It is not uncommon for writers, academic and non-academic alike, to hold on to a fastidious set of beliefs about the writing process. We mystify the relationship between our thoughts and the physical act of putting pen to paper or finger tips to keys and generating words. For some, writing occurs only after they have read the contextual literature and have meticulously worked through their ideas. When the words do not flow easily, we often anxiously and hurriedly return to the books or the lab. For others, successful writing can only occur when they feel a particular way; unfortunately, it is often the case that this ‘writerly headspace’ avails itself unpredictably and irregularly.
Beliefs of this nature can be limiting and disempowering and can undermine the intellectual nexus that exists between writing and deep thinking. While we all have high expectations of our research and it would be unrealistic to expect the writing process to be unchallenging, there are common-sense strategies that you can employ to become a more stylish and a more consistent writer.
Today’s guest blogger, Dr Narelle Lemon, is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Education. Narelle is an AcWriMo veteran, having had her reflections on 2011 published on the Thesis Whisperer blog. In this piece, she reflects upon the process of learning how to write, reminding us that as much as writing might at times seem intangible, inexplicable and elusive, it is a learned skill, which can be practiced, refined and developed. Certainly, this is a heartening thought.
5 Tips to get you into the regular writing habit
By Dr Narelle Lemon
I love writing. I enjoy the sharing that comes with writing of exciting research I have been involved with. For me writing is a significant part of my job as an academic. I don’t see it is an extra element, and add on or even an element that is difficult to find time to carry out. I make time to write.
Post my doctoral thesis completion in 2010 I must admit I had to learn how to write. This sounds crazy as writing a thesis is writing. But it was for me, as for many people, a love/hate relationship that in all reality often sat in the latter. In being able to reflect back on those times I have realised that I was learning how to write. Conversations with my supervisors, peers and colleagues often centered around this but I think I didn’t really get it until I had finished, had some down time both cognitively and emotionally and in some respects stepped away. When my energy levels were rejuvenated there was a significant moment for me in moving forward in that I realised writing is a learning process, one that I have to be open to explore, trial, observe, try, and work at. The work of Laurel Richardson assisted me greatly with this as she talks about “just writing”. I call it “blah writing” – I have an idea that I want to share or unpack and I just write about it. I don’t edit as I go and I just let my thinking flow and my fingers type.
I come from a background in the arts, music and visual arts, and in many ways writing itself is an art form. You have to do it to get better at it. So for me writing is something I do every day. I schedule time every day, usually in the morning, and this is paired with mapping out what it is I want to work on – an abstract, structure of a paper, discussion of a particular research question, and so on. I work on research that excites me so a natural curiosity and energy is attached. I want to write about the process, the findings and the recommendations and share this with others. Post doctoral thesis I developed some very handy approaches that in many ways I wished I had accessed while I was writing my thesis, however I don’t think I was ready at that stage. And that is okay, actually very healthy to acknowledge. The writing journey and the doing part, the action, of the writing had to develop over time. This is why I value it so much in my role as an academic.
In my approach to writing I’ve learnt from others and have been inspired by colleagues, who like me, are also trying to figure out how to write, how to write more, and how to continue to enjoy the process. Some of my top five tips for others focusing on writing being a bigger part of their academic life would be:
1. Enjoy what you are doing – there has to be a level of passion and enthusiasm for your research and writing. It is at times hard to find time to write and hard to develop a flow but by enjoying what you are writing about then there is a positive step forward to juggling the struggle.
2. Learn from others – watch, ask questions, go to writing workshops, be involved in writing groups like Shut Up and Write Sessions, explore strategies to assist with writing such as the pomodoro technique, participate in great supportive writing initiatives such as Academic Writing Month (#AcWriMo) in the month of November or the La Trobe November Writing Challenge. Every chance to pick up hints and be active with your writing only assists in forming a regular habit of writing.
3. Share with others what your goals for writing are – this always helps with accountability plus establishing a supportive community. This could be face to face with colleagues or even in virtual spaces such as Twitter.
4. Plan – map out your writing and set goals and timelines.
5. Work out when you write best – think about what time of the day works for you and then lock it into your diary. Make it a part of your academic work life, and even think about the location where you write best. Most importantly give yourself permission to not look at emails or be distracted with other tasks, just honor your writing.
You can follow Narrelle on Twitter @rellypops. She also maintains a wonderful teaching & learning blog, bursting with interesting scholarly musings, which you can find here.
Writing is difficult, and it's useful to know that there is help out there if you are encountering problems. Here, Thesis Whisperer Dr Inger Mewburn, explains how, with concerted effort over the course of writing two theses, she managed to improve her grammer skills. Generously, she also provides links to a number of writing exercise sheets that can help you to hone your own skills. There is also writing support-a-plenty at La Trobe. The Academic Language and Learning Unit, for example, has some great resources on thesis writing for HDR students, which you can check out here. If you know of any particularly useful writing resources, post details in the comments section below.