Clare Jackson is displaying her talents again as a natural born blogger but giving insight into academic writing. Definately insightful for undergraduates, postgraduates and academics everywhere:
Write as I say, not as I do
Soon, if they haven’t already, students everywhere will be facing the blank page, aiming to express knowledge, understanding and critique in x number of thousand words. For some, words will flow easily, for others words will remain elusive, and they will freeze under the tyranny of blankness. Then there are those, like me, who will write and delete in equal measure, stuck in a spiral of perfection and frustration, getting no-where.
Writing is central to academic life. For students, it is the principal method of assessment. For academics, it is the lifeblood of a career. For both, the outcome of the effort is scrutinized and evaluated, held up as evidence of intellectual (un)acceptability and (in)validity. It’s scary!
I find writing difficult, effortful and exhausting. I write slowly and I use the delete key as often as any vowel or consonant. I know my bad habits. These include hours of procrastination, in which there is much tidying of desks, searching of the net for inspiration and lots and lots of coffee. I write linearly, from beginning to end, trying to perfect each paragraph as I go in a futile attempt to circumvent the dreaded editing. This means I often get stuck in paragraphs for hours, unable to move on until I’m satisfied that what I’ve written. I write with a loose plan but the reality is that the plan emerges from my efforts to write. I refuse to start writing unless I have several hours to dedicate to it. Bad, bad, bad. Well, not bad, but not good either. I know my writing habits sufficiently to be able to manage them. I allow weeks to write a few thousand words, and I would never ever begin to write within hours of a deadline. Still, what I really need to do is change my habits, not merely make adjustments for them.
Intellectually, I know what good writing habits are:
· Plan your time
o As obvious as it sounds, panning your time is crucial. A last minute hurried attempt will produce at best a first draft and it will show!
o By planning your time, I mean actually scheduling it into your diary. Do not leave blanks in your diary where you plan to be working towards, or actually writing. Put it in and stick to it.
o If you have only an hour on a particular day, use it. Do not wait for the vast expanse of ‘free’ time to begin writing.
· Plan your writing
o You will overcome the blank page if you know what you are going to write.
o Make a detailed plan that sketches out the entire content. Planning often starts with diagrams or lists. Play with them until you have a coherent ordering of ideas and a sensible structure. Then, when you open the blank page, copy and paste your plan onto it.
o A good plan will support you actually beginning to write at any point in the essay. You do not have to start at the beginning and work to the end. If you are stuck in one section, start writing the next.
· Be flexible
o Ideas will occur to you as you write and this is one of the pay-offs of the creative effort in writing. Adapt your plan as you go.
· Embrace editing
o Never submit a first draft. Most writers go through several drafts before showing something publicly. The editing process is as important as getting the words out in the first place. It is in the editing that a poorly structured, wordy, descriptive piece can be transformed into great work. Trusting in the editing process means that you can be freer at the early stages of writing – just get the words out and know that you’ll be coming back to shape the whole thing up.
· Embrace feedback
o Writing does not have to be a solitary activity. There are ample opportunities for feedback along the way.
o Share your plan with a tutor. Tutors are not permitted to read drafts but we are allowed to comment on plans. Many a wayward essay has been put back on track with gentle nudges from people who will read the final version. Please do use this opportunity.
o The writing centre can help at any stage of the writing process. They can help you to organize your ideas or comment on your final draft. They will not offer advice on content but they will help you to present your arguments and to tighten up your style.
o You will get feedback once your essay has been marked and submitted. Read the comments objectively and draw on them to help shape your future writing.
There are other useful pointers. Have a writing goal for every writing session – numbers of words, complete a section, add citations. Try not to end a session with a final point. Instead, begin the next section, so that when you come back you know where you are going.
So, these are the things I wish I’d known thirty years ago, when I was an undergraduate. I share them with you now, in the hope that you’ll write as I say and not as I do.