5 Things about academic writing…

…I wish I had known when I wrote my thesis

Back then, I thought research in general and academic writing in particular was a serious business. To fit in, I tried to use complex sentences and difficult (foreign) terminology. Struggling to find my own words, I distanced myself from my work. But I was the researcher, a soon-to-be expert in this particular field – wasn’t I? Then why did I find it so hard to put my thoughts on paper?

Years later, I discovered a couple of things that work for all genres – literary, business and academic writing. They really make our writing life easier, so let me share them with you:

1. See writing as a process

It helps to understand that writing is a process consisting of different stages that build on each other:

  • Brainstorming/finding ideas
  • Creating a rough draft
  • Revision/rewriting
  • Final correction

If we start correcting our text at an early stage, our inner critic will get in our way. (You know, that nasty little voice in our head that keeps telling us we don’t know what we are doing and nobody wants to read our work anyway.) Guess what: That happens to many writers. It is one of the reasons for the famous writer’s block.

Always remember, there is something that motivated you to follow this path. You have a clear goal, and you have have already come a long way. Who says you can’t have fun on the rest of your journey?

So the first two writing stages are the ones where you can be playful and creative…

You could collect your ideas with colourful clusters or mind maps and put them up on the wall next to your desk. Clustering can also help you find a good structure, to see which parts or chapters you need and which information you want to include.

Writing the first draft is mostly about exploring. It is about discovering what you have to say, trying to make sense of your findings. You write it only for yourself. Some even call it the “shitty first draft”. You need to get it out there on paper. That’s all there is to it. And that brings me to my next piece of advice:

2. Write freely

I suggest you start writing as early as possible. Ideally from day one of your PhD period. Many students think “when I’m done with all my reading and research, I will only need to write it down”. And when they finally want to start writing, they are afraid. Why? By then, they will know so much about their subject that they want their writing to be perfect from the outset. So they don’t know where to start.

Freewriting can help. It is a creative method where you set a timer for a short period (e.g. 7 minutes) and write about whatever comes to your mind. There are endless ways how you can use this technique. You could start every new day with a short freewriting, so-called morning pages, right after you wake up. You could keep a journal for your project. Whenever you read or discover something relevant, take a few minutes to write down your thoughts. In your own words, without censoring or correcting yourself. Just write. Nobody else will ever read it.

Why should you do this? When you allow your draft to be “shitty”, you won’t feel stressed. Very often, you will be able to use these texts as a basis for a chapter or paragraph of the “real thing”. New ideas will pop up in the freewriting process, too. And you will train your writing muscle.

Ideally, write your freewritings by hand. Get a nice notebook, maybe an old-fashioned pen, whatever you fancy. (Typing will also work, of course). Try different locations to boost your creativity: Write on the sofa, in a café, in the park…

3. Write in short sprints

“As soon as I have five hours to myself, I’ll start writing the first chapter.”
“I am planning to write all week-end.”

Sound familiar? Guess what: You will get more writing done when you break it down into smaller chunks. Especially when you have children, or another job.

15 minutes left until dinner time? Sit down and do a quick freewriting on the last paper you read. Brainstorm the content of your next chapter with a cluster. Pick something that is small and manageable. Write a small paragraph every day to stay connected to your research topic.

You have more time? Fantastic. Then you can do more sprints with breaks in-between. The “pomodoro” technique is a good approach that will keep you focused. The idea is simple: Choose a (writing) task, set a timer to 25 minutes and immerse yourself in that task without interruptions until the timer rings. Take a short break, have a coffee, stretch yourself. Then repeat. After four “pomodoros”, you can take a longer break (20-30 minutes).

Keep your writing time free from distractions. Turn off your phone. Close your e-mail program. There are also tools and apps like freedom or SelfControl that you can use to block websites, social media or games for a certain period.

And when you are done for the day: Treat yourself to something nice. Comfort food, a good movie, a hot bath… You deserve it!

4. Think about your readers

When you are done with your “shitty first draft”, get ready for the revision process. In this stage, you will probably need to refine the structure of the document as a whole. You will work on paragraphing. And you will need to observe the formal rules for citations, bibliography etc. required in your field.

I know it sounds a bit dry, but this part of the process can be fun, too. You will continue to improve your writing skills – and that is something you will be able to use in any future job.

Keep in mind that you are communicating with a reader. You could consider using anecdotes, case studies or visual illustrations. You could look into storytelling techniques – even in academic writing. Check your wording and try to use action verbs instead of too many abstract nouns. Eliminate redundant expressions. Think about whether you can use the first person, or whether you have to avoid it. (This will depend on how conservative your readers are). There is a lot you can do to make your thesis reader-friendly while being formal and precise.

In the final correction stage, eliminate typos, check the punctuation, grammar and word choice. Ask a friendly person to help (there are also payable services available). Make sure you have at least 1-2 weeks time to complete the correction before your deadline!

5. Find a writing buddy

Writing can be a lonely exercise. Find other students, researchers or writers of any kind at your university, in your community or on the internet. Schedule a writing session together, in a café or online. Set your goals and then enjoy the spirit of writing together. You could also try the platform focusmate to stop procrastinating and connect with others who also need to concentrate on their work.

(P.S.: Since you are an academic, I know you want to dig deeper. So here are a few books I can recommend. Not limited to academic writing):

Julia Cameron: The artist’s way.
Joan Bolker: Writing your dissertation in fifteen minutes a day.
William Strunk: The Elements of Style.

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