This ebook comprises most of the posts I published on this blog. Download it for free and read about the various aspects and challenges of academic writing.

Mind Your Writing Ebook

 

Table of Contents

Introduction

Part One: Mindful Writing

Part Two: The Writing Process from Start to Finish

Part Three: Challenges of Academic Prose

Part Four: Dealing with Academic Genres

Part Five: How Famous Researchers Work

Part Six: 10 Reminders for Academic Writers

Bibliography

 

Are you one of those writers who fear writing because they imagine it as a solitary job? There’s no doubt that at times writers might feel lonely. However, if you read the acknowledgments in books, you will see that the bigger picture looks different.

I was reminded of the social nature of writing once again, when I read the acknowledgments in César Hidalgo’s Why Information Grows (2016, Penguin Books). It’s a challenging and, to my mind, eye-opening book about the role and scope of information. Having thought throughout the book that Mr. Hidalgo must be one of the most intelligent people on this planet, I’ve been surprised by his acknowledgment pages at the end of the book (called „Bleeding Words“). Sure, he must have depended on other people for writing and producing the book. But, as I learned, writing was a big challenge for him. Intelligent though he may be, writing is hard for him too. What a relief (no offense intended)!

Whatever book you look into, if there are acknowledgments, the social nature of writing will pop right out. Authors rely on friends, colleagues, families (who mostly suffer more due to the author’s mental or physical absence), literary agents, editors and publishers. They rely on them for logistical support (Hidalgo thanks the baristas working in the coffee shops where he wrote his manuscript), help finding focus or reshaping initial ideas, mental support, giving feedback on various drafts and so on. So far, I’ve not seen any books, in which the authors didn’t thank anybody and did everything themselves. All authors need a social network. And it’s only fair that they thank most of the people in the acknowledgments (at least those they remember as having been supportive).

Before you despair, because you need to sit down again all on your own to write, remind yourself of your supportive writing network. And if you’re stuck with your thesis, PhD or book, start drafting the acknowledgments. Then, at least, you’re writing something you have to write anyway.

Writing alone is challenging; writing with others even more so. You deal with the same writing problems and decision making, but this time, you have to solve them and make them together.

I write this post because a colleague and I just finished the first draft of a book. We’ve been working on it since last spring, when I came up with an idea and wanted him to be a part of the project. Since then, we worked on the project, negotiated with the publisher and then started to write. You can find some books that describe collaborative academic writing (see chap. 3 in Paul Silvia’s Write It Up), but I would like to share some things that I’ve learned in the past few months.

I can definitely recommend writing a text with someone else. On the one hand, you will learn more about the topic than you would have if you had done it yourself. On the other hand, you will learn a lot about yourself as a writer and your abilities to adapt to someone else’s writing habits and quirks.

Here are two aspects of writing together that you need to think about:

Organizing work
Regardless of how many people are involved, which text genre you are writing and how long the process will take, you need to find ways to organize the work. The better you plan, the fewer the troubles you will encounter.

From the outset, we created a shared online folder with a Cloud-supported service. In the folder we began with simple text documents in order to document our first ideas. Having found a structure for the book, we created sub-folders for each chapter and others for administrative tasks. I guess there are other solutions to do this, but this method did the trick for us. As collaborative writers, you need to have your ideas, decisions, plans, texts and other documents in one place, accessible to everyone in the team. Later in the process, when it comes to giving feedback on one another’s texts, shared files are crucial and make your writing life easier. Only towards the end of the first revision round, however, did my colleague tell me that we could have simplified our feedback process by using the same writing program.

Having a shared folder isn’t enough, though. You need to make written plans and define who is responsible for which tasks. Whatever you decide and talk about, make sure you document the important things. With the first conflict, you will be glad that you can go back to your files and check.

Work strategies
If you have the opportunity to choose your fellow writers, choose them wisely. You should know and accept your coauthors work strategies and style. Even if your work style differs from theirs, you at least know what to expect. You will profit from this knowledge, for example, when it comes to planning the project in the long term. I wouldn’t have asked my colleague to write this book with me, if I hadn’t known or couldn’t accept how he works and writes. Sure, we had some discussions about some minor questions on the process and the content, but nothing that would have interrupted our work.

If you do your job well, you will be able to enjoy writing with others. And as a side effect, you will learn new things about writing, the topic and yourself. If you neglect to prepare the process as a team, you will be in for a rough ride.

