Open Document. Name document. Save document … Stare indefinitely at blank document.
Whether you feel great anxiety at the thought of Academic Writing or whether you don’t particularly dislike it, I think it’s fair to agree that writing is a challenging process for everyone. And there is no shame in admitting that writing is difficult. In fact, novelist and playwright Joseph Heller once said, “Every writer I know has trouble writing”.
There are different degrees and reasons for this challenge, but most of us are likely to identify with at least one of these, at some point in our careers. We come from different educational institutions, cultural backgrounds and academic disciplines, all of which impact the degree of experience we have had with academic writing. At the start of our PhD careers, many of us find ourselves in a new country where we must read and write about complex concepts and ideas in a second (or third) language. Not only do we have to master the terminology of our field but we also have to learn the secrets of building a strong academic text — how to organize it so that it is clear and coherent, how to engage the reader and convey the importance of our work, and how not to slip into colloquial writing if we are not writing in our mother tongue.
These challenges aside, we have no choice but to master this craft, because the reality is that writing is a part of our everyday lives at any stage of our PhD and, eventually, our research careers. It’s not only our thesis that we have to spit out, somehow, but also applications of every kind, research proposals, abstracts for conferences, book chapters, Comprehensive Exam Papers, summaries of our work, papers for publication, course papers, emails … The list seems endless.
Despite this ever-present need to communicate in writing, it is not the case that we all come into our PhD with already-developed writing skills. Strong academic writing skills take a lot of practice and constructive feedback to develop. However, it’s rare to find people who are really showing us how to do it and how to improve. No one really teaches it. We’re kind of just “supposed to know”. Even supervisors may or may not be able to give you concrete guidance on how to improve your drafts, on what exactly to change and why. They might change it for you (as the delightful PhD comic above illustrates!) or they might give you some vague indications that something “just works better” a certain way. Even when you do receive feedback on your drafts, it’s often not in a way to help you see why a sentence is clearer that way, why the logical order of your arguments should be switched around, or what kind of transitions to add between your paragraphs. PhD students also don’t always push to get clear, helpful comments and usually do not look beyond their supervisor or their committee members for extra feedback.
Writing could be a tricky, tricky thing. We need to devote time to it, talk about it, dissect it and work on it, in order to really get it and – hopefully – to start enjoying it. We need to look at our writing not only in terms of the scientific content of the text itself (as supervisors and committee members tend to do), but also its form. There seems to be a great need for this kind of “talking about writing” and working on writing, in many departments. Some courses on Academic Writing may be offered, but creating smaller, more hands-on and discussion-driven “Writing Groups” may be even more beneficial.
In response to this need, I organized (together with my colleague Efrat Pauker) the first ever “Academic Writing Group” and offered it to PhD students in our School of Communication Sciences and Disorders. Basically, our group provides an informal, comfortable setting where we could discuss tips and strategies for developing effective writing skills, and where we give each other structured feedback on drafts of everyone’s written work. Our goals are to learn about some of the core principles of good academic writing and what elements should go into different genres of academic texts, and to work hands-on on writing exercises and on our drafts. We also learn the important skill of giving our peers relevant and helpful feedback in a tactful and respectful way, as well as the skill of synthesizing all feedback received from several people to plan how the draft will be revised.
Every semester, we ask all PhD students in our department whether they would like to participate, and a small group of about 8-10 students gets formed. This group meets once a week for two hours in a classroom in our department. In order to guide our discussions and learn from the vast literature published on Academic Writing, my colleague and I have put together a number of “Cheatsheets” on different topics (e.g. Introductions, Abstracts, Lay summaries, Paragraphs and Transitions, Critical review papers, Methods, Discussions, etc). These handouts summarize information from books, online sources and our own tips/strategies and serve as a reference during our discussions and for when we provide feedback on our peers’ texts. We also set up a WebCt space where all the participants in our group could download these Cheatsheets, along with countless extra resources and exercises. We also have the support of Skillsets organizer David Syncox who helped us get our Writing Group off the ground and who is always ready to help us organize guest lectures and workshops by librarians for our group.
Every week, we choose a topic that we’d like to cover, either based on what students are currently working on (e.g. if there is a conference coming up and many students have abstracts to write) or based on general interest. We spend some time openly discussing our own process, tips and recommendations for getting started on such a text, and share our ideas of what elements make up “a good abstract” or “a strong introduction”. We then look at the Cheatsheet to see what else could be learned and we put this into practice either by working on exercises in small groups, or by reading each others’ sample texts. When giving each other feedback, we usually go around the room in a circle, each reviewer starting with positive comments about the student’s text, followed by constructive comments on what could be improved (based on our discussions about different elements that should be in the text). We each have a hardcopy to make notes on, and after the discussion, we give the writer all the copies so that he/she could know what revisions to make. We always try to make our feedback as focused on possible on the underlying principles of writing, but we also often edit punctuation and grammar.
Our group also serves as a support group for our fellow PhD-mates. We start each meeting by talking about what our goals and accomplishments were over the past week, and what everyone is currently working on (in terms of writing or otherwise). We also help each other when someone has writer’s block or is completely uninspired and overwhelmed. We brainstorm and outline papers on the blackboard, conduct literature searches on the classroom computer when someone has problems finding relevant literature, and share tips and anecdotes about overcoming procrastination or lapses in motivation. Importantly, we also take turns bringing snacks to keep our sugar levels high when our energy is low! When all else fails, chocolate helps us get through the day.
Our Writing Group is now in its third semester and still going strong. We’ve changed a few things from the beginning and improved the structure of our meetings. Our group members change from term to term depending on their priorities and schedules, leaving room for some new participants, but a few students have returned. Even then, there is always something new to learn because the discussions are always different, the tips and strategies shared by students are often enlightening, and the samples we read are always changing.
Students have already pointed out how beneficial this Writing Group has been for them. Many of them have said that, without even realizing it, they have already learned so much and changed in the way they think about writing, and in the way they offer feedback to others. A couple of students have said that our discussions have helped them overcome their fear of writing, of opening a new document and staring at the blank screen. Others have mentioned how versions of their drafts have undergone huge transformations by bringing them to our Writing Group and dissecting them together. The Cheatsheets have also been a resounding success because all the key information about writing different texts is right at their fingertips. Our weekly meetings also help us keep in touch with each other and get to know what everyone is working on. Unfortunately, with our busy schedules and specific research interests, it’s very easy to stay in one’s own bubble in one’s lab, and to forget that we are a part of a PhD community. This helps us learn about each others’ research and get a fresh perspective on our work, as well as our writing.
I hope that, in the near future, such Academic Writing Groups will be developed across different departments. It is different from a course that is led by one or two people; it is an open discussion group where everyone brings perspectives, tips, resources and writing samples to the table. Writing Groups are extremely helpful to overcome many of the challenges I listed at the beginning of this post. Why should writing be such a hard, mysterious and discouraging process? Writing could — and should — be fun, mind-opening and rewarding.