I don’t mean to complain, but undergrad does such a disservice to students, especially decent writers. Because several papers, projects, and assignments are always due at the same time, undergrad trains students in the art of writing at the last minute. There is no time to start a paper in advance to allow time to edit. Those who are decent writers discover that they can get away with this and still perform well enough to meet their professors’ expectations. Graduate school is a rude awakening to the fact that such students (yes, I am talking about myself) have neither the patience or the skills needed to revise and edit papers. There have been a number of occasions in which my first drafts were still good enough in graduate classes, but to write polished essays, especially for conference presentations, fellowship, and publication takes a great deal of time and many drafts.
Not to sound melodramatic, but in working on an essay recently, I hit rock bottom and realized I had to change the way I thought about my writing and my writing practice before I went mad. After a very difficult year in which poor health inhibited my ability to write anything well – the first, second, third, or even fourth time – you could say that I have developed writer’s block or just a severe case of nerves when it comes time to sit at the keyboard. I realized that I was truly going to lose my mind if something didn’t change and quickly. Through an odd series of events, I came across two books that have been incredibly helpful in getting me past the mental road blocks. The first is written by a sociologist who has taught a course on writing for graduate school for a number of years: Howard S. Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article. I haven’t even finished the first chapter yet, but I have learned (and relearned) so much that I thought I would share:
- Most graduate students develop elaborate routines to deal with the anxiety produced by fears that they won’t be able to organize their thoughts into clear prose and that others will ridicule and criticize their writing. Becker writes that “Many of the rituals ensured that what was written could not be taken for a ‘finished’ product, so no one could laugh at it” (5). I find that I have developed that defense mechanism, but it doesn’t work well when the paper must be submitted for publication or presented in front of colleagues.
- Be clear, concise, and direct. We all know this, but how often do we (I am especially guilty of this) catch ourselves using phrases like “the processes by which” or “the ways in which” instead of something simple like “how”. It makes us feel safer if we write in “academse,” as if such “scholarly” and important-sounding phrases will protect us from others’ criticism and condemnation.
- Sometimes passive constructions and abstract nouns result from faulty theory rather than problematic writing, so we need to consider exactly who or what causes the processes or events we are describing.
- Editing and revising takes a long time – always longer than I thought it would or even should take.
- The way we learned to write in undergrad makes us experts at one (draft)-and-done papers, but that habit inhibits the flow of ideas because we (I) worry too much about getting it “right” the first time.
- It doesn’t matter what we write the first time because we are going to change it and any rough draft, no matter how poorly constructed, can be turned into a quality paper.
- In fact, rambling in a rough draft, restating similar ideas in different ways, and even circuitous writing allows you to consider an idea from multiple angles and state it more clearly in the next draft.
- Editing while we write slows us down and might even prevent us from saying something we need to in order to better understand the subject about which we are writing.
In another post I will discuss the other book I picked up (How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing by Paul J. Silvia) on writing as a process and how to develop habits that ensure the completion of an article, dissertation or book. As I relearn how to write well, I will continue to post what I find most helpful in the hope that it might be useful for someone else.