I have been thinking a fair amount over the years about the writing process, whether in preparation for PhD sessions or through my own struggles. During the last couple of weeks, we have been running PhD inductions across the Faculty of Science, inviting some academics to share their experience of the writing process and receiving contributions from Katherine Clement, who is one of the new writers in residence working with undergraduate and PhD students, Postdocs, fellows and academics from the biological disciplines in our faculty.
“Becoming a researcher is…becoming a writer”
During these induction sessions and an additional workshop I ran last week in Barcelona for an ITN network, I have been using the leitmotiv of “Becoming a researcher is…becoming a writer”. Through this sentence my intention it to communicate to PhD researchers that only through the process of written communication do research output and ideas really exist. A piece of research undertaken but not written is somehow invisible, inexistent. The writing process helps us to think better about our research, focusing our argument and analysis. Through writing, our ideas develop a better core, a more sophisticated refinement; our random and dispersed ideas come together, coalesce and feed from each other. By writing, we become better thinkers.
Much of our visual imagery of writers as individuals working alone in isolated spaces may not be so helpful to PhD researchers particularly to those within the sciences. To alleviate such isolation in the writing process the Think Ahead team runs a monthly writing retreat, where researchers can come and write alongside each other for a couple of hours, creating a synergy of focus and motivation. While many different models of writing group exist (eg. one example from Angela Dobele), endorsing the idea that writing can become part of a social endeavour is well worth exploring instead of maintaining the assumption of writing groups being a remedial action for irregular and unfocused academic writers. Writing groups have popped up across the University from the Women@TUOS writing group to the Psychology PhD/ early career researcher writing group “Shut up and write”. While such model is not new, it has certainly gained popularity with dissemination from the brilliant blog The Thesis Wisperer.
The image of the writer “at work”, writing each day, planning characters and plots and revising drafts after drafts can be helpful in viewing writing as a process and not a product*.
Some of my workshop participants felt slightly puzzled by my statement about becoming a writer, feeling that their professional identity was far fetch from being writers. They associated the term writer to that of novelists or storytellers, seeing the product (the novel or the book) and less the act of, the process of writing.
One participant even resented the idea that researchers may be called upon “telling stories”, considering that telling research stories could not be compatible with maintaining the objectivity and research integrity that science deserve. Maybe such perception is one that prevent many academic writers to develop an engaging written scholarly style, maintaining the distant and dryness that academic text may be expected to display.
When presented with data about the publishing landscape:
- 5,000–10,000 journal publishers globally, of which around 5,000 are included in the Scopus database
- 28,100 active scholarly peer-reviewed English-language journals in late 2014
- 5 million articles a year
- Doubling of global scientific output roughly every nine years.
- Some sources reporting a paper being published every 20 seconds
Some of the workshop participants did not feel that telling a good research story or writing well a paper would really make a difference to their research visibility or ability to publish:
“So many papers in very high impact journals are really badly written so which difference does it make to improve your writing?”
Then indeed if so many journal articles are not well written and still get published, what could be the motivation in improving your writing and writing compelling research stories? In one of my favourite book on writing “Stylish Academic Writing”, Helen Sword makes an endearing plea to the academic community to consider academic writing as a critical opportunity to tell good stories:
“I argue that elegant ideas deserve elegant expression; that intellectual creativity thrives best in an atmosphere of experimentation rather than conformity; and that, even within the constraints of disciplinary norms, most academics enjoy a far wider range of stylistic choices than they realise. My agenda is, frankly, a transformative one: I aim to start a stylistic revolution that will end in improved reading conditions for all.”
100’s of advices on writing: where should I start?
Maybe the counsel to PhD researchers about becoming writer would be better focused in discussing developing the habits of writers. With 100’s of books on academic writing, it is hard to decide which one to pick, trust and which advice to follow. Because November is often considered academic writing month and with Think Ahead hosting a WriteFest, it seems a good time to share ideas about writing. The ideas proposed here have been gleaned from workshops I have run or attended, talks from academics and writers in residence, and my own readings about writing.
You will have the whole month of November to try them or maybe a whole year, career, life…I may be getting ahead of myself! So here are 30 suggestions for the 30 days of November. You may want to:
- Disagree with
Whatever you choose, just have a go at something new to develop your writing.
30 days of writing- a writing version of an Advent Calendar!
- Unpick the writing of others, read articles for their structure not the science
- Identify your writing routine/habits- what works or not; think about time of day or physical environment
- Engineering writing- set a new effective writing habit loop with cue, routine and reward
- WRITE OFTEN
- Give yourself short writing goals (eg. one paragraph at a time)
- Switch off the beeps (notifications in the modern world)- switch off all your devices (phone/ Facebook/twitter/ snapchat/ Emails etc.) and get writing
- “Eat that frog”: if writing is the hardest academic task for you, then start with it each day
- Dare the shitty first draft (Incredibly powerful suggestions about writing from writer Ann Lamott in her wonderfully descriptive prose in Bird by Bird)
- Develop your identity as a writer; as an academic/ researcher this is who you are or are becoming
- Separate actions: planning, drafting or editing (what are you doing today?)
- Understand the publication landscape (eg. Impact factor, review process)
- Target good journals, discuss early on publication targets
- Remind yourself that writing is a process not a product
- Clarity of message drives the story
- Understand paragraph construction (one idea at a time)
- Get a writing buddy, critical friends or writing mentor
- Go for short sentences
- No unnecessary words
- Develop a writing strategy (what, when and where to publish)
- Read your words aloud
- Verbs have shades of meanings– choose your verbs well
- Know your reader
- Background knowledge assumed or to include
- Write short memos describing figures
- You are not just writing for your supervisor
- Attention to details matters (eg. Multiple types of proof reading)
- Your figures set in a cartoon strip- can help procrastrination
- Link words create flow and help construct the argument
- Expand your writing beyond the journal article (eg. The Conversation)
- Play with readability- calculate the Gunning fox index of your writing (age someone need to be to make sense of your writing!)- this one is just for fun!
Of course there are many more. Share yours with us.
- The expression of “teach writing as a process not a product” can be traced back to a 1972 manifesto by Donald Murray
 Sources: (1)From The STEM report, 4th edition An overview of scientific and scholarly journal publishing, © 2015 STM: International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers