5 top tips to help you master academic writing

Academic writing, especially for dissertations, can be an effort for even the best scholar. A few simple tips, however, can help you achieve your potential.

Make no mistake: academic writing is scary. Proper, watch-from-behind-your-hands, fall-off-your-chair, check-under-your-bed scary. But it is a monster which can be bested. In fact, just a few simple tips and tricks can give you the proverbial weapons to slay the dragon and conquer the realms of academic writing, to transform from penitent procrastinator to a maestro of making it happen.   …by Tom Bray

Dissertations and project reports, especially at Master’s level, are not something you can just knock out overnight; they’re projects which require strategy and thought. Every student saunters over any number of hills in their time, but now you must climb the mountain, be it in the archives, the laboratory, or just at your desk with pencil and paper. Let the following act as your Sherpa.

1. Know thyself (as a researcher and writer)

Everybody has their little pet comforts which help them work. I was recently fortunate enough to read a few pages of beautifully lucid analysis by a dear friend of mine, and when I asked her when she wrote this veritable smorgasbord of wonderment, she replied, ‘Yesterday morning…in my cow onesie…eating some cold toast.’ Apparently these are the ingredients for all her best work.

It may be weird, obscure, and frankly a little embarrassing, but if it helps you write and write well then allow yourself to do it! Only you know your best hours for working, or your favourite environment, or your ideal herbal tea (Raspberry and Echinacea, if you’re asking).

And while we’re on the theme, if you hit a mental block, then change it up! Tired of your bedroom? Try a café. Go for a walk. Join a local Fellowship as it makes its way to Mordor. Chances are, by the time you’ve destroyed the One Ring, you’ll be ready to continue with your chapter.

2. Write write write without fear of being right right right

It is so easy to write a sentence, stare at it with furrowed brow, then decide it is the worst combination of symbols ever committed to a screen and hastily delete it. This then happens again and again, until the day is over and you find you have written an ocean and kept only a cupful.

There is a time to be critical with your work and polish it until it shines…and this is not it. After you’ve got your ideas down, take a break (maybe rank your biscuits in order of preference), allow your mind to wander somewhere else (like the Biscuit Dunking Olympics, all rights reserved), and then have a go at editing your earlier attempts.

Some of it will horrify you, yes, but now and then you’ll think, ‘Hey, that’s not a bad idea… Now, if I just move this word here, and replace that diagram with this one, and use that quote I found… Yeah, that looks…pretty good…’ And just like that you have taken a big step on your way to completion.

3. Don’t let the details hold you back

Another common trap when first undertaking serious academic writing is to wait until you feel you have mastered the topic, read all the relevant resources, and got the whole thesis straight in your head. What will inevitably happen then is that you will sit down, and realise that there is something which you’re not quite sure about, and then the writing process gets set back once again.

Often, the best way to identify the further research you’ll need to do is to write down what you already have, to begin those first drafts early. A lot of people I know swear by doing a fair bit of research while they write. In any case, do not feel that you cannot produce any of your own work until you have studied everyone else’s.

Your Academic Support Librarian will be able to help you find relevant resources, so do not be afraid to call on their expertise early on.

4. Make it social

Start a ‘writing group’ with your fellow students where you all share your work. Collective wisdom is an invaluable thing: others will see your misleading assumptions, the silly typos, and, most importantly, they will get excited about what you’re doing, and they will encourage you to keep going. Plus, this will create a small set of targets along the way to achieving the big one.

Baking cakes or frequenting a local watering-hole may or may not form an essential part of these rigorously academic pursuits. Some of my best ideas have been found at the bottom of a pint glass (empty pint glass, I should add) or in the final bite of a cupcake.

The PG Hub and the Learning Grids are great places to meet for your ‘writing group’, so check ‘em out.

 5. Recognise the difficulty of academic writing

If the whole process seems difficult, it’s because it is precisely that. If you find yourself drifting along like a happy-go-lucky cloud, the ideas seamlessly gliding from brain to hand to computer screen, then I applaud you, but the majority of us find it tough going. If you are having a difficult time, then do not believe that all is lost: just give yourself space and time, and live to write another day. Reward yourself for hitting the small targets!

If you are really stuck and cannot seem to make any progress with the writing, then get to grips with the details. Complete your references, start your bibliography, make a stand-out title page. I speak from my own experience when I say that leaving these ‘minor’ things to the end can be as stressful as choosing between the Special Hot Chocolate and the Extra-Special Hot Chocolate in Curiositea.

Armed with these tips, you should be more than ready to begin a journey, nay, a battle, which is long, exhausting, but ultimately very satisfying. There is no feeling quite like holding the surprisingly thick volume of completed work in your hands and thinking, ‘Hey, I did this.’ The view from the top of the ‘academic mountain’ is pretty breath-taking.

P.S. Ginger nuts. In the Biscuit Olympics, never underestimate the ginger nuts. They are a mighty confectionary indeed.

Image: Beast Within Me/Staff Sgt. Pablo Piedra/CC BY 2.0


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