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II. The Big Lie About Academic Writing: “I just have to write it up”

Sep 08, 2014 by Amy Benson Brown

Are you baffled by how much longer it takes to write an article than you imagined? It’s common for academics, especially in the social science and STEM fields, to feel as if they’re in a writing slump—to be disappointed and anxious about not writing as quickly as they had planned. At the root of this frustration, though, is a myth about how the writing process should flow. Idealized visions of writing set up unrealistic expectations. And when deadlines based on those expectations come and go, many writers blame themselves and begin to lose confidence in their own ability.

The Big Lie

Probably the most harmful myth about writing is that it should always be a linear, straightforward process. Once years of research and data collection are done, all researchers have to do is simply “write it up.” Right? Compared to the labor and time they have put into planning and conducting the study, writing is often assumed to be a simple and fairly brief task. But that assumption masks a big lie.

“Writing up” research is not just about conveying information. It often also requires further exploration of the meaning of the work and its significance. This reality explains why the process of writing can be both frustrating and sometimes deeply rewarding.

In “writing it up,” researchers have to resolve myriad questions. What really belongs in the foreground to make the scope and significance of your work clear? When should you use charts or other graphics to summarize data and when should you take a more narrative approach? How and where should you describe your work’s relationship to the relevant literature?

The discussion section, in particular, requires big-picture thinking to articulate the most interesting implications of your work and imagine directions for future research. And you certainly need craft and skill to describe the work’s limitations. In summary, addressing all these issues demands creativity as well as analytic skills. Even your social intelligence will be put to use as you anticipate your readers’ interests and biases and design your prose to effectively engage those readers—hardly “simple” activities.

To Get at the Truth

Most writers find they have to write their way into an understanding of how to best describe their research and what it means. The following strategies can help support this process.

Do para writing. Para writing is any writing you do that goes along with or leads to the writing of your final product, whether it’s an article, chapter, or book. For example, perhaps you make notes after you read an article related to your topic. Try to include in those notes your initial thoughts about how the article relates to your own work. Does it confirm aspects of your own study or follow an alternate line of argument? What do you see as its flaws or omissions? This kind of critical thinking can become a first draft of points you may want to make in the background or discussion section of an article, for instance.

Para writing isn’t limited to notes. Since it is any form of writing that furthers your thought about your ultimate writing goal, para writing can take the form of prewriting or freewriting as well. In a prewriting exercise, you might attempt to describe for yourself preliminary questions that you need to answer in order to come up with the perfect phrasing for your thesis. For example, how would you briefly describe the scope or boundaries of your research?

Freewriting, by contrast, is less focused on answering a specific question. When you freewrite, you might first describe what’s on the tip of your tongue when you start to speak about your project and then explore feelings, associations, and connections your mind makes from there. In a way, freewriting is a way to discover more about what you think. Some writers also use it as a way to warm up for a writing session by taking out the mental “trash,” or clearing their minds of seemingly random thoughts. Whatever form your own para writing may take, the bottom line is that writing many different kinds of documents that go along with your formal draft can strengthen the quality of the ultimate product.

Draft and redraft. The process of manuscript writing is usually iterative and requires some trial and error. That means it’s very common to have to try one way and then another before you find an approach to your topic that works. ACW offers a graphic that humorously describes this experience as The Writing Roundabout. What’s important to remember is that working through several drafts of a manuscript does not signal failure but progress. Often, it’s only by trying again and again that you ultimately realize how to say it right.

Talk it out. Test-drive your way of expressing your ideas by talking them through with a friend, colleague or writing coach. Such listeners stand in for your eventual readership and give you an opportunity to see what phrasing connects with actual audiences and what phrasing leaves them puzzled. Let your audience know what particular questions you have about your articulation of your argument. For instance, are you worried about whether the central message is lost in a sea of background information, or are you worried about whether you have enough proof?

Look at your draft in the context of the publication. Often, the most effective way of making an argument will become clear after reading recently published arguments in the forums in which you hope to publish. So you may want to review, for instance, a few articles in recent editions of a journal you are considering for submission. Note how the authors of those articles present their arguments. What strategies could you borrow and adapt for your own writing? Making notes on what you observe, by the way, is a terrific para writing exercise.

Following the practical strategies suggested in this blog is much easier if you can cultivate greater tolerance for the ambiguity that usually accompanies the long process of developing a significant piece of writing. The next blog in this series describes a change in mindset that can help you make peace with the push-pull dynamic of the writing process.

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