When I teach people how to give and receive text feedback in a group of researchers, I always provoke some of the participants with my opinion about editing. First of all, during the workshop, the participants are not allowed to edit the texts they have received from the others in the group. Instead, they should stick to the task and give feedback. Some of them, however, are not used to the differentiation between editing and giving feedback. That’s why they end up doing both. When it’s their turn to give their feedback to the author, I stop them from presenting how they would edit the text. Why am I so strict? Giving text feedback is a different activity to editing. They are two different ball games, if you like.

In the case of giving feedback, you point out words, phrases, sentences you don’t understand; passages you stumbled upon; logical holes in the argument; problems you have with the structure; concerns about the language or style; or anything else that the author asked you to give feedback on (see the posts on feedback from the writer’s and reader’s perspective). Whatever you give feedback on, it suffices to say what kind of problem you have and where exactly in the text. You don’t have to indulge in how you would solve the problem – that’s up to the author. That also means that you don’t change the text yourself.

In the case of editing, that’s exactly what you’re expected to do: to alter or improve the text. You delete and add words, phrases, sentences; you rearrange paragraphs because the structure is not right; you fill in logical holes; and you polish the language and style. That’s what you do when you’re asked to edit – not to give feedback.

Do yourself and the author a favor and stick to what you’re supposed to do. You save time and energy for both yourself and the author. How do I know? I mixed up giving feedback and editing at the beginning of my career as a writing coach. Only after learning about feedback and editing did I realize my mistake. Since then, I give feedback, because that’s part of my job as a writing coach. I do not edit, however, because I am not an editor.

There’s no such thing as a text without an audience. Texts are written for someone or some group. It’s no different in academia. Why then, I would like to ask, do students have to write texts that don’t address an audience (except the teachers or supervisors)?

In my counseling sessions at the university, I deal with a lot of students of varying levels and disciplines. But they have one thing in common: they don’t know their texts’ audience. One might be inclined to blame them for not thinking about it. I, however, would like to suggest that we could blame their teachers and supervisors, who did not construct the assignments accordingly. What is implicit in each and every text those same teachers and researchers publish, is lacking in their students’ work. It wouldn’t take the teachers much more work than before to invent new writing assignments with a clear context, purpose and audience. Not only would the students learn how to deal with differing assignments, it would also be more challenging and, ideally, fun. If the assignments mimicked the ones the students faced in their future professions, they would learn even more.

So what does it take? Not much at all. For each writing assignment you need only a few ingredients: Apart from information about the topic, the text genre (essay, seminar paper, book review, research report, conference abstract, journal editorial, public speech…), you need a more or less specific audience. The audience is comprised of the real or imagined people who would be reading and need to understand the text. Should it be a group of other researchers, who work on the same problems? Could it be the other students from class, who only have a superficial understanding of the topic? Or could it be a group of government officials, who need to be convinced about an argument?

Depending on the text genre, the purpose of a text differs. With that purpose, you also need to imagine how the audience will use the information presented. And therefore, you need to know or imagine, what the people in the audience might want to know, what they already know or how much definitions, technical terms or acronyms they understand. Knowing the audience will influence a text on different levels. That’s why a supervisor’s advice, „Your grandmother should be able to understand your master’s thesis“, doesn’t seem appropriate (that’s a true example, unfortunately).

My clients struggle with their texts, among other things, because they lack an audience. As soon as they have or can imagine one, they can start to work on the answers to questions such as: Which style should I choose? Which words do I need to explain in more detail? What kind of references do I need to make? Which writing conventions and reading habits do I need to consider? In which role do I appear in the text? These and other questions need answers and decisions within the text. We can only decide once we know whom we are writing for. If we don’t have an audience, what’s the point of writing at all?

If you are a student facing an assignment without audience, you have two possibilities: Either you ask your teacher for whom you should be writing the text or you can invent an audience for yourself. You will gain confidence when you know who is supposed to read your text. Only then will you be able to shape your text and prose the way it needs to be.

You don’t need to believe everything that goes through your head. This also applies when it comes to your ideas about how you should be as an academic writer, how the writing process should look, or how the text you produce should be. You need to look closely, especially at those ideas that block your writing or prevent you from starting to write at all. They’re often connected to your habits and actions. I call these ideas writing myths: hindering and inadequate ideas and stories about writing (I’ve been inspired to use this term by Keith Hjortshoj’s book Understanding Writing Blocks). Without changing your mindset, they will continue to bother you, each time you (try to) write. Maybe you succeed in finishing and submitting, but with a bad feeling about yourself, the process or your text. Every time you get a new writing assignment, you think that you know what will happen: You won’t look forward to writing, but you have to go through this torment time and again. I don’t think it needs to be this way.

The first step to demystifying the writing myths that you believe in, is to simply become aware of them. Try to find out, what kind of myth it is and how it hinders you from or blocks you during writing. Only then, in a second step, will you be able to adapt your ideas and the habits related to them. It might take some time, but take it from a formerly tormented writer, it’s worth the effort.

I would like to give you an idea of what I mean by writing myths. They’re nothing new. Unfortunately, they have haunted academic writers for a long time. It’s time to demystify them and get your writing done.

  1. I can’t write.

Instead of believing this sweeping statement, think again. Would you be allowed to study, if you were unable to write? Of course not. So, what exactly is it that you think you’re bad at? As soon as you don’t believe this story, someone else might have told you in the past, you can start the work. Find out what aspect of (academic) writing you need to look at more closely. The more you write, the more you can work on your shortcomings (I know I have still some, but this doesn’t hinder me from writing).

  1. I need to be inspired.

No, you don’t. With practice in regular writing, you’ll be able to write, even if the Muse takes a holiday for some months. It’s not worth waiting for her. She’s only visiting the writers who stick to a writing schedule anyway. Get that work done and enjoy it when you feel inspired. If not, do the work nevertheless.

  1. I shouldn’t talk about writing.

Researchers love to talk about theories, methods and results. But when it coomes to writing and its challenges, they too often keep silent. Don’t be one of them. Talking about the craft of writing can only help to understand it better. Talk to other students, colleagues or your professor about writing. Or visit your university’s writing center and similar institutions (I hope there is one). Consider it this way: In order for athletes to become better, they consult coaches. Without them, they wouldn’t know what to improve or how to overcome physical and mental obstacles. Use every opportunity to learn from other writers and share your struggles and successes.

  1. I need to read and know everything before I write.

If you think so, you won’t finish your text in the near future – if at all. There’s always something to read and study. Do yourself a favor and start to write as early as possible. Use writing as a tool to think about your topic, question or thesis. Writing can accompany your research and reading phases. (I believed in this myth for about three years of my PhD…).

  1. I should work like the others.

Maybe you think that your colleagues work in a specific way. They seem to be successful, as far as you can tell. If you also believe in myth number three, then this might all be speculation. Instead of following someone else’s way of working – which might well work for this particular writer – and getting nothing else but frustrated, you better find your own way. You need to figure out what works for you – not forever, but for each writing assignment.

  1. I need big blocks of time to write.

If you don’t have big blocks of time, what are you going to do? Are you going to wait indefinitely until you find this block of time? Good luck waiting. You better get going by using the time that you have. With some training and good habits, you can write for half an hour and produce more than just waiting for four-hour blocks that will never show up. If you belong to those lucky (or poor?) researchers, who received a sabbatical, you’ll have a hard time making good use of it. A sabbatical may be hell, if you don’t know how to spend your time – I know what I’m talking about.

  1. My first draft needs to be perfect.

If it were perfect, it wouldn’t be a draft anymore. Perfectionists make their own writing life worse than it needs to be. Take musicians: They practice for weeks or months, making a lot of mistakes. Only when they go on stage and perform for an audience, do they need to get their act together. As a writer, you won’t perform in front of an audience until you submit or publish your text. Before that, you make up your own audience. So relax and allow yourself to write a shitty first draft that you can revise afterwards. That’s when the quality comes in. Oh, and don’t strive for a perfect text, because it probably won’t ever reach perfection.

  1. I can’t use the word „I“.

That’s an old one too. Although many students and researchers still believe this to be true and to have always been, research shows a different picture. While students especially think that the use of „I“ stems from a subjective, hence non-objective, perspective, they don’t know that they could hide a bias, belief or the like with allegedly objective passive phrases. The question is not, whether you should use „I“ or an indirect self-reference (such as the passive or „This study argues…“). The question is, when and how you use them. It all depends on the writing context (requirements, expectations, rules) and the text genre. If you’re able to switch between the different ways of referring to yourself in the text, you can master every assignment. (See also here for another blog post on this.)

  1. I need to write complicated sentences.

In the name of science: please don’t! Do your peers and yourself a favor and stick to simple, but effective language. That doesn’t mean that you have to write for laypersons everytime you write academically. But it means not making things more complicated than they need to be (no jargon, for one). Use technical terms, concepts etc., but don’t overdo it. Stick to good and understandable prose (check out Zinsser’s On Writing Well). Remember: you need to communicate your insights in an understandable way, unless you want to confuse your peers. Of course, there are many (famous) counter-examples. Don’t imitate them.

