As a summary for personal use, and for anyone else who needs advice on writing: this is what I’ve learned about writing over the past few weeks.
1. Less is more
Many writing manuals tell you to write a lot. While this is an excellent way to get started, sometimes writing less is a better idea. If, like me, you write easily, you sometimes forget to think critically about what you write. Particularly when working on a research thesis thinking critically is crucial. I’m currently revising my thesis statement and keeping it short forces me to think about every word I put on the page. Obviously I still write a lot, but these notes won’t end up in the final text. By omitting everything that isn’t strictly necessary the key points of my argument become clearer. Writing less, in the right way, can make a huge difference.
2. Make sure you know what is expected of you
In my opinion few, if any, supervisors deliberately try to make life harder for you. I definitely haven’t met one who did. However, coming from a different country and a different education system I have discovered that I need to check carefully whether I understand the feedback and instructions I get. This is not because my English isn’t good enough; the definitions of seemingly simple concepts (expand, make a list, brainstorm) tend to differ between countries, universities, departments, and even researchers. The only way to find out whether you do what you have to do is ask questions. How long does your text have to be? Which questions does it need to address? More preparation significantly decreases the chance of having to throw away unsatisfactory work.
3. Ask questions!
Most people don’t like to admit that they don’t understand something. Particularly when you’re a research student asking questions about seemingly obvious concepts or ideas can make you feel stupid. The truth is, though, that asking questions shows that you’re willing to learn. Which is exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. And only people who use concepts without understanding them properly look stupid.
4. Indicate things you’re unsure about
I’m a perfectionist so I used to send pieces of work which looked quite polishedto my supervisors . In reality they were composed of tentative thoughts rather than confident statements. When I’d get my work back, comments such as this one were abundant: “Not enough engagement with source here, explain this idea, expand, etc.” This was frustrating as I already knew my work wasn’t perfect yet and I felt as if I was being unfairly assessed. I’m currently experimenting with indicating points I’m not sure about to show that I’m aware of imperfections and looking for feedback which can point me in the right direction.
5. Work less
In academia some people like to bragg about the amount of hours they spend working. Indeed, it’s a demanding job, particularly when you’re no longer a student and have an actual job which involves teaching and loads of bureaucracy. When you need to do the difficult thinking parts of your thesis, however, spending hours staring at a computer screen may not be the best approach. Working twice as many hours does not double the quality of your output. When it’s about quality rather than quantity, your ideas need time to float around in your head and develop in peace. At the moment I’m working up to four hours every day. More would be a waste of time. Obviously I’ll spend more hours typing and swearing once I’ve got the basics of my project sorted out, but for now this approach works well.
Bottom line: do listen to whatever advice people give you, but be critical. Find out what works for you and dare to experiment. Try something new whenever you feel stuck. It may give you the boost you need, as it did for me.