Last week, I attended a course on the topic of ‘writing for publication’ with Trevor Day. I gained some really useful insights into the writing process and tips for becoming a more effective writer, which I’ve already started to apply to my first attempt at an academic paper. Ever the sharing type, I thought it would be rude to keep these revelations to myself. So here’s the short version – five things I learned about (academic) writing from this course:
1. Make sure your work is original and/or better than the competition. At the start of Trevor’s session, he asked us to write down five ways in which our work would be original and/ or better than the competition. When I did this, some aspects of my paper that I had seen as ‘side’ issues, to which I thought I would perhaps devote a few hundred words, turned out to actually be the most original elements of my work. Doing this activity early on set me on a better path from the start by forcing me to identify what would be attractive about my paper, to editors and to readers.
2. Write in stages. Now I’m sure I knew this, or at least I should have. But somewhere along the way it got forgotten. Good writing usually happens in three stages: planning, composing and editing. Simples, huh? So why is so much of my writing a mash-up of all three? For this paper I actually sat down and wrote a proper plan. This is an iterative process – I’ve returned several times to re-work and develop plans for particular sections – but that’s a strength, not a problem. I’m now on the second stage, ‘composing’, or writing a ‘first draft’. This brings me to the next tip…
3. ‘Compose’ when you’re at your most alert. This is probably the single most valuable piece of advice I took from the session. I know I struggle to focus mid-afternoon (as do most people, apparently), so why do I torture myself, trying to press on with writing challenging sections straight after lunch? This usually results in feelings of frustration and despair and a pitifully blank page. This time I’ve planned my time carefully, writing in the morning, until I’ve done what I set out to achieve or until my eyes begin to glaze over, whatever comes first. In the afternoon I read, review others’ work, edit a first draft, send emails, write less intellectually challenging blog posts…! It’s working well and I’ve churned out around 1,500 words a day, meaning that my first draft is almost finished!
4. Let your ‘creative’ mind flow when composing. I can’t tell you how relieved I felt to be told that a first draft doesn’t actually have to be much good. In the past, I have spent hopelessly long hours trying to make one point, perfectly, first time. I drift away from what I’m writing to find the perfect term to express what I want to say, find the reference that explains a concept better than I can, email my supervisor to clarify something. Often this leads to a chain of related tasks that take up the whole morning. By the time I come back to what I was originally writing, I’ve forgotten what I was trying to say and the mid-afternoon slump has crept in. But when you relax, and put your ‘critical’ mind on hold, your ‘creative’ mind can flow. This technique has allowed me to express myself, to get down the main point of what I want to say. Precise terminology, references and eloquent expression can come later. The important point here is that it doesn’t have to be great writing – it’s just a first draft!
5. If it doesn’t advance your argument, don’t use it. Last but not least, a crucial one for academic writing that’s most relevant at the planning and editing stage, the aim being to make sure all your paragraphs are doing one job: moving your argument forward. This is the first thing to check after the ‘composing’ stage and one of the reasons there’s no point trying to be a perfectionist at that point. If you realise the paragraph you wrote is all very interesting but does nothing to support the crux of your paper, it’s probably got to go.