Academic writing: making (some) sense of a complex ‘practice of mystery’

This is a second post linked to my own insights about academic writing at postgraduate and postdoctoral level, gleaned from working with a range of student and early career writers over the last few years. This one tackles a tricky topic: the aspects of writing that can be knowable and teachable, and those that are more tacit and mysterious, and how we grapple with this as writers (and writing teachers).

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Have you ever had the experience of reading a really well-written, tightly argued paper without one word out of place, and wondered: ‘how did the author do that?’ Writing like that seems like a fabulous piece of magic – a card trick that should be easy to do, but is actually much harder than it looks to replicate yourself. Why is academic writing so complex, and hard to do in sparkly, elegant, memorable papers and theses?

Theresa Lillis refers to academic essay writing in particular, which is sort of a base unit for all other forms of prose-style academic writing, as an institutional practice of mystery. It is difficult to decode the rules, and then re-enact them in your own writing, across different subjects, different disciplines, and different levels of study and career-practice. Each time you write, you have to learn something new – develop and hone your skills. If you are starting from a position of not being a mother-tongue speaker of the language you are writing in, or having had a relatively poor home and school literacy background, then this writing work is all the more challenging. This is why writing needs to be de-mystified through being made a visible, learnable-and-teachable part of the curriculum.

As a writing teacher, this is where the challenge starts: how do I facilitate the process of creating ‘magic’ through helping writers develop and hone their skills so that a paper can be written or a thesis constructed? What parts of this process can I really make overtly knowable and teachable, and what parts will remain somewhat ‘mysterious’? This is perhaps a small part of a bigger question about whether every aspect of higher education learning and teaching can indeed be made visible, overt, step-by-step and therefore more easily learnable by as many students as possible.

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Some of the writing process is knowable and teachable in relatively overt ways: there are clear guidelines for creating a research design and outlining methodology and methods, and you can follow a process that can be broken down into steps. There is a basic process to follow that will take you from a broader research problem, through increasingly focused reading to a gap, and then to a research question you can answer. There are useful ‘rules’ to follow to create clear, coherent paragraphs that are written in your own authorial voice, using basic structures, guides and tools that have been tried and tested, and researched. Thus, as a writing teacher and coach, I can (and do) draw on all of the advice, tools, experience and insight at my disposal to make as much of the process of creating a paper or a research project visible, knowable and teachable. But…

You can follow all the advice, and play by all the ‘rules’ that can be made visible and be broken into steps or parts, and still end up with a paper or thesis that is missing something. It’s all there, but it’s not. Technically, it’s a paper or a thesis: it has all the required sections, it says something relatively novel, and it has been edited and polished. But examiners and reviewers are lukewarm – it meets all the visible standards, but it seems to miss some invisible mark that no one told you about or showed you.

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What went wrong?

Trafford and Leshem, in this paper on doctoral writing, argue that the missing ‘x-factor’ is something they call ‘doctorateness’. This is more than displaying skill at writing or doing research, and it is more than having a good idea for a paper or a thesis. It is something slightly mysterious, and has aspects in common, I think, with Bourdieu’s concept of habitus. This can be defined as ‘the physical embodiment of cultural capital, to the deeply ingrained habits, skills, and dispositions that we possess due to our life experiences’ (Social Theory Re-Wired). Habitus, doctorateness, the writing x-factor – these are difficult and somewhat ambiguous concepts. The point of writing at this level is to persuade people of your arguments – to win them over to thinking about your subject in a novel, or challenging, or critical way. We write to make and convey meaning, and we need to structure, style and present our papers in the ways that best enables this.

The style of the writing needs to reflect the nature of the knowledge. If you are writing in the natural sciences, you would likely be writing in a starker, more pared down prose so that the ‘science’ shines and conveys the meaning you (and your readers) are interested in, whereas in English Literature, you would probably choose more creative phrasing, ‘flowery’ prose and imagery to construct and convey your meanings. We write within and in response to stylistic and meaning-oriented ‘structures’ that shape our writing, and are shifted and shaped by the writing that we do over time. So, there are two aspects here that writers need to be aware of, and work on continuously.

The first is the ‘rules’ or guidelines that I have already mentioned a little: how are meanings predominantly created and conveyed within your subject/discipline/field? What will your readers likely expect, and what will journal editors/examiners be looking for to mark your writing out as ‘belonging’ to this field, and making a contribution? This is important. If you break or bend too many of the rules, your readers may completely miss your meaning, and the paper will fall short of making your voice heard in relation to those you want to ‘converse’ with in your field. This aspect can be knowable and teachable: the genres, conventions, structures, forms and small and big ‘rules for writing’ can be elicited, make visible, and broken down into manageable advice, steps and so on.

