it happen. I had to find a solution somehow, either by re-writing and editing down, or doing something else. Editing down seemed pretty daunting, so I put the paper aside.

I woke up the next morning knowing the problem with the paper. I had to simplify the argument – and I knew just how to do it. But I also had an idea for another paper using a different data set.  I now had not one paper in my head, but two. What’s more I could see exactly how this new paper should go – so I started on this one. I left the original trouble-making paper sitting, while I worked on the new idea. And this one was written pretty quickly, and after some additions and changes from co-authors, it went off to its target journal.

But then back to the original paper.

I scrubbed the original introduction to the paper, and decided that, rather than write a new outline, I really needed to finish writing the lengthy analysis. So I had to write from the middle, as I didn’t really yet know what the paper was going to do. But I knew the data was pretty compelling. As I wrote, I worked out the central problem the paper addressed and needed to explain. Then and only then did I write the abstract. And writing the abstract made me realise that this troublesome paper needed a substantial whack of social theory to give it explanatory heft. Realising that meant I was finally able to go back to the beginning and start the tetchy paper afresh.

All good. A bit frustrating but I’d got two better papers by following my gut feeling about paper one, rather than pressing on with my original plan.

Coincidentally, the same week a doctoral researcher told me that she was having some difficulties with her discussion chapter. She was finding herself repeating things that she had said earlier. She didn’t have a problem with some repetition, she said, but this felt as if maybe what had gone in the results chapters should all be in the discussion chapter.

I suggested that she follow her gut feeling for a bit and just try out what she was thinking. You can often only see if something is going to work by having a bit of a play and finding out what might happen.

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What’s the gut feeling about then?

The academic writing gut feeling. It’s a real thing.  It isn’t about finding the writing hard, although that might also be true. It isn’t about being stuck. No. It’s that uneasy sense that the things that you’d planned to do actually might not be working … something is happening and you don’t know what it is …

These are not actually simply ‘feelings’. They are that, but they are also emerging understandings. You have an experience – writing, writing, writing, Oh this doesn’t seem right – and then Oh I see, you reach an understanding about what is actually going on, you make sense of what’s happened.

Getting from Oh this doesn’t feel right to Oh I see can be almost instantaneous. Or it can take a while. Sometimes, yes, quite a while, if you just let things percolate away while you go onto other tasks.

But maybe you can’t afford to just let working-out-what’s-going-on take its course. If that’s the case,  you have to generate some possibilities – Maybe it’s because of this, or perhaps it’s that – in order to help bring on the Oh I see moment. And you need to test your new ideas out so that you can see whether they fix the problem.  Or not. Maybe you just have to go back to the original and do more there so you can see if it’s fixable or not.

Those academic writing gut feelings are really the first manifestation of a diagnostic process, the use of tacit knowledge to recognise and then resolve a problem. When we write, write, write, it’s our experience, expertise and repertoire of prior writings that produces the Oh this doesn’t seem right. But I’m not an expert in academic writing I hear you say? Well perhaps not, but we all have a lot of experience in it through undergraduate and postgraduate reading – and writing. A lot of this might be unspoken and incoherent knowing, but it’s still a knowledge base albeit incomplete.

If it’s the set of academic writing know-how that you’ve built up that leads to that nagging sense that the writing is not as it should be, then it’s worth paying attention. Sometimes you don’t know what you know. Rather than ignore that sense of unease it’s worth going with it, at least for as long as it takes to see if there is a basis for the concern.

And the associated corollary is also important –  the more experience we have, and the more we build knowledge from experience by reflecting and learning more in order to build our own diagnostic repertoire, the better we become at using those gut feelings.

So patter’s message for the day –  don’t dismiss that academic writing gut feeling out of hand. Your subterranean expertise may well be trying to surface.

Image credit: incene 2007

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, gut feeling, tacit knowledge. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to academic writing – trust those gut feelings

  1. Pingback: Academic Writing – trusting your instincts – Research & Scholarship Skills

  2. KiwiWenders says:

    Thanks for this. Nice reminder that we have depths of knowledge to be mined, even when it can feel like we can never know enough! Subterranean knowledge…love it 🙂

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  3. Thank you for this insight and reminder to just go with the gut feelings! They will crystallize into knowing and words only by doing. I like your description of the process too. Am almost at the end of the PhD and this is an encouragement to just try out what works instead of wanting to fix things in a specific order. Best, Lonneke

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  4. Zelda says:

    The problem comes when your gut feeling is ignored by your co-authors. Vindication comes in the paper rejection with the comments suggesting exactly what you had said previously.

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    • harperphd says:

      I agree.. definitely one of the big downsides of trying to write and publish research is trying to convince co-authors to go with your gut feeling. But I suppose not everybody is confident enough to follow these instincts.

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  5. Thanks, reinforces what I discuss with my pro bono students, – and that the gut is your second brain (it actually is!!) and it can become educated and more and more trustworthy if treated respectfully, just as one would a friend or valued colleague.. Some emotions need noticing , treated respectfully but not obsessed abut eg nervousness, anxiety – monitor the body to check in with those emotions (breathlessness, muscle tensions) that only need a quick respectful visit but check in longer with the writing emotions that need lingering attention….. the “hmmmm, mayvbe something here, bit awkward but Ok…..keep trying”……., And allow INCUBATION time, build delays in so that the mind./brain gets incubation time.

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  6. Another excellent insight to future pitfalls for me, my gut has guided me in so many ways but in academic writing, my confidence in my gut is not yet at a maturity level. Thank you for your words of confidence. I am growing my courage muscle every day, but its incremental and in small steps. Thank you #ProfDockers

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  7. Pingback: Reading List (6/3) | Philosophy and Madeleines

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