[This was originally published in January 2017, when I was failing to write my actual thesis so decided to write a 2000-word blog post about why was hard instead. Nearly three years later, having written the thesis and a book, among other things, I still stand by pretty much all of this.]
I started my PhD with a fair amount of writing experience under my belt. I’d been blogging (semi-regularly) for about five years, including a stint as a regular opinion writer for an online news site which occasionally involved manufacturing an opinion to hit a deadline. I’d written a couple of book chapters for an activist book. About a decade earlier I had produced some pretty decent academic writing during my MA. I had and still have a fair amount of confidence in my writing, academic and otherwise. Still, doing it professionally is a different ballgame entirely, particularly in academia where writing involves getting across some very complex ideas. So here’s a few things I’ve learned about (academic) writing over the last couple of years.
Writing is hard because writing is thinking. For me, this is a crucial difference between blogging and academic writing. Blogging is thinking too, but my blog doesn’t have a deadline, so ideas can just percolate in my head until they’re ready to come out onto the page in a single sitting. Do not try this with your thesis. For one, a thesis, or even a single chapter of one, is too big to hold in your head. For another, the thinking required for a thesis or a journal paper is on a different level to what you can get away with in a blog. But realising (or admitting) that writing is legitimately hard is actually a great move. It’s the move from “I am terrible at writing and will never amount to anything” to “writing is genuinely difficult, it’s ok to struggle with it, and I’m going to find ways to deal with that”.
There are stages to writing. There’s the “descriptive drivel” stage. There’s the “writing three superfluous introductions which you will later cut” stage. There’s the “spending half a day looking up a throwaway reference which you will then cut from the first paragraph” stage. There’s the “spending an afternoon staring at two over-edited paragraphs” stage. There’s even the “I appear to be writing a blog post about writing” stage. Now, you may not experience all of those in your process, or you may find your process involves some different stages. These things vary from person to person but they are basically ways of coping with the fact that writing is hard. Some of these coping mechanisms are more constructive than others. Some are constructive some of the time and really not the rest. Some, you can short-circuit, and some you can actively leverage to help you get through and get better. And again, which ones work for you may be different to those that work for me. I have learned to embrace the “descriptive drivel” stage because it gives me something I build on later. I have also learned to sometimes start with the second sentence or paragraph to avoid the “three superfluous introductions” stage. Working these things out involves a fair amount of reflection and self-awareness, as well as listening to feedback.
What you wrote and what you think you wrote are often not the same thing. One of the most useful pieces of feedback someone can give you on your writing is to play back to you what they understood from it. The thing is, when we try to express complex ideas in our writing, sometimes we make leaps or assumptions that our readers – not resident in our heads as they are – find difficult to follow. So when a supervisor or other friendly reader says something like “I don’t see how X follows from Y here”, or “oh yeah, you mean A” when actually you meant B, that can really help you pinpoint the parts of your writing that need strengthening. The problem is not that the reader isn’t getting it, the problem is that you haven’t explained it well enough.
Structure sometimes helps. And sometimes doesn’t. This is another one of those “suck it an see what works for you in a given moment” things. When I find myself staring at a blank Google doc for too long one of the things that really helps is putting down a structure. Key bullet points of what I’m trying to say often help. On one occasion I switched to a spreadsheet which gave me a structure I could easily fill in. For some reason putting in a few descriptive words in a spreadsheet cell is a lot less intimidating than putting them in that text document. You then take them out of the spreadsheet, put them in the text document and use them as a skeleton to build around. There are other times, though, when structure really doesn’t help because there is no structure yet. You simply don’t know what you’re actually trying to say, and you won’t know until you’ve written it down. I think one of the most helpful things I’ve learned to do in those situations is write from the middle outwards: start with a description of what the data says, then build analysis, theory, introduction and conclusion around that. I’m literally writing my entire thesis this way. I wrote the three data chapters first, and I’m now working on my literature review and discussion chapter side by side, building them around the data. On that note,
Data analysis and writing are (often) not separate tasks. I have a feeling this applies to more fields and methods than you’d think, but I’ll certainly vouch for it in pretty much any kind of qualitative research. There’s a temptation to think of writing and analysis as separate, to draw a line between the end of coding and the start of writing and to tell yourself (very sternly) that the analysis is done, you’re just writing it up, this should be easy. The analysis is not done until it’s down on the page and someone else has confirmed to you that what they read was what you meant to write. (Which is why writing is thinking, which is why it’s hard.) Writing little summaries of your data as you go can both be a really helpful step in analysing it and make you feel like you’ve actually written something. Same goes for writing reflective pieces on your research process and progress, or any practice you’re producing as part of your research.
Every bit of writing has a function. I talk about “descriptive drivel” a lot, but actually description has a function in your writing: to follow your analysis of your data, your reader first has to have an understanding of what it is you’re analysing. One of the things I struggled with for a while was separating my description from my analysis and signposting what I was doing at any given point. So the same paragraph would describe and attempt to analyse the data while also taking for granted a bunch of assumptions, with the result that the reader couldn’t even tell there was an argument there, let alone follow it. By far the most useful technique I’ve found for dealing with this is deconstructing my writing. This works best when you already have a piece of writing and you’re trying to make it hang together and really get across your argument. Take that piece of writing, and for each paragraph write a one-line description of what it’s doing. Is it describing something? Analysing something? Making a key theoretical point towards your argument? Once you’ve done this for every paragraph, you have a neat little summary of your piece. Read that summary. Is the argument you’re trying to make evident from it? If not, what’s missing? Is there stuff that doesn’t need to be there? Are there paragraphs that are not easily summarised in one line? Those might need breaking up. So for each line, make a note of what you need to do to the corresponding paragraph to make it better. Then go and do the thing.
