1 Apr, 16 | by Jackie Cassell, Editor of STI
Academic writing hasn’t come easily to me and I’ve come to realise that learning to write – like most things – is something we never really stop doing. Doing a PhD has given me a great opportunity to think about and improve how I write for academic publication. Here are my top tips:
1. Start to enjoy writing
By changing my expectations of the writing process, and by giving the subject some time and attention, I have genuinely experienced a change in how I feel about academic writing. There are undoubtedly many things you can identify to make your own experience of writing more enjoyable, and taking time to work out what suits you best is a really worthwhile pursuit. ‘Enjoy writing’ is kind of a meta-tip. The tips that follow are all things that have helped me enjoy the process, and to write better along the way….
2. Recognise that academic writing is a form of professional writing
Realising that academic writing is a professional skill has really helped me. I don’t like feeling stupid, and academic writing – because I don’t get it ‘right first time’ – used to make me feel pretty stupid. Therefore I didn’t enjoy writing. But producing a professional level of writing means the bar is set pretty high. Keeping this in mind has stopped me feeling stupid, and has helped me to accept that writing at a professional level is a skill that takes everyone time to develop.
3. Accept that you won’t get it right the first time
People always said this sort of thing to me, and I assumed they were just trying to make me feel better. But it turns out they were just trying to tell me something that is true. No-one sits down and writes a paper, grant or proposal perfectly the first time. This isn’t about lowering your expectations of yourself (which tip no.2 relates to). This is about changing your expectations of the writing process itself. Producing a ‘good’ piece of writing is an iterative process, fact. Once you accept that it’s SUPPOSED to be that way, your attitude towards your less-than-immediately-perfect writing will start to shift.
4. Break it down
A blank sheet is always intimidating, but easily populated by sub-headings. If you’re writing up a piece of research there will be a clear structure to follow (and most journals will specify the sections and even sub-headings they want used). There’s lots of good advice out there on how to write up research, particularly on the order in which you should write those sections – for example most advice suggests that you write the introduction last. Within each section you can then begin to jot down what you need to say and to create a sequence for them – again there are some great articles out there about how to do this and a lot of academic convention which you can follow e.g. http://abacus.bates.edu/~ganderso/biology/resources/writing/HTWsections.html. This leaves you with a much more manageable task- a series of paragraph headings that need completing.
5. Take every opportunity to learn
The more you write the more confidence you will have and the greater your ability will be. So while you’re writing – or perhaps just thinking about – that paper, take every opportunity to practice your writing. This could include writing up reports and audits, writing opinion pieces for clinical journals, contributing to guidelines and/or writing for its own sake (see the next tip). Also, take opportunities to read the academic writing of others. This could include reading drafts or proofs of others’ papers, grants or offering to act as a reviewer for a nascent journal in your field. It is almost impossible to read without forming some sort of critique – notice what is good and what could be improved about what you’re reading and remember those points when you put pen to paper.
6. Discover that writing leads to insight
When we get the chance to discuss our research or ideas it’s really helpful, and insights and solutions often present themselves as we talk. But opportunities to do this, particularly in a clinical environment, may be hard to realise.
But the wonderful thing is that writing about an idea can provide much of the same functions as talking about it. So if you’ve had a eureka moment – or better still if you’re in need of one – start writing about it, for no-one’s eyes but your own and for no purpose other than to properly figure the thing out. I regularly write messy, stream-of-consciousness narratives of ‘well there’s this issue, and if you address it that way you might get X – which carries the assumption of Y- but alternatively there is Z…. blah blah’. This is invariably cathartic and gives a palpable sense of achievement in itself. What comes out can be surprisingly insightful and often sets things clear in your mind in such a way that you are then ready to start writing ‘properly’ for the eyes of others.
7. If you’re struggling to improve your writing find a critical friend
I was told repeatedly that my academic writing was dense and too onerous to read, and yet I struggled to improve and I kept getting the same feedback. I’m lucky enough to have a supervisor who has taken the time to deconstruct what it is about my writing which makes the reader experience it that way so that I now have a ‘checklist’ of things I actively try to avoid in my writing. If you possibly can, do find someone to do the same for you.
8. Anticipate that you will get feedback in steps
Those things my supervisor told me about my writing didn’t all come my way at once. First I was just advised to shorten my sentences and I naively went away thinking ‘now I’ve got this thing fixed’. So I was disheartened to find that I then needed to work on my language…. A bit like Tip 3 you’re not going to improve your writing in all ways all at once. I’m still working on my flowery language but I now fully expect that when I’ve nailed that there will be something else for me to improve on.
9. Know your audience
You’re much more likely to get a paper accepted for publication if it’s been written with the right audience in mind. So once you have decided what your paper is going to be about and sketched it out (see tip. 4), spend some time researching journals which cover your topic, and find out who their key audiences are. For example, a journal aimed at clinical academics are likely to want papers which place greater emphasis on clinically-relevant findings, and which are pitched at those who combine those sets of knowledge. This applies to topic as well as discipline- if your research bridges both primary care and sexual health you will likely want to foreground one or the other, depending on what journal you aim for.
10. Find your style and know yourself
You will always have your own style of writing, and the best way for you to produce writing will also be unique to you. There’s quite a lot out there on the web about ways of writing which is helpful… this vitae page about generative versus planned writing styles for example https://www.vitae.ac.uk/doing-research/doing-a-doctorate/completing-your-doctorate/writing-and-submitting-your-doctoral-thesis/structuring-your-thesis.
It seems to me that getting to know oneself as a writer comprises three things:
1. Finding out the conditions that make writing enjoyable and productive for you (for many including me that means scheduling carefully for solitude and peace to write).
2. Discovering the tricks that help you personally to write well (e.g. I’ve discovered that giving a sub-heading to mini bits of text helps me to keep track of what I’m writing, and that generating a Table of Contents from those sub-headings then helps me play around with the structure to find a good narrative)
3. Finding the best way to apply feedback (e.g. I have a mental checklist of things to bear in mind as I right but also ‘proof-read’ and reconstruct after).
This blog is adapted from ‘’Writing tips for doctoral students” which was published on the sussexresearchhive.wordpress.com in February 2016