Writing in academia is a bit like sex was for Victorians. Everyone does it, yet no one really talks about it.* The silence that surrounds writing and the struggles it inevitably entails often translate into feelings of ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I’m alone in this.’ To talk about your writing, or ask questions that you fear might be obvious or trivial, is to expose yourself, to make yourself vulnerable. If this sounds vaguely familiar, imagine: wouldn’t it be nice to have a chance to find out everything you always wanted to know about academic writing but were afraid to ask?
Doing a PhD can be a daunting process for native and non-native speaker candidates alike. Ideally, writing a dissertation is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; it provides you with the time and resources to work on a complex problem with no easy solutions. But many doctoral students find academic writing in general and the PhD dissertation in particular an enormous challenge. It is something everyone worries about, but there is too little discussion, and often too little support or hands-on advice.
Doctoral students and young researchers certainly don’t have it easy. Beyond navigating the academic system and facing the prospect of a precarious job market, they also face a variety of issues that make scholarly work difficult and alienating. These problems do not exist because doctoral students are unqualified or unfit for the task. Most of them have successfully completed their previous degrees, and many of them bring considerable professional experience to their studies. The difficulties, while often experienced as individual failure, stem from a complex set of structural, social, technical, institutional, and mental factors.
Some of the most pressing problems PhD students face are independent of their discipline or type of research:
- They are not familiar with the institutional requirements, or the demands of the degree – because the information they receive is vague or confusing.
- They struggle to complete a large-scale project such as the dissertation – because they lack the procedural knowledge that would help them through the writing process.
- They are not aware of the differences between major academic genres – because they have not been given the chance to interrogate good examples or familiarize themselves with the features and conventions of different genres.
- They do not know how to make the transition from ‘student’ to ‘scholar’ – and from someone who is a bystander of academic conversations and a recorder of knowledge to someone who is a participant in academic discourse and a producer of knowledge.
- They feel the pressures of productivity and competitiveness – but have not been given the tools to prioritize and master (let alone the space to question and reflect on) the tasks they face as academics.
Writing does not have to be painful
So what can be done about this? Complex problems call for complex solutions, and not quick fixes (‘write your dissertation in four weeks!’) or blanket statements (‘never use the first person singular’). Good writing starts with understanding your task, and what is expected of you. Having the right ‘tools’ that help you through the stages of planning, drafting, revising, and dealing with feedback are another important step. It is also crucial that you familiarize yourself with the set of rules and conventions that govern any given academic genre, because without that awareness what constitutes ‘good’ writing can seem especially elusive and challenging. But beyond that, it’s important to keep in mind that you are not only producing a text, but also an identity as a scholar, which entails developing your own voice, taking up a position of authority, and contributing to an on-going conversation.
How can I help you?
I work with doctoral candidates and early career researchers to achieve these goals. I do that through one-on-one collaboration and courses, as well as a combination of the two. Ultimately, I try to share the kind of advice I wish I’d received when I was working on my PhD. In practice this entails:
- Explanations, tips and explicit strategies for writing your text
- Suggestions for what action needs to be taken to improve your writing
- Discussing various options regarding structure, style, and developing your argument
- Interrogating and deconstructing exemplary and problematic texts from different disciplines
- Offering different perspectives, such as looking at writing as a social practice, or presenting your research as if you were telling a story
- Encouraging reflection and asking some difficult but necessary questions, such as the dreaded ‘so what?’ or ‘what are you trying to achieve?’
- Demystifying academic writing by showing that it is not a question of ‘natural’ talent or something you just ‘figure out’ alone, but a practice that can be learnt, improved, and even enjoyed
*Before you gasp in disbelief, ‘But have you not read Foucault?!’, let me assure you that I mean the prudish Victorians of the popular imagination. Of course I’m aware that sex was all Victorians thought and talked about.
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