The second aspect is where the ambiguity comes in – where part of the writer’s habitus/’doctorateness’ resides. This aspect involves making and conveying meanings within and perhaps slightly beyond the ‘rules for writing’ that shape your field, but with a certain flair, style and ‘je ne sais quois’ that makes your writing more engaging, interesting and readable than papers that may make similar kinds of arguments. This is harder to teach, and harder to enact in your own writing in ways that you can put into words or steps for others to follow. The truth may well be that some writers have more of a flair for writing than others. This flair may come from being an avid reader (and living in a home and going to a school that surrounded them with books and time to read). It may come from having had a wonderful English teacher at school who provided advice and encouragement. It may be something less easy to pin down – it may be a bit of a mystery in the end.

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As a writing teacher and coach, I work hard to unpack, break down and make teachable as much of the writing-reading-thinking process as I can, using images, metaphors, examples and so on. For the most part, it enables people to make a start on a paper or chapter, and make progress over time. It is harder to tell writers what exactly it is about parts of their paper or thesis that don’t ‘work’ for me as a reader, but I think it is important to try. Why am I not convinced or persuaded here? Why is this point not making an impact? Why does this meaning come across as vague, or confusing? If more writers could be pointed – by critical friends/examiners/peer reviewers/editors – towards  a need to re-read, re-think and revise their meanings from the perspective of readers, perhaps more writers would be able to unravel the more mysterious parts of academic writing. It would certainly be an encouraging start to making the writing of publishable academic work less complex, and thus more achievable for more writers.

Writing mantras: do they work to get you through the Hard Days?

In my last post, I talked about the struggle of getting back into my writing. Last year was predominantly The Year for Other People’s Writing, and it has been so long since I have created any writing of my own that I feel my mojo is well and truly gone. I hope – I think – this cannot be so, but I am having a hard time finding, or creating it. I have resorted to using writing mantras. I am not really a platitude kind of person – I am not optimistic enough for that – but I am finding, to my surprise, that they are helping me through the Hard Days.

I have three I am relying on, and when writing it awful, and hard, and clunky and just painful, I remind myself of these mantras, and find that I feel a little less cross with myself, and less like to berate myself for no longer being able to write effectively. Most of the days right now are Hard Days, so I am leaning quite heavily on my platitudes. I though I would share these, in the hope that if you are having too many Hard Days, you too may find encouragement. At the very least, you are in good company!

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  1. First drafts don’t have to be perfect; they just have to be written.

Put another, cruder way: ‘The first draft of anything is shit’ (Hemingway). I like to remind myself that this is true. No first draft ever made it into print without substantial changes, revisions and rethinking. NO ONE is that good, not even your academic or fiction-writing idols. If I look at all the papers and chapters I have published, the minimum number of drafts is about 6. Before submission. So, really, expecting this first draft of the chapter I am currently clunking around with to be anything other than a mess is unrealistic. And being unrealistic leads to being mean to myself, and being mean to myself leads to further writing paralysis, and not enjoying the writing. This is a bad slope to ski down.

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2. You can’t build a fairycastle without all the bricks (and windows, doors and turrets.

This one is my own creation, and I am quite chuffed with it. I keep trying to edit before I have written, second guessing my wording, and sentence length and choice of sub-heading. It’s so counter-productive. I know this, but I do it too much anyway. This leads to more paralysis, and more bad feelings. I am trying to remind myself that I need to put all the pieces in one place first, before I can reorganise them, tinker with the placement of the windows, and so on. So, in other words, just write. Even if it sounds clunky, and you can see that the sentences are too long, and the words are not the right ones. You can refine, move things around, edit the structure and so on once you have all of the pieces you will need. This also reminds me, again, why planning ahead of starting to write is so important – it gives you a sense of which pieces you need to collect together.

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3. A journey of 1000 miles begins (and continues) with single steps.

Another version of this is to say that writing anything of substance and around 6000 words is not a sprint. You cannot do it all super fast – it’s a marathon and the execution takes time. But it starts with a single step. One pomodoro. 200 words. A plan. And then another step and another, and the more you do, the easier it gets to keep going, because the end of the journey draws closer. Yes, you will flag, and be tired, and have Hard Days inbetween the easier ones, as in any long-ish journey. But, you have to keep stepping forward, even if some days you literally do one thing, while on others you fly along the trail a bit. The slogging and plodding is all part of the process.

