Ten Myths about academic writing – Debunked!
By Dr. Helen Kara is a researcher, writer, speaker, and teacher,
Myth number one: Is that writing is not a research method.
I fundamentally disagree with this. I think writing is a key research method. I think it's so ubiquitous that we don't notice it, but it's a method used by all researchers. We can't do research without writing. Even the most quantitative researcher can't simply produce lists of numbers or pages of tables, they need to write some narrative to explain the tables, to point out the outliers, to outline the significance of what they've found. All researchers use writing.
Myth number two: However, myth number two is that writing is easy.
Reading is easy, well at least for most of us, not for all of us, but for many people, particularly those working in scholarly arenas, reading is pretty straightforward. And because we find reading easy, we think writing must be or should be easy, but it isn't, it's hard, it's hard work in a bunch of different stages.
Myth number three: is that if you need to write, you have to wait for inspiration to strike.
Don't do that. Inspiration won't strike, or if it does it'll be inspiration to go and play Candy Crush or clean out the fridge or anything other than actual writing. If you want to write, you have to write down words on page or screen, one after another, until you have enough of them.
Myth number four: Another myth is that you have to wait until you're in the mood to write.
Also, wrong. You have to write when you need to get writing done. It's part of your job, if you're a student or a scholar, writing is part of your job, so treat it like a job: set time aside, sit down, write stuff. As Terry Pratchett would say, "apply bum glue," stick yourself to the chair, get your writing done.
Myth number five: you have to wait until you know what it is that you want to say in writing. This isn’t true either.
You can start writing without much idea at all. You can use a technique called 'free writing' where you simply write for five minutes, set an alarm on your phone, give yourself a prompt such as "I want to say..." and keep writing after that prompt. If you get stuck, if you dry up, write the prompt again, write it as many times as you need till it takes you somewhere else. Don't worry about whether your writing makes sense, whether you're getting your spelling right, whether your sentence syntax is correct, just write stuff down, for five minutes, without stopping, censoring yourself or even thinking very much, and at the end of that you'll probably have a lot more of idea about what it is that you want to say. Even if you only have half an idea you can get going, say some stuff. If there are gaps and spaces you can put placeholders for yourself. I put mine in capitals so that they're easy to find again, and they might say something like "write more here" or "find out more about this and then write about it."
Myth number six: is that you start every piece of writing at the beginning of the first page, where the reader will start reading.
That's not true either, it's another myth that comes from the way that we mostly read books from the start to the finish. But in writing, start with the bit that comes easily. Doesn't matter if it's right in the middle, you can fiddle it about later on, and of course working digitally makes this much easier because you can move paragraphs, you can move whole sections, between documents even, very simply and very straightforwardly. So, start with the easy parts and that will help you write your way into the more difficult sections.
Myth number seven: is that you need a big chunk of time to write.
This is wrong too. When I'm teaching creative writing for doctoral students I teach them to write in half-hour chunks. We do 'shut up and write' half-hour sessions, they write in a group and it's helpful to have that group there. So, everybody's turned off their phones, everybody's computers are on quiet, everybody's just getting on with writing. And we count, though, I get them to count the words. Of course, if they've written electronically, this is very straightforward. Those who write long hand it's a little more complicated, but they can figure out approximately how many words they've written, and they're often astonished to find they can write hundreds of words in just half an hour. It's really useful sometimes to have the big chunks of time, but equally it can be counterproductive, because if you have a big chunk of time you think, "I've got plenty of time to write, I'll just go on Facebook, I'll just run a quick errand,
I'll just, I'll just, I'll just..." and then suddenly half the big chunk of time you had has gone. Anyway, sometimes people are more productive in small chunks of time, and really with writing you must figure out what works for you. So, try out some different approaches and see what works, but you do not necessarily need a big chunk of time to write. Before I came to write this blog, I did some useful writing in a chunk of about 20 minutes, so if I can, so can you.
Myth number eight: in academic writing, long sentences and long words are best.
This is old school. People used to think if you could sound more clever then people would think you were more clever, and you probably would be more clever, and that using long sentences with long words in them made you sound clever, therefore it was a good idea. And that applied very much in academic writing, but now people are more impressed by simple explanations in plain English. However, complex the concept, if you can explain it simply to people they'll really appreciate you putting in the time to do that so they don't have to, so they can just understand it, get the picture.
Myth number nine: is that good writers immediately produce polished writing.
That's not so either. I'm demonstrably a good writer, I write books, I get asked to write more books, I have good reviews, people say kind things. The piece of writing I did in the 20 minutes before I came to write this blog had several comments on it to my co-writer, saying, "Have I said enough here? Does this sound right? Can you add anything to this?" At the start your writing will be rubbish, mine is so yours will be. You have to not worry about that. You can't write it well from the start, you need to write and then edit. The first draft you're telling the story to yourself, the second draft is where you tell the story to your readers, where you craft it for an audience.
Myth number ten: you can't write well, so there's no point in trying.
That's not true either, because you can write well. You may not have done so yet, but you can, and you can do so by following the principles that I've carefully set out in this blog, they will help you along the way. Keep going, keep writing, keep putting one word after another. When you’ve got enough words start crafting them into something good that will work for other people. And there you go, that's all there is to it!