I sat in my supervisor’s office, staring out the window lost in my own thoughts. The words, “we need to improve your writing. It really needs a lot of work” still replaying in my mind. Not because they stung, but because they rang true to me. My supervisor and I have a good relationship and he assured me that he was confident we would get my writing sorted, but I had my doubts. I feared that maybe I’d hit my limit, maybe this was as good as I could do, maybe this was all a mistake.
I kept at it though. My supervisor was still confident in my ability and my project, so I began focusing on my writing, trying to figure out what was going wrong. I was producing twenty thousand-word pieces that seemed to have as much structural stability as a half played Jenga tower. Even after editing I had to analyse some of the sentences like artifacts left by an ancient civilization, the purpose and meaning lost to me. On top of that it was all taking too long.
After a few writing workshops I thought it was my process. I had taken a few short cuts compared with writing my master’s dissertation and I thought that may be the problem. I hoped if I took more time preparing the writing would be better and go quicker. I began to treat each piece of writing like an experiment, trying different levels and kinds of preparation. This helped a bit, but my writing still wasn’t where it needed to be, and I was feeling more and more behind.
It wasn’t until I read my supervisor’s comments on my conference paper that a few things finally clicked. As I read I began to understand, but more importantly I began to see his corrections in a different more constructive light. When I did that I began to see the cause of some of my poor writing and especially in my poorest sentences. In those sentences I realised that I was trying to hide my own confusion on the topic in complex sentence structure. I also began to see that I was rushing and trying to do too much. Whether it was a sentence, paragraph, or chapter I was trying to present everything and all of its connections at once, as quickly as possible. Both leaving my writing a jumbled mess.
Needless to say my writing still could use improvement, but these realisations already done a lot. They have also helped me synthesis a few ideas, listed below, that I want to try moving forward to keep improving my writing. Some of them are practical, but many have more to do with checking my mental state and attitude.
We’re still learning – The imposter syndrome causes a number of problems. In my writing it made it difficult for me to see corrections as constructive. Every correction seemed like one more piece of evidence against me. It also kept me from recognizing that I am still learning, that my writing shouldn’t be perfect because if it is I’m wasting a lot of time and money on this degree.
Be honest and look for patterns – When I began to see my writing more objectively and really began to read my supervisor’s comments I noticed patterns. Believed it or not I hadn’t realised what I was doing with my sentence structure until I took that honest look. Now when I see those sentences or paragraphs I ask myself if I really understand that particular point or if I’m trying to do too much at once.
Writing is processing – Similarly, writing is processing. I often don’t know what I think about a subject or see the really interesting connections until I start to write. So I try to remember that even if the draft is terrible it’s helped me better grasp the concepts I’m working on.
Work small – When I would sit down to write a chapter my brain would quickly try to grab all the pieces of information, sources, and connections at once and I would try to stuff them in. This left my writing a complete jumble. What I’ve begun to do is write small sections at a time. When I get really overwhelmed I’ll even write them in separate documents to keep my mind focused.
Find your process – In all the writing workshops I found that each lecturer had a different process. Some of them were helpful and some didn’t work for me, but what it did encourage me to do is find my own. I think after a lot of trial and error I’m finally getting there.
Writing a PhD is a monumental task. It requires a whole new level and kind of writing that and while other degrees have prepare us, there is still a big step up left to take. One that I’m still not sure I’ve made. So, if you’re worried about your own writing, don’t be because you’re not alone. We all struggle with some aspects of a PhD and the actual writing of it is no exception. A PhD isn’t just about the time to research, but to hone, develop, and learn new writing skills. You’re still learning so remember to be kind to yourself and keeping writing.
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