Two weeks ago, I attended a 2-day writing masterclass by Katherine Firth*— an award-winning educator and one of the authors of the book How to fix your academic writing trouble, which was earlier recommended in a post by Melina Aarnikoivu. Here I wish to share some takeaways from this very useful experience.
1. Thinking and writing go together
One of the biggest discoveries for me was that we do not “write up” our thesis, we just write it. Katherine introduced a book by Barbara Kamler and Pat Thompson who argue that the expression “writing up”—i.e. start writing at the later stage of research when you have some data—is inaccurate because writing takes place all the way through the research process as “we write to work out what we think”. Writing is a written representation of our thoughts, and in the process of writing we organize and critique them. This idea has a huge impact on me because I have shifted from thinking of writing as a chore to writing as research itself. This leads to the second related point.
2. Don’t feel guilty staring at a blank space
I often felt bad when I sat at my desk and not do anything, just staring at my computer. But thinking takes time, as Katherine rightly pointed out, and we are living in a society where doing nothing seems like being unproductive**. Understanding this cleared out a lot of guilt for myself because I know I am not a procrastinator, but sometimes I just can’t put any words on a paper. Next time when I can’t write, I know I need to think more, read more, talk to people, or perhaps take a walk because, as Katherine joked, “staring at a tree may be more pleasant than staring at a computer screen”.
3. Activate your writing mode with generative writing
During the two-day masterclass, we started every morning with generative writing: write whatever you have in your mind for 10 minutes, non-stop and no editing. The idea is to warm up your brain, activate the writing mode, and fill the blank space to boost your confidence. Before, I would only write down something when I felt it was “significant” enough. Now I write whatever thoughts I have at the start of my day. Some are useful for my research, some are not, but at least I know that these ideas won’t go away and, who knows, I may need them later.
4. Find a friend to tell them the story of your research
In the class, I was paired with another PhD to share the story of our research. My partner was a PhD student who is researching educational measurement: using IRT model and PISA results to measure domain-specific and domain-general problem-solving skills***. If the partner would not be familiar with the terms, we would try out different ways to make them understand. In the end, I got her story and she got mine. In the process of talking to her, I found myself asking her questions that I myself got asked often and, sometimes, felt annoyed by. Being on the other side of the conversation helped me become more considerate about my audience. Sometimes, something seems obvious to me may be a missing piece to make my story comprehensible to others.
For me, the most important takeaway from Katherine Firth’s class is that I know why we (need to) write rather than how to write. Understanding both of them are important, but knowing the whys gives you a reason to learn the hows.
*Katherine Firth blogs at Research Degree Insiders which is full of writing resources.
**Jenny Odell wrote an interesting book on this topic How to do nothing: Resisting the attention economy.
*** Don’t worry if the terminologies sound unfamiliar to you, the point here is that without knowing the exact details it was possible to understand her research.
Ai Tam Le (@aitamlp) is a PhD candidate at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne. Her research interests revolve around the academic profession and higher education. Her current PhD aims to map doctoral students’ perspectives of what it means to be an academic.