Loughborough PhD Social & Support Network

#BLOG – Some things I have learned about writing…

When I started my PhD, I expected the writing to be the easy part. After all, I had spent 21 years of my career as a government economist perfecting the art of writing clearly and succinctly about economics for many different audiences, from Ministers to the general public. It was all about short sentences and paragraphs. Lots of white space on a page to improve readability. Being pithy, clear and elegant. Using simple, engaging language. Excising clutter in the form of footnotes, references and sub-ordinate clauses containing caveats. And most importantly: using the active voice e.g. “I recommend that…” not “it is recommended that..”. My last Secretary of State (Michael Gove) was passionate about writing well and urged all his civil servants to abide by George Orwell’s five golden rules for effective writing. The rules can be summarised in bullet point form as:

  • Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print;
  • Never use a long word where a short one will do;
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out;
  • Never use the passive when you can use the active; and
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific or jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

These days the government even has a specialist Communications profession, which has published a style guide to help civil servants. I was often commended for the clarity of my written communication in the civil service. As a senior civil servant, I spent a lot of time editing and polishing the writing of my junior economists to make it clearer. So, it came as a bit of a shock to be criticised by my first PhD supervisor (not at Loughborough) for “writing like a civil servant”. I had to quash my pride at what I initially thought was praise, before I realised he was being critical.  So, I had quickly to re-learn how to write like an academic. Initially I discerned some heuristics such as: include at least one reference per sentence; use the passive voice always; don’t use lists and bullet points; use denser text, longer sentences and paragraphs than you’re used to; and maximise use of technical terms, especially those in Latin or Greek. These rules do not help lay audiences to understand what you have written, but they do make your writing more acceptable in academic circles I found.  

Rupert likes to help sometimes

But emulating the academic style was the easy part. The much bigger problem I found as a PhD student was how hard it was to write completely from scratch, rather than as part of a team, “standing on the shoulders of giants” as I used to tell my staff. What on earth was I trying to say? And what is the best process from moving from reading and analysing to writing? I’ve come up with a few key learning points from my own painful mistakes:

(1) Pre-processing: it is very tempting to start writing too early in the process. I have learned it is important to write notes first – even tabular summaries –  and not start writing your article or chapter until you know what your conclusion is going to be. So my first discovery has been: do not make writing the process of discovery, else it spirals out of control. Be sure of your conclusion before you commit to starting the writing.   

It’s good to stand up and write sometimes

(2) Planning: once you know your key conclusion, plan your headings/blocks of argument next.  Set out the headings for the steps in your argument. You may be able to use the headings from a similar article in your field as a guide – e.g. Introduction/Methods/Results/Discusssion if you’re writing up some empiricial work.  Or use suggested headings such as Introduction/Literature Review/Planned Methods/Progress and Outcomes if you’re writing a progress report. If you are working to a set word-length for the overall piece, divide up this total among your blocks in a way that gives more words to the parts that will need more explanation – e.g. literature review and analysis sections – and fewer words to introductions and conclusions.

(3) Producing: treat each block as a separate entity initially. Don’t worry about how they link together at first. The links will be the final bit of polish for your writing. I am indebted to one of my wonderful supervisors for this tip. I used to worry too much, too early on about linking the bits. Your time will be more productively spent if you don’t worry about this until the end.

Get out for some fresh air and exercise

(4) Procrastinating: stop doing it! Writing is hard. It is much harder than losing oneself in a pile of data, a knotty coding problem, or even filing emails, which are highly absorbing activities. The mind wanders too easily when writing. A few tips I have learned that seem to help:

  • Commit to a writing time and time yourself. E.g. I am going to spend 2 hours writing each day this week. You’re not allowed to do anything else in that time except go to the loo. You can break it up into smaller chunks,  but put in all the time you’ve promised yourself each day. If distracting thoughts occur about other priorities, write them on a list for dealing with later – e.g. “phone dentist”.
  • Take a complete break and get away from your desk after each writing chunk – e.g. go for a run or a walk. This helps the creative process and eases aches and pains.
  • Limit the time each day you spend reviewing what you wrote yesterday – e.g. 10 mins reviewing yesterday’s effort and a couple of minor corrections and then move on.
  • Commit to – and meet – deadlines.

(5) Proofing: once you have a complete first draft, sleep on it and next day read it through in its entirety for cohesion and logical flow. Don’t correct minor errors at this stage, only check for overall sense.

Set time blocks for writing

(6) Polishing: Cut out at least a third of what you have written, check grammar, spelling, references and so on.

And finally – get as much feedback as you can on your writing – from fellow-students, friends, ex-colleagues, supervisors, willing partners and children. I use all these at various times.  We all need feedback to improve and challenge our own thoughts.

Karen Hancock
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