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.
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.
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.
A 20-minute writing exercise