Why most writing advice does not work

There is a huge amount of writing advice available for PhD students. There are countless books and blogs and writing coaches doing their best to help, and a lot of the advice is fairly similar.

  • Write every day, from the start of your PhD
  • Don’t think too much, just get words down on the page and sort it out later
  • Done is better than perfect
  • Writing is re-writing
  • Writing is thinking- let the thoughts flow out and see where it takes you

The problem is this; although everybody knows these things, and clearly these tips must work for the people giving the advice, there is still a huge number of students who are incredibly stressed by the writing process.

Let me be clear on this point- I am not saying the common advice is necessarily wrong, but I do think it is insufficient.

The danger of soundbite-advice

I’m starting with the assumption that most people giving writing advice are good writers themselves, and that they genuinely apply their own advice to their own writing.

But writing is a complex process, and any advice that can be reduced to a single tweet soundbite is going to be a massive oversimplification of what they actually do.

The danger is that these oversimplifications become so widely spread and so well-known that they become axiomatic, unquestionable principles.

I believe that these tips only work if they are applied skillfully, and we need to put some of the subtlety back in in order for them to be useful.

Some basic principles of coaching

A good coach will adapt what they say for different people, depending on their needs and their level of skill. The advice they give to a beginner should be different to the advice they give to a high-level performer.

There are several theoretical models of skill development, but the basic idea is that the amount of conscious effort taken to do something depends on your level of expertise. As a complete beginner every element takes a lot of thought and concentration, but as an expert you can perform the task automatically without conscious thought.

skill-effort

This is a very well-established principle in sports coaching, but it also fits in with the theory of flow in creative tasks- you need a high level of skill in order to enter the flow state and produce good work in the process.

Being good at something doesn’t make you a good coach

Sometimes, the things that work for someone with a high level of skill are totally inappropriate for someone with a lower level of skill. So when a writing coach tells you to “just get words down on the page, don’t worry about the detail because you can edit later”, that probably works for them because they are skillful enough to write reasonably well without conscious effort.

Also, there will be many parts of the process which the skillful writer doesn’t even know they are doing, precisely because it is subconscious. When they say they aren’t thinking about the writing, what they really mean is that they are using years of ingrained experience to make tiny instinctive adjustments to the style and structure and rhythm of their writing, but without being aware of the thought process.

Telling someone to try to emulate that process can be harmful, because when it doesn’t work people tend to blame themselves. If this is the approach everyone recommends and it doesn’t work for me then maybe I’m not good enough.

Adapting the approach to the skill level

If you want to improve your level of skill, you must slow down.You need to take time to consciously think about what you are doing and make adjustments. Make an attempt, assess the result, and adapt.

This is commonly referred to as the writing-editing cycle but it’s done on too large a scale, thinking in terms of writing a “shitty first draft”, then editing the whole thing. Again, this may work for someone who is skilled and confident at editing (and whose “shitty first draft” probably isn’t that shitty anyway), but for most people it’s a nightmare.

It’s better to practice the skill by writing a very short section- maybe a single paragraph or even a single sentence- and editing that. This works because it’s easier to edit 50 words than 5000, but it’s also important to practice because if you can’t do it for 50 words, what hope do you have for an entire thesis?

An Example: Writing in a Second Language

A huge number of students have to write their thesis in a second language, and the majority of these students won’t have the same level of skill as a native speaker. This means that to write accurately takes a lot more conscious effort.

I have some experience of this, having lived and worked in France and Spain (though fortunately I wrote my thesis in English). To write an email in French or Spanish took a huge amount of effort. I had to look up words. I had to check verb conjugations. I had to think about the structure of the language. And I had to do this for every single sentence. It was hard work, but if I put the effort in then I could do it.

Because my skill level was very low everything took a long time, but I improved quickly because of that conscious effort and thought.

Subject Knowledge

The skill of academic writing is complicated, because it relies on both writing ability and subject knowledge. No matter how good you are at your subject, there will be some areas where your knowledge and understanding are weaker than others. Obviously, these weaker areas are more difficult to write about.

Because the difficulty of ideas you write about will vary throughout your thesis, so will your writing pace. This is often mistaken for writer’s block, and people say that you should just “write through the block”. But it makes much more sense to acknowledge that it’s a difficult idea and slow down.

This means you can take time, give conscious thought to the idea and take the opportunity to improve your understanding of your subject before you move on. If you do this, then the next time you have to write about that idea it will be much easier!

An Accumulation of Tiny Improvements

Part of the secret to developing expertise is focus on the small component parts that make up the totality of the skill.

Devoting conscious effort for even a short period of time to the deliberate practice or improvement of just one thing may only result in an incremental improvement, but these small improvements add up.

Your brain will start to form shortcuts and associations between different elements, and that’s when you will start to be able to operate at the subconscious level.

My Top Writing Tip

The best advice I can give you is to occasionally slow down and think about what you are trying to say. Even if you are a good writer, sometimes it just takes a bit of time to find the right words.

The goal should not be to stay in the flow state all the time, because then you can’t write about anything that isn’t already engrained in your subconscious, and you will quickly run out of easy things to write about.

Instead, you should get comfortable with a natural variation in pace. When an idea is difficult, slow down and give it conscious thought.

See also:

Writing- why practice doesn’t always make perfect

A 20-minute writing exercise

 

Comments

  1. Anja says

    Hi James,

    I totally agree with the things you have written here. What I am missing in this post are the effects of the academic system that also influences the writer. Firstly, what is a good writer and what is a bad wirter might be very subjective to the editor/reviewer/supervisor. You can be the best writer, if the person you are presenting the paper to is not convinced by you, success may not occur.
    Second I agree with the fact, that writing needs time. I don’t know how the situation is in other countries, but I wonder how I can spend that time if I am a part-time doctoral student. In my case, I am working full-time and I feel that the pressure to produce good articles is even higher.
    Third, I also don’t know how the support for PhD students is done in other countries, but in my case, my supervisor is de facto not present. So from whom can I learn how to write articles, especially considering the before mentioned two points? It would be really interesting for me to know how other students perceive the process. Cheers!

  2. James Harlan says

    Hi James,

    Your point is really true for there is no such thing as “one size fits all” when it comes to writing. They may get inspiration from others approach of writing but it’s not going to be the same to their own way.

    Cheers!

    • James Hayton says

      I wasn’t really saying that “there is no such thing as one size fits all”. My point is that the amount of conscious effort required depends on your skill level and you need to adapt your approach based on that universal principle.

      We need to avoid oversimplifications as crucial subtleties get lost. As Einsten (may have) said, make it as simple as possible, but not simpler!

  3. Krista says

    Thank you for this! My writing process is very different from the advice typically given to PhD students and it has made me a bit anxious from time to time.

    My process is to start with a fairly robust outline and then write a single draft, so that when I am done I usually only have to do minor editing. And I also need to write for hours at a time in order to get into a flow; writing for only 90 mins at a time would be useless for me, as I need at least that long just to get into it.

    I think everyone struggles with writing to some degree and I know the advice comes from a good place but I wish people giving this advice would acknowledge that there are lots of ways to write and it’s more about finding a way to write that works for you!

    • Tim says

      Krista: My writing process right now is a lot like yours. I have found that I get stuck and frustrated trying to write if I do not have an outline, because my thoughts are not organized enough. The outline can take a lot of time but I have started calling it “organization work,” which makes me feel better about the time spent.

      James: Great post again! Your frequent counsel to slow down and think is gradually making me more productive.

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