It is so tempting to get caught up in so many different things. Not only in my private life, but also as a PhD. Things like project management issues, teaching, communicating, having meetings, following courses, socializing, getting stuck on reading interesting articles (my biggest problem since I find almost everything interesting) … Time flies when you are having fun. But sometimes actual writing just doesn’t happen, which is a pity! That’s why I was really glad that several colleagues took the initiative to organize an academic writing week for our department (TELI) at the Welten Institute of the Open University. The focus of this week is of course writing, but it is also about the process, giving and receiving feedback and making explicit what you are doing and why, and last but not least, getting focussed. Maybe writing week is not for everybody, and the process of writing is very personal (see also the blog of my colleague Maartje Henderikx). However, I learned a lot, and heard various writing advices that could also be useful for others. So, here are some take-aways that I found helpful.
Many similar stories: it’s how you tell it to sell it
My colleague Esther Tan illustrated very nicely how a story can take many different forms depending on the style and language you use. In fact, there are many stories out there that seem alike in topic or theme, but are also very different because of the way in which they are told. By choosing specific wording and language, and by sticking to an individual/own style, you can really convince readers, and eventually “sell” your story. If you truly put in an effort to carefully look at the way you tell your story, it can make a difference in the way it is perceived. How to do this? I guess (like with many things) practice makes perfect. Also, don’t be afraid to get harsh reviews, but see them as chances to learn. Make sure to find the red thread and create a clear focus in your storyline. Additionally, learn from others that set a good example and are an inspiration. And lastly, make use of the tools that are freely available online and in software nowadays. In the following take-aways I depict some more specifics on these things.
Reviewing: Tough love
I learned earlier, that feedback is a gift, and you should appreciate it. However, this gift may come in very unsympathetic and/or harsh forms. Although this may upset you at first, and also may discourage you to put in more effort (since you already put in so much effort before), you could also view it positively: the more feedback you get (whatever form it comes in) the steeper your learning curve will get. Try to look at it as a chance to learn, and at least try to filter out the negative connotation to minimize frustration. If you always view the feedback as a chance to improve and learn, it eventually adds value to your work. (Disclaimer: I believe that giving and receiving feedback is an art that is not mastered by all of us, but should be improved for some of us :-p).
Red thread of your story & killing darlings
Sometimes when you are starting a project or writing piece, it is difficult to focus and have a clear line of reasoning immediately. In my case, my subject keeps on getting bigger and bigger, like an oil stain, because I keep adding so called “related” or “interesting” things. Although I (and also colleagues) think it is good to start broad, it can also be a challenge to narrow it don at some point to regain the focus. My colleague Jose called this process “killing your darlings”: things that you wrote about, started to love, incorporated in your piece, have to be cut and “killed” in order to serve the greater good, which is a clear red thread throughout your story. Another colleague mentioned that sometimes you can also recycle your darlings in another paper sometimes, so they don’t necessarily need to be killed, but just go into “reincarnation” …
Not everybody is a gifted writer by nature unfortunately. But, that’s not a problem because writing can be trained and improved. The tips above may help already, but there are also some very specific and concrete tools you can use in order to improve your writing. Especially when you write in a language that isn’t your native tongue, it may be helpful to learn some other ways and words to express yourself. These are the websites that were mentioned during our academic writing week: