The following letter was sent to me recently. After replying to the letter directly, I asked the letter writer if I could reprint an edited version of the letter here on the blog. I thought it might be helpful to do so because the letter contains such a common assumption among novice academic writers. Graduate students so often think of writing ability as something they just ought to have. It is crucial to realize that not having those writing skills yet isn’t a mark of inadequacy.
I am a PhD student. I constantly struggle with my professors about the clarity of my writing. I agree that my writing isn’t clear, but I am not sure how to correct this problem. I have no time to really think about the detailed feedback they give me. How do I make that feedback into teachable moments for myself? Fortunately, my university has writing tutors for PhD students, but I am often pressed for time due to deadlines.
I think back to my primary and secondary education and wonder what went wrong. I have some ideas, but do I really need to take my childhood education into consideration? Writing down what you are thinking is a skill, right? Or are there those who are blessed with an ability to write?
I feel like I am a ‘fraud’ given the way that writing is hampering my progress through my doctorate. Can you offer any advice?
Here is my response, substantially reworked for the purposes of this post:
Academic writing is absolutely a skill and not one that can be inadvertently picked up along the way. Some people will possess natural talent, of course, but most of us need time and effort to learn how to communicate sophisticated ideas in a manner commensurate with the demands of a given discourse community. I think it is very important to resist the notion that one is a ‘fraud’ for not already being an expert in academic writing; graduate school is precisely the place where people will learn to be academic writers. Expecting yourself to be one already creates an unnecessary burden. Needless to say, I also object to the way that faculty often contribute to this dynamic by talking about writing skill as something that their students ought to already have. Students will begin graduate study with widely divergent writing skills, but none will start where they need to end up. And it is unrealistic to imagine that navigating this trajectory will be effortless. By taking writing seriously—by treating it as an integral part of the scholarly enterprise—we can simultaneously remove the shame of being a so-called ‘bad writer’ and start improving our writing abilities.
So what does the imperative to treat academic writing as a project actually mean in concrete terms? Here are a few suggestions:
- Accept that feedback on your writing isn’t a referendum on your competence as a scholar. You need to be open to feedback in order to improve. Not working with that feedback—for reasons of either pride or preoccupation—will ultimately be a short-sighted decision.
- That said, recognize that it’s incredibly common for graduate students to find the comments on their writing oblique and unhelpful. For instance, being told that our writing is unclear gives us almost nothing to go on. As Joseph Williams says, “Neither awkward nor turgid are on the page” (Style, p. 17). In other words, looking for many of the qualities that people identify in your writing can be a fruitless endeavour because those qualities refer to the reader’s experience of your prose. Being told that your writing is unclear can be a necessary first step, but you will need strategies if you are going to make any improvements.
- Try to learn about those writing strategies from people who are experts in writing. Writing tutors (if you have access to them) can give you the insight into your writing that you may not be getting from other readers. Learning to supplement the crucial feedback you are getting from your professors and supervisors with broader writing support can help you to move towards competency and autonomy in academic writing.
- Finally, keep the thesis writing stage firmly in your sights. Whatever writing difficulties are experienced early on, the orientation towards writing will necessarily shift during the full-time thesis writing stage. Keeping that step in mind can help overcome any initial sense that focusing on writing will take up time that ought to be devoted to elsewhere. The good news for some students is that the degree of focus during the thesis writing stage sometimes allows more time to attend to the writing itself. When there are fewer demands to dilute their attention and when writing itself takes up a greater proportion of their time, some graduate students are able to approach writing as an essential element of their work, with a commensurate improvement in their experience of writing.
Overall, banishing pernicious thoughts about what we should ‘already’ know will allow us to move ahead with the development of our academic writing skills. The ubiquity of writing can paradoxically obscure its legitimate importance as an area of study. Just because we do it all the time, doesn’t mean we already know how—and graduate school is the perfect time to embrace the challenge of becoming an academic writer.