Academic writing can be difficult and there are no real shortcuts for it. It needs to be a well organised, clear and very precise reflection of ideas and processes. ‘Writing up’ assumes knowledge is in the head and being written down and pouring out of the mind, but writing is much more than that (Kamler & Thomson, 2006). Writing is about developing and shaping ideas and that takes time. Having something that works (and may never be perfect) will require bringing together many notes, drafts and ideas.
This said, writing is also simply a substitute for talking. In a thesis, a research paper you are advancing some claims. For practical reasons this has to be written down, but it is not so different from having a talk with someone. The main difference is that readers cannot ask you to explain concepts and ideas further, so you have to make them as clear as possible and make sure a reader cannot interpret your ideas differently than intended. This need for precision, clarity is probably what makes writing hard. Often beginning writers assume that what is needed is using as much academic jargon as possible and by doing so they make their text more complex less clear. But they think this is the price to pay to look like a researcher.
In academia, writing is often closely tied in with identity. Any writing published – a requirement in academia – is evaluated, assessed and judged by teachers, experienced researchers and peers….Thus through your writing, you are putting your identity on line, which can be paralysing. It is important not to let this prevent you writing at all or making your writing impenetrable.
The more you write, the better you will get at it.
Write, write, write. This is show and tell not hide and seek! (Kearns h. & Gardiner M. 2008).
And when you look at your writing look at is as a reader would – this is why it is often good to let a piece of writing rest before reading it again.
This page explores:
- Writing habits
- The different stages in writing
- Resources and strategies for writing
Developing good writing habits
To get good at writing, you need to practice writing ..so write write write.
Find out which writing strategies work best for you and which writing habits help you. There is not one solution, not one method that works for everyone. But you may want to consider
- Easing yourself into writing – writing requires warming up (Creswell, 2009)
- A writing space that works for you
- Write while you are fresh
- Write daily and at a regular time – works for many people but not for everyone. Writing should remain pleasurable.
- Set aside a specific amount of time for writing
- Schedule specific tasks to work on
- Turn off your inner critic, if you are not sure how read Dissertation Survival Skills: Disarming the Inner Critic.
- Turn off email and phone
…it’s much easier to edit a terrible dissertation than it is to edit a nonexistent perfect one. Src: Herrmann, R. ‘My Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Dissertation’ Chronicle of Higher Education [online][“April 8, 2012”][last accessed 2 June 2014 from http://chronicle.com/article/My-Terrible-Horrible-No/131438/]
‘Piled Higher and Deeper’ by Jorge Cham
Understand the different stages in writing & don’t try to do them all at once
Talking and writing are both crucial to forming ideas, testing ideas, and testing the flow of ideas. They both work together, but writing allows to capture, to set them down for further use, e.g. as part of a paper you need to write. This is why it is important to write ideas down as often as possible. Writing starts with capturing ideas as text. A text which is always changeable and likely to change often before it is formally published.
Pre-writing involves taking notes, gathering information and writing it down.
This is when you note information collected from the literature review, data you sampled, tables generated and an idea that came to you. At this stage you just gather information that you can later bring into the document you start writing.
Use note taking tools that works for you. They can be simple paper notebooks. Online tools such as One Note, Evernote, Scrivener work very well. When working with literature, use bilbliography management tools such as Endnote or Mendeley.
If you are unsure about your English you will be tempted to use words or sentences you find in the literature. Try to avoid doing this by paraphrasing – detach yourself from what you read and re-say it without looking at the text. If you copy a direct quote make sure it is marked as a quote and you note the reference to the quote.
At a certain stage you will need to start organising your ideas and information on paper, structuring the ideas in a logical sequence. You may organise after you have done some free writing or before. But at some stage you need a structure. Having a structure to organise your information in is very important. Initially, as you gather more information, you will probably change structures within structure. But it still helps to have an initial structure as it enables linking ideas together and to the major points you may be making.
If you are working on a long document, such as a thesis, you are likely to end up with structures within structures. How these fit together depends very much on your work and the traditions in your research area. You may want to look at finished theses, check how they are structured and develop an initial structure for your work.
‘Piled Higher and Deeper’ by Jorge Cham
You can write ideas down in the structure(s) developed. You could also write before developing a structure and then structure after you have a certain amount of work. Focus on an individual sub-section or topic and just write about it, as if you were talking about it. Sometimes it helps if you have talked about it before. But you need to get these ideas on paper. Write without looking at what you are writing. Write what you know, what you want to say. If necessary give yourself a certain amount of time to do so – say 25 minutes or several times 25 minutes and don’t do anything else in these 25 minutes (if you are tempted to put a load in the washing machine, don’t).
Do not edit at this stage. The importance is getting ideas out in words.
When getting the first words on paper, it is important to write without looking at spelling, grammar or format. What counts is getting the ideas out as words. If you are distracted by the automatic corrections to words that come up on your computer screen, change the colour of your font to white, so you cannot see what you write. If you are used to writing in more than one language, just mix them. At this stage, what matters is that ideas are written down.
After you finished writing information in a section, have a look at it and do a superficial edit. Change things that stand out, that do not work. Move things around a bit, do a few quick corrections, make notes about detailed tasks to carry out in that section later on (e.g. find reference on, check word use about…., add information on….) but do not do them.
Writing and quick revising of the next section
Move on to another section of your work and write ideas down. Again write without looking at what you are writing. Just get the ideas down on paper. Write everything you know and want to say within that section. Do not edit at this stage. The importance is getting ideas out in words.
How often you do that depends a bit on where you are at and how much you have to write down.
Once you have progressed well – say finished writing a chapter or an article – you will need to go back and revise it. Revision always takes longer than expected. You are likely to also have to go back to stages 1 (get more information), 2 (re-structure) and 3 (add ideas).
1. Check the logic of structure – if you are working in Word, use Word outline to get a big picture view – check how different sections fit together as part of one big document. You may find that you need to re-structure your document.
2. Examine structure within structures.
3. Check content in each paragraph, make sure ideas follow logically and paragraphs follow each other.
4. Identify key terms and make sure you use the same terms throughout your document. Key terms act as treads that – together with the structure and the headings – ensure your text is clear.
5. Be aware of metatext and explore how you use it. If you are not familiar with academic writing, it may be useful to identify (in other articles, in the academic phrase bank) key vocabulary used for various functions (e.g. to state a position, to describe a method) and key sentences (or skeleton sentences) used to link ideas, chapters and sections.
|Examples of skeleton sentences (source: Manchester university academic phrase bank) when talking about literature:
A large and growing body of literature has investigated …… Numerous scholars have argued that ……. (for example, Smith , 1996; Kelly, 1998; Johnson, 2002). In her seminal study, Mewburn (2010) showed that …….. One question that needs to be asked, however, is…
When referring to methodology:
Most studies of this phenomena suffer from some serious [pick one word from the following] limitations / weaknesses / disadvantages / drawbacks / flaws. It was decided that the best method to adopt for this investigation was ……………………. This method is [pick one] The chief advantage of this method is……………….. Some limitations of this method that should be noted are……………..
When writing the discussion:
One of the more significant findings to emerge from this study is that ……….. it was also shown that……… The results of this research support the idea that ……. The most important limitation lies in the fact that …… Further work needs to be done on …… These findings suggest several courses of action for …… The findings of this study have a number of important implications for future practice, especially ……
|Say it once, say it right: Seven strategies to improve your academic writing.|
|In this blog (LSE) Patrick Dunleavy outlines seven strategies for a problematic article|
Editing is the last step – this is when you:
- check the structure
- check language
- check word use
- check for consistency (Style manuals or sheets are crucial)
- check referencing
Read your text out loud:
Think about the reader. Are you showing a position, defending an argument that is clear, well organised and well evidenced.
Information on what to look for when editing is available from the pages on self-editing.
Check ‘working with an editor’ if you want more information on getting an external editor to edit your work.
Academic writing is a very specific genre of writing. Academic writing has to be:
- Predictable: you want to inform readers about something, not to create suspense. Signpost your writing:
- use appropriate introductions, conclusions (for the whole thesis and in sub-sections)
- introduce what will come and how it is related to what came before, or to the whole document
- remind the reader where you are going
- avoid variation – if you mean the same thing use the same word. Do not try to use a variety of keywords
- Linear and narrative – there needs to be a logically developed story (no dot points)
- Requires the provision of evidence, the justification of claims & their level (result show, seem to indicate)
- Explicit: show how things are linked, what is related to what – never let the reader guess
- Formal: you need to use formal language
- Clear: the writing needs to be clear. Do not make it complicated to make it complicated. You are trying to pass on a message, an idea. If you make it too complicated the idea will be lost
- Precise and accurate: use the correct tense, right words…
These topics are further explored in pages on clear and coherent writing.
Exercise: recognising the genre.
Which one is the academic text and how do you know?
Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in language comprehensible to everyone. Albert Einstein
Creswell, J. (2009). Research design. Sage: London
Kamler, B & Thomson, P (2006). Helping doctoral students to write, Routledge, New York.
|Chandler, D. (1995). Writing strategies Aberystwyth University. An extract from a book on ‘The Act of Writing’ by Daniel Chandler, which suggest, in metaphors, how writers might go about to composing a text.
James Hayton: How to get through your PhD without going insane (complete lecture), Edinburgh 2013. This 75’ video offers a great overview of what is expected when writing a thesis.
Levine J. (2014) Writing and Presenting Your Thesis or Dissertation,Michigan State University. A guide to assist you in thinking through the many aspects of crafting, a thesis.
Shotwell, Alexis (2014) Suffering Free Academic Writing. This is a series of three online sessions strongly recommended by fellow PhD students:
Sword, Helen (2016). ‘Write every day!’: a mantra dismantled, International Journal for Academic Development 21/4, 312-322. Available from http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1360144X.2016.1210153