This is a guest blog by Jennifer Boyle, Writing Advisor for Postgraduate Researchers based at the Student Learning Service. She runs writing workshops and boot camps where you can work on your practical writing skills, but also share your writing experiences with other PGRs!
No matter the discipline, no matter the background – anyone undertaking a PhD is a writer. You will, over the next few years, write several thousand words more than most people ever will.
Everyone begins their PhD from a different place in terms of their existing relationship to writing. Some love it, and see it as a way to articulate their ideas, and create connections. Others might find it stressful, something that they avoid until a deadline absolutely demands that they put pen to paper.
Whatever your current relationship is with writing, the PhD offers an opportunity for you to re-examine it, and make it work for you. This article will suggest two easy methods to revamp and refine your writing skills.
Get into the habit of writing regularly
Many of us see writing primarily as a means of assessment. Committing ideas to the page, which will then be scrutinised by your supervisor, or a journal editor, can be daunting. If you only think about writing in this way, as a means for someone else to judge your abilities as a researcher, then it can become a task which produces a lot of anxiety, which can – in turn – lead to procrastination.
Keeping a thesis journal is a good way to begin to move beyond this type of relationship with writing. Reflect on how research is going, both failures and successes, as well as the psychological aspect of the process. No one else is going to read this – this writing is only for you – so you can be as honest and informal as you choose. Writing regularly will also make writing habitual, an everyday activity – not just something stressful that happens before a deadline.
Keeping a journal like this will help to build a new relationship with writing – writing as a means of personal expression and reflection. This reflection can also help you identify working habits you might not be aware of – when you are more (or less) productive, what motivates you, how your ideas are developing. As well as being reflective and expressive, writing then becomes a tool for self-development.
Make your reading time doubly effective
Refine your writing skills by reading other people’s work. Look at journal articles, or look at the University’s online theses collection (theses.gla.ac.uk). Select an article. Does the title encourage you to read further? Does the structure lead you through the research in a coherent and logical way? Did each paragraph contain one central idea? Did the writer effectively contextualise their work? Were their sentences clearly structured and easy to follow? If you become lost, look carefully at the writing. Is there anything the writer could have done to make your job as a reader easier?
Getting into the habit of assessing other people’s work like this gives you a sense of what to aim for, and avoid, in your own writing. It also builds your editorial skills, which means you will be better at refining your own work. If you like, you could do this with other PGRs, forming a peer review group.
Reclaiming writing as a tool for your own reflection and development, and thinking about writing as a reader, are both practices should help you feel more in control of writing, and more relaxed and confident in using it to communicate your research.
Did you ever realise that as PGRs, we are all writers? Is it something you enjoy or find rather stressful? Get in touch via the comments or over on Twitter (@UofG_PGRblog) if you have any experiences or tips to share!