I guess I could close with one more mantra that underpins all of these: Trust the Process. I have done this before – created a piece of publishable writing from scratch. And I have survived all the Hard Days that went it that process. I know, if I do the work I will get to where I want to be. I know it will be awful at first and then get a bit easier. It is a process I have been able to trust and follow through before, so I can do it again now. Trust the process, collect the pieces, wade through the shite writing that has started me off, and start walking towards the destination, step by step.

What mantras sustain you through your Hard Days? Please share in the comments if you have some inspiration for the rest of us :-).

New year, new writing plans, new chances to ‘fail better’

Samuel  Beckett famously wrote: Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better. Maybe he said it out loud. Nevertheless, he made a valuable, and often underestimated, observation here that applies really well to writing and research. I find, and I know many others do too, that writing and research are not really about trying, failing and then succeeding, but about trying, failing, learning, and then failing better (and on and on).

If I could rewrite my PhD thesis now, there are a few things I would do differently, better, having learned so much from the one I did write, which was better than the MA thesis that came before that, which improved on the Honours mini-thesis. You see where I am going here, I think.

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Every paper I write is hopefully better than the paper before. But to improve – to try again and fail better – you need to become a more conscious and reflexive writer. You need to learn about yourself as a writer, take on advice, feedback and critique, and work to make changes and improvements where these are warranted. Otherwise you may just feel like you are trying and failing, without the bit about getting better at it.

This takes some work. I like, in my writing courses, to think about the possible learning in two areas: personal habits and needs, and writing habits and needs.

Area one, for me, involves things like: where and when I write most productively, the kind of atmosphere I need to write, how I react to and take in critique and feedback, and the time it takes me to read, think, write, revise and so on. I do best in the mornings, but I have a friend who is writing fiend between 11pm and 5am. I like to write in bed, but my back prefers that I sit properly at a desk – and actually, I am more focused and disciplined if I am at a desk and my back is not aching. I like quiet – not dead quiet – but loud noises are distracting and annoying. I also have ‘writing mixes’ on my iPod, and I plug these in and listen while I type when I really need to block out the ambient noise around me. I write fairly quickly, but only after a fairly long period of reading, thinking and scribbling in my research journal, and plotting outlines, so paper writing schedules need to take this all into account. These are the kinds of things it is useful to become very aware of, and work with, rather than against. So, trying to work in a noisy cafe, at lunchtime, and get a paper done in 2 weeks would be madness for me, and I would fail worse. But, if I recognise my personal (writing) needs and limitations, and work with those, I could (and do) more often than not fail better – in other words, get my writing done.

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In terms of writing needs, here I include actual nut and bolts stuff. For example: have you been critiqued (as I have many times) for writing overly long sentences? Do you use too conversational and colloquial a tone, so that your writing sounds flippant at times? Do you under, or over-explain theoretical or technical terminology? Do you overuse certain words and phrases? Do you over, or under-punctuate your writing? If you have received feedback on your writing on these, or similar issues related to style, tone, referencing, and so on that can reveal tendencies or patterns – such as my overly long sentences and occasionally overly chatty or strident tone – you can start to moderate your writing, trimming the longer sentences, making the tone more formal, less strident, more engaging without being chatty, and so on. You can begin to be aware of your writing from your readers’ perspective, and anticipate how they may take in your text, and what needs to be there, or not there, to make it more readerly, and enjoyable to engage with.

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The main thing I want to learn this year, as a writer, is not how to succeed: it is how to keep learning from my failures (and the things I get right), so that I can keep working, keep trying, and fail better, and better each time I write a paper, or a book chapter, or a proposal, or a blogpost even. I think, perhaps, if we change our writing mindset from success versus failure, to failing better each time, versus learning little to nothing about our writerly selves and writing, we could all probably be kinder to ourselves, and become happier, less anxious writers. Am I right on this one? I hope so.

Happy 2018 everyone!

A year on: my first year post-PhD

I have been trawling through my blog archives, reading what I was writing and thinking about a year ago. I have friends who are close to submitting their PhD theses for examination, and others who are not yet where they wanted to be by now, and this has all given me pause to reflect on where I was a year ago and where I am now. A year on: am I where I wanted to be by now? I am, and I am not. There were many plans – some more realistic than others – that have and have not come to fruition. Now feels like a good time to take stock, and perhaps learn a few more lessons to take into 2015.

