A short guide to academic writing
Academic writing is a bit like marmite – some love it and some hate it. I am one of those in the latter. It can be quite daunting, something you would rather push to some other day, but the truth is that it is an essential skill to master as a researcher.
As a PhD student, I feel it is important to develop this competency early on. Recently, I was fortunate enough to attend a two-day intensive workshop on the ‘Basics of Academic Writing’ by Professor Eelko Huizingh that changed my attitude towards this element of academic life. In this blog I wish to share some advice I learnt and reflected on to help you feel more confident and inspired about writing too!
Writing is a skill that can be trained
This is one of the most reassuring pieces of advice that I could be told at this stage. As someone who does not possess the natural writing capabilities some authors have, it is good to be reminded that this is a skill that can be crafted. Most importantly, even if you are a capable writer, writing still requires consistent practice.
How to overcome writers block? Start writing.
Okay this is a fairly obvious one, but before you start rolling your eyes there is more… This block we have all experienced is a mental block and the best way to overcome thinking is by doing. A handy tip is to set yourself 10 or even just 5 minutes on a timer and force yourself to write whatever comes into your mind and do not stop until the time is over. It could be the most unintelligible words you have ever written but this does not matter, it can all be fixed later. The point is to stop avoiding and start puting fingers to keys or pen to paper.
Know your audience
In an academic context, it is a good idea to know the journal you are targeting before you start writing. Read their papers, learn their preferred structure and styles, follow their guidelines. Simple but effective and often underestimated.
Write with the reviewer in mind
As you tap away, always keep in the back of your mind what exactly you want to say and how it will be evaluated. Sufficiency is key – is your contribution sufficient? Is it novel and interesting enough? Is your evidence sufficient? Is it convincing? Have you delivered your promise in a sufficient way? Has it been told with clarity? Is the level of rigour sufficient? The list goes on…
Making your paper relevant and interesting
This is what every researcher strives for, but executing this can be quite challenging. Therefore, when you are writing, make sure to include statements that define: whether there are conflicting prior studies, if not much is known about the phenomena, if there is much at stake, or whether the problem persists in practice. To communicate this in an interesting way, consider using various presentation tools (concise tables, visual mapping, graphs, diagrams, etc.), storytelling elements (using analogies, engaging titles), and most importantly structure your paper in a way that is easy to read – benchmark top papers!
Build writing as a habit
Whether you are an early bird or an evening owl, figure out your most productive time of day. Block time in your calendar, even just 15 minutes, and start writing every day. You will thank yourself later.
We all have an endless email inbox and list of administrative tasks to do that tend to feel more imminent than they are. This is your permission to ignore them. Create a list of all the things you need to do and set them in priority order. Get your writing done first then address the other items. If you have to turn everything off – phone, emails – do it.
Don’t wait for motivation – create it.
Some days inspiration can flow easily and other days doing anything can feel a real chore. Remember to be kind to yourself on all occasions, but don’t wait for the inspiration to come to you. Go and find it. Here is a list ranging from high effort to low effort activities (in no particular order) to act as inspiration to motivate you to continue writing:
- Read an interesting paper
- Go for a walk to clear your mind
- Watch an engaging (academic) video
- Listen to a topical podcast
- Make your favourite beverage or snacks to accompany your writing
- Talk to colleagues about your topic (bonus: tell them you are writing so they keep you accountable)
- Even better, host a writing club with your colleagues where you set focused sessions to each work on your writing (works both in-person or online) – as we have done in the EINST4INE group!
Remind yourself why you are writing
When under the pressure of deadlines or the pursuit of getting published, we often forget the art to academic writing. Whether it be to engage in academic discussion, a stepping stone in achieving your PhD, to build reputation in your field, to organise your thoughts and understanding, to advance science and societal progress – it is good to remind ourselves why we are doing it in the first place. Make a list and refer back to it whenever you need.
… Thanks for reading, now time to go write!