Feedback can be hard to take. You know that email from your supervisor, with the attachment that’s got your lovely piece of writing, except it’s covered in comments and strikethroughs? Or the equivalent piece of paper covered in red ink? Or the conversation? You know the one. Those are hard. They’re hard because writing is thinking, and therefore writing is personal, and therefore writing makes us vulnerable. Those are my thoughts and ideas on that piece of paper. How dare you take them apart like that! Those are personal reflections and struggles. That’s the bit where I was really brave and tried something I hadn’t done before. That’s the bit I thought was my original contribution! What have you done to it! Feedback can be hard to take, but there are a few tricks to make it easier and make sure you get the most out of it. If it’s a face to face conversation, take notes, ask questions, make sure you understand what your supervisor is saying. You don’t have to agree with it, but make sure you understand it. Regardless of format, thank them for their time and their thoughts, even if all you do is fire off a one-line email. Then put it down. Put it away. Leave it be. If you need to, go find a sympathetic friend to rant to. Explain to them in great detail and at great length how your supervisor doesn’t appreciate your genius. Go do something else for a bit – work on another chunk of your thesis, collect or analyse some data. Wait until thinking about that bit of feedback no longer makes you incandescent with rage or weak with anxiety. Then maybe wait a little while longer. This is the time when things will start percolating. You’ll have learned new things from working on other bits in the meantime. You’ll have gained some distance and perspective. You may still find you disagree with some of the feedback. But chances are a lot of it will be useful. So now you can do back to it, and work on the things you agree with, and justify the things you disagree with. It takes time, and it’s hard. But here’s the thing. That feedback is not aimed at you as a person, at that risk you took, that vulnerability you showed when you wrote. That feedback is there to make your writing better. It’s there to help you figure out what works and what doesn’t; to help you get those personal, clever, original ideas of yours across to your reader in the clearest, most convincing way possible. And it will. And you will.
“You will have days when your entire output is a single paragraph summarising a month of research.” Thus spake one of my supervisors back in my first year. “Never!” I cried. I hate it when they’re right. The trick is to accept that. Research and writing don’t obey the laws of project management. Progress is not linear, it’s difficult to plan, and a lot of the time it may feel like you’re behind. Sometimes you’ll catch up. Sometimes you’ll just find that you need to re-adjust the plan, or throw something half-baked at your supervisor rather than the piece of perfectly polished prose you’d been hoping for. (Throwing half-baked things at supervisors can be really useful actually, as long as they understand that that’s what you’re doing and are ok with it.) For the record, my entire tangible thesis-related output for today was splitting a document into three and making some notes on each section about additional work it needed. I am actually really happy with this output. One of those notes is in all-caps and red because it’s an insight about an incredibly valuable thing that’s a major chunk of my argument. That’s the result of a lot of thinking – and the writing will happen. The flip side of this is…
You can write something every day. I took part in a writing challenge a few months ago, where every work day you had to write something. It didn’t really matter what or how much, you had to write some new words. Most of the days I produced significant new chunks of thesis. Some of the days I wrote a couple of hundred words of “string and glue” – those little paragraphs that link one part of your writing to another and make your entire argument hang together. On a couple of occasions I wrote fanfiction or poems. I learned a few things from that challenge. You don’t need an entire clear day to write something. A string-and-glue paragraph can be pulled together in twenty minutes between meetings. Planning ahead really helped. Sometimes I knew I had a clear day ahead of me and could get lots of writing done. Other times I knew I was travelling, had meetings, needed to take the cat to the vet, so my writing time would be limited. At the end of each day, I’d take a look at my schedule for the next day and set achievable goals and make sure I had the right resources to hit those goals (often just a highlighted paragraph in my working document with a note saying “PUT STRING AND GLUE HERE” – makes a difference). I did find that the external accountability of the challenge (we were doing it in a group of four) helped me focus and do those little things that enabled me to write. I’m looking for ways to implement that kind of accountability to myself through my bullet journal. Even if whatever I produce on a given day isn’t thesis-related, it keeps me in the habit of writing. And even if it’s just one single paragraph summarising a month’s worth research, one paragraph is greater than zero paragraphs. Two hundred words is greater than zero words.
Look behind the scenes of other people’s writing. I mean this in two ways. Firstly, reading pieces like this and some of the resources below can be helpful, even if all it does is reassure you that it’s not you being bad at writing, writing is legitimately hard. We often compare our own behind-the-scenes footage with other people’s highlight reels, and that can make us feel terribly inadequate. Knowing that behind the scenes others struggle too – because it is genuinely, legitimately a difficult thing to do – can be a great source of comfort. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, read the kind of writing that you aspire to produce and try to work out how it does what it does. How is this person structuring their argument? What are they doing to guide and signpost the reader through it? How are they separating their description from their analysis (or are they perhaps integrating them in interesting ways instead!)? How are they reconciling their personal subjectivity with scholarly detachment? What do you admire about their writing? What do you think they could do better? Now go and try doing those things yourself.
Do. The damn. Writing. Ultimately, the only way to get the writing done and to get better at it is to practise. One paragraph is greater than zero paragraphs. Two hundred words is greater than zero words. It adds up. If all else fails, shut up and write!
If you want some further pointers, here’s a handy list of resources on academic and thesis writing pulled together by Paul Spencer at the UWE Graduate School.