What is writing?

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Writing & Editing

Writing is fundamentally a form of communication, and so the aim is to successfully transmit information and ideas from your brain to that of the reader.

This is difficult to do, because the information stored in your brain is not stored in a logical order. Each idea has a tangled mess of other ideas associated with it, and you don’t think in perfectly ordered sentences following a structured narrative.

But when you write, you have to do exactly that. You have to present each idea in a logical sequence, with each idea leading to the next in a set order as part of an overall structure.

So some kind of transformation has to take place to turn the jumbled mess of thoughts and ideas and associations into structured writing that someone else can follow.

This transformation, creating order from disorder, is the essence of writing. It is where the challenge lies and it is where the real work of writing takes place.

Writing, then, is a process of clarifying and structuring your thoughts so that someone else can follow them.

It is a one-way form of communication. In a conversation, the other person can ask questions, make comments, and you can make sure they understand what you are trying to say before you move on to the next point, but when writing you have no such feedback from the reader.

So an important skill to develop is the ability to asses the clarity of your own writing, and knowing how to edit your writing to give the reader the best possible chance of understanding what you want to communicate.

When I write, this is all I really try to do. To find a combination of words that will accurately convey the ideas in my head. Of course I consider the style and tone of the writing, and I also think about other factors like the rhythm of the language, but the primary concern is always clarity.

When writing for an examiner, I have a basic rule; it’s OK for the examiner to disagree with you, but they should never misunderstand you!

Because you don’t have live feedback from them though, you can never be certain you are succeeding, but this is still the target you should aim for.

If you want to make sure the reader, or examiner, understands what you are trying to say, you have to know and understand what you are trying to say first.

It is impossible to effectively communicate if you don’t know what you are trying to say, so the most fundamental and essential part of the writing process is figuring that out, and clarifying your thoughts and ideas to yourself first.

This is a little bit tricky, because some ideas emerge as you write, and like research, writing can be unpredictable.. The process of clarifying one idea often triggers another idea, which maybe changes your argument slightly. No matter how well you plan your writing, it is often impossible to know exactly what you are actually going to write until you sit down and do it.

As well as new ideas, there will also be times when you think you have a clear idea about what you want to say, but you find that there’s a gap in your knowledge or understanding that you didn’t know was there until you tried to write about it.

So any methodology for writing should take that unpredictability into account. We need a balance between forward planning and flexibility.

It is necessary to have some kind of structure in order to keep the process under control and stop new ideas from taking your writing in infinite new directions, but it is also necessary to be flexible, to allow yourself some changes and deviations from the plan.

My way of writing and the methods I teach students are a bit different to the usual writing advice. Not everybody agrees with everything I advise, but using these methods I was able to write my entire thesis in just 3 months.

Not only did I write it fast, I also enjoyed the process. For me it was the most enjoyable part of the whole PhD, and in a way I was sad to finish!

And not only that, I also passed my viva with zero corrections and wrote a thesis the examiners loved reading.

So in the next few videos I’m going to show you how I did it, and how you can do it too.

Series Navigation<< Why is PhD writing so painful?The 4 steps to get started with writing >>


    • James Hayton says

      Yes, I passed with zero corrections. I was as surprised as anyone. There were a few typos, but the examiners said they didn’t care about those as they were just “noise”.

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