For more detailed information and many examples from famous researchers, check out my new book Schreibmythen entzaubern (Verlag Barbara Budrich/UTB, 2016) – in German only.

I just wrote a few hundred words, sitting in my favored chair in the living room. I could only do this, because my nine-month old son was taking his early morning nap. Except for my official working days, this is the only time I can use to write. So, I need to use this brief period of around 30 to 45 minutes to write down my ideas as fast as possible, before my son starts to call for me.

Before I became a dad nine months ago, I stuck to my writing schedule: I wrote one hour in the morning, five days a week. In the past three years, this schedule allowed me to write this blog, two books, which are now published, several shorter texts, two unpublished novellas, and some more. Since my son’s birth, I don’t stick to a schedule anymore. No surprise there.

Children bring change, whether you like it or not. That’s why you need to reassess, at least until they leave the house regularly. First of all, accept that for the first few weeks or month you’re going to be busy getting used to your new life as parent. If you can’t take the time to write, don’t worry. After the birth, there are more important things to worry about. As soon your child allows you to have some sort of regularity in your day, that’s when you want to think about revising your writing schedule. Even then, however, you might have trouble sticking to it – like me. The situation shouldn’t be an excuse to never stick to a writing schedule ever again. For the time being, though, you have to adapt. In my case, that means writing only if I’m officially working somewhere else (or on the way there) or when my son’s sleep allows me to spend a few minutes with more engaging tasks than changing diapers or running after him. (At this point of writing, my son stood in bed and called for me.)

If you have some experience with a writing schedule, you should be equipped with a good writing habit. Even though your child might prevent you from writing regularly, this habit helps you to become a more flexible writer. Use the time you have; don’t complain about having too little. Get that work done in small pieces, because that’s more productive than getting nothing done at all. Enjoy the time with your child. As soon as you can take regular writing hours again, enjoy them as well. Your past writing habits will soon show up again. (I finished writing this post in the evening, when silence dared to come by again.)

The day begins and you know well what that means: your next writing session, as was planned weeks ago, awaits you. But as in the last few weeks, you convince yourself that you have more pressing tasks to do than write, that you can’t write because of your missing motivation, or any other kind of excuse that keeps you away from your desk. Each evening, however, you can’t get rid of the feeling that you didn’t accomplish what you should have. You feel bad, because you didn’t stick to your writing plan again. If you are not in sticking to your plan, you are an expert in self-sabotage.

Once in a while, I meet with writers who are these kind of experts. Actually, I’m lucky when I meet them more than once, because self-sabotage also helps if you are meant to visit your writing coach again, but hey, there are more pressing things…

Writers who sabotage themselves often know that they are doing it. They may well explain to me how they do it, how they feel about it, and that they would like to change. Self-sabotage, I explain to them, is a bad habit, not something they have to live with forever. Trying to get rid of bad habits, however, turns out to be hard. This endeavor takes perseverance – a common trait of successful writers – since every time you realize that you are sabotaging yourself you have to sit down and write nonetheless. At first, this might demand self-discipline. That is what many writers don’t like (for some it sounds too neoliberal). What they don’t see is that the initial effort becomes a habit in time. This period is the hardest, during which you turn your bad habit of self-sabotage into a good habit of sticking to your plan despite excuses. Some of my clients give up before the end of this period.

Compare it to playing an instrument or training for a sports competition. When you begin, it’s hard to repeat the same exercises. In order to learn, however, you have to go through this routine. Otherwise you won’t get better, faster or stronger. The same applies to writing.

What’s the solution to self-sabotage? Find ways to sabotage your self-sabotage. If you feel too moody to write, give yourself a motivational boost by eating something delicious (chocolate comes to mind), take a stroll through the nearby woods or treat yourself with your favorite coffee or tea. If you think answering the most recent e-mails will take most of your day, so you can’t possibly write, write first and reward yourself with answering those (allegedly) important e-mails. Or if you were frustrated in the past, because the chosen work tasks were too complicated, treat yourself with simpler ones you can do in less time. Then, at least, you do something, instead of waiting for a miracle that simplifies the tasks for you (which never happens, I’m afraid).

Find new ways to trick yourself, so that you do the writing you’re supposed to do. Only by sticking to your plan, however painful that might be in the beginning, can you become a writer with good habits. Use your skills of self-sabotage to get going again.

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