It has been a hectic year on the work and home fronts, and I had such big plans for my writing out of the PhD. Such idealistically big plans. I did not really have a holiday when I finished my PhD. Yes, we had a small trip at the end of last year, once the thesis was being examined, but I could not fully relax. I thought about the examination process a great deal, worrying about whether my thesis reached my examiners, and whether they were reading it, and whether they liked it, or found it interesting, useful, persuasive… I am a worrier by nature. My husband has often said that if I didn’t have anything to worry about, I would be worried about that! So, I spent most of December, January and especially February, as the examination period went into overtime, worrying. It was not relaxing. So I was not in a good space for thinking about papers. I wrote a very vague list of papers I could write from the thesis around March, and stuck it up on my wall at work. I even pinpointed possible journals. And I scribbled, in my research journal in tentative pencil, some plans for abstracts and such. Waiting to get the reports and corrections back kind of consumed my headspace. I got physically ill too, for a fairly long period, as my body realised we weren’t doing the thesis anymore and kind of fell apart in a heap for a while. So, the early part of the year was not as productive as I had thought it might be talking to colleagues who seemed to churn out papers right after submitting. I just didn’t realise how emotionally and physically done-in I would be after I finished my PhD, so I could not make room for that in my plans.

Then I got the corrections and reports, and was able to complete them fairly quickly so that I could graduate. That was most certainly a high-point, and top of my ‘to-do’ list for the year. It was a glorious day, and week, and coming home I felt certain that I could focus on writing, now that the PhD was formally concluded. I did put in a successful abstract for a conference, and actually wrote a short paper for the conference that I was quite pleased with. I thought writing this paper would get the writing wheels turning, and that the papers would now come. But then there were tutor workshops and a staff development course, and external moderation and so many emails, and it was easier to just focus on all of that than to take the time to do more reading (more?) and thinking and restructuring and cutting and writing. I had time, and even headspace, but a new emotional struggle in the form of feelings of inadequacy. Far from feeling smart, and well-read and knowledgeable coming out of the PhD, I felt small, and ignorant of so many things I haven’t read about, and I really have battled to feel confident enough to put myself out there. So, more delays with the papers. More emotional blocks I was not expecting to have to overcome.

Now, sitting at the end of the year, I have mixed feelings. While I am proud of myself for finishing my thesis, and for writing a solid, well-argued piece of work, I am disappointed with the ‘meh-ness’ with which I have treated the writing coming out of the thesis. I have let the doubts and struggles hold me up (even though I am not too hard on myself for this because, to be fair, I didn’t know I would have to deal with those). I have made smaller things at work that could have been delegated or put aside way more important than my own writing, and this had fed, rather than assuaged, the feelings of inadequacy and not-knowing-anything-of-any-use that I have been battling with. I have realised that the thing that will make me feel more confident and more able to speak up about what I think I can contribute to conversations about teaching and learning in the disciplines is to write at least one paper (for now) and send it to a journal. I need feedback from my peers, and I need critique even. I need to see that my ideas need work, but they are not rubbish or silly or of-no-real-use. I think as I start publishing my work, and developing my ideas, and reading more (more!) I will grow in confidence, and the doubts, while they will never really go away because I suspect this is part of what it is to be a good researcher – critical doubt – will eventually become more manageable. They will have less power to block me and overwhelm me with anxiety. Well, this is my hope.

Next year I will be a postdoctoral fellow at the university where I undertook my PhD study. I am looking forward to having time to read, write and think. It feels like a largely blank space right now, stretching out before me. But I must be careful here, and learn from this past year: I must make room for emotional stumbling blocks – and make room in my plans for time to deal with these without feeling shame and anxiety because I am not making progress; make a flexible ‘to-do’ list for writing, but make the writing more important than emails and other things that can wait. I need to learn to give myself (and my work) permission to be important and worth a lot of my time (and therefore sometimes also my family’s time). Finally, I need to develop a new vision and an updated alter-ego – maybe I shall call her Postdoc Girl – that will focus and guide my time, so that I am standing in a firmer and more confident spot next December. I think we all need something to focus on and to have as a motivating tool. Life is too full and too busy to leave motivation and focus to chance when you are working on something like a PhD where finishing a thesis is key,  or a postdoc where publishing a book or papers or even both is so vital. Perhaps you could take a moment to take stock of your year, and what you planned for and what enabled you or got in your way. What could you learn from your year to make next year more successful or less fraught? What kinds of changes could you make for the coming year? Make notes, and keep them somewhere you can access them easily. Refer to them as the year goes on, maybe in regular check-ins, and let’s see if we can’t make 2015 a year that sees us reach more of our writing and research goals. Good luck!