How I Write Now

Okay, I might slightly have taken that title from a Saoirse Ronan film.

If you look back on your writing, from high school (or the equivalent in your country) to your last paper in your MA or PhD (depending on how far into your research you are) you will noticed a lot of change. Well, hopefully. If you don’t, you were either an amazing writer when you were in your teens, or you’re still a bad writer now. It’s likely to be the first of those. It’s hard to get through undergrad being a bad writer and still make a high enough grade point average to get into a PhD program. And if you’ve been out of school for a while, your career has no doubt taught you a great deal about various forms of writing.

So, hopefully, you’ve improved. Naturally, practice makes – if not perfect – at least it improves it. The more you write, the more this will happen.

They tell people who want to be authors that they best way to do that is two things: write a lot and read a lot. The same is true in academia. Write a lot (get a lot of feedback) and read a lot of academic publications. Learn how other academics (particularly the successful ones) write. How they use words, how they use voice, how they deliver impact and provide evidence. You are welcome to copy these sorts of writing devices from any one you find, without giving credit! But, especially look at authors in your own field, as they will give you the best idea of how your subject is discussed in the academy. The more you read, the more you’ll know. And you’ll spend a lot of your first year reading anyways, so instead of just reading about the topic, read the writing too.

But write yourself. Even if your course doesn’t involve much writing in your first year or two, you can write short summaries or critiques and share them with other PhD students. Ask them to critique and feedback; you’ll both learn from the experience. I found it particularly useful to take short articles from known authors and critique those, get a few other students to do the same thing, and then sit down and discuss it and our differing points of view. It’s a hugely useful learning experience, and worth the time.

If your supervisor isn’t one to ask for writing from you until you start on your chapters, ask if you can start writing anyways. I wrote 35,000 words for my supervisor in the first 9 months of my PhD. I used about 3,000 words of that in my final thesis, but all of it was useful because it taught me how to write about my topic, it gave me good feedback to critique my writing, and it helped me wrap my head around the topics I was working through by reading. It may sound like a lot of work, but I did it. And before I did that 35,000 words, I research three different topics I knew virtually nothing about. So, it’s entirely doable. And just reading can sometimes feel like a lost cause; writing about what you’re reading gets you to think.

So think about that. Reading and writing. It’s like kindergarden. Except a lot harder. But you’ve gotten to your PhD now, and that means you can do this. It just takes practice.

Lots and lots of practice.

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