Understanding academic writing – starting the PhD


Writing is a crucial aspect of doctoral work – indeed all the scholarly work you will undertake from now on. Writing is integral to scholarship. Whether you are in or out of higher education, if you are researching, you are writing. Writing and its associated activities reading and talking, are the major ways in which we make sense of what we are doing. Writing is how we communicate results, ideas and interpretations to others.

But there is “stuff’ that can get in the way of writing.

It’s very easy to compare yourself as a writer to your peers. Perhaps they write more than you do. They never seem to fret over a blank screen. They seem supremely confident, whereas you feel very uncertain. But you already know that comparison is really unhelpful and unhealthy. Appearances can be very deceptive. Don’t give in to the temptation to make yourself feel inadequate. Everyone has their own writing history which has led them to the doctorate, and everyone has different approaches to and experiences of writing. The reality is that there are many writing routes through to the thesis. The important thing is that you find your pathway, the one that works for you.

If you have a tendency to look sideways at other people’s apparent writing successes, then just remember this. If you have made it into a doctoral programme, you are by definition good enough at academic writing. Throw any notion that you can’t write out the window, now. If you already think you are good at academic writing, that’s a fantastic start. You’re here, so you are.

The doctorate is the time to build your own repertoire of writing approaches. But these new strategies may be not exactly what you’ve been doing up till now. Scholarly writing is not quite the same as you’ve done to get here, and that you will do from now on. For a start it’s ongoing. And it’s also different. Let me explain this a bit more.

You may have developed some writing habits that stood you in good stead in your previous study and perhaps professional work. They may not stretch to the kinds and volume of writing you now have to do.

The PhD is a long haul.  There are not a lot of deadlines. Your institution will set a few milestones and your supervisor will try to get you to plan and set regular goals – these are often built around writing. Setting goals is important because you can’t leave things to almost-the-last-minute in the doctorate – you need to be building up your knowledge and know-how throughout your candidature.

The PhD is a lot about information work – gathering “stuff” together, storing and labelling it so you can find it again, cultivating and working it so that it grows and changes over time.  Writing is your friend in this endeavour.

At the start of the PhD you will need to become much more systematic at using writing to support your reading – in tasks like note-taking, summarising and synthesising. It can help to keep a reading journal and/or another kind of document or journal in which you record your developing ideas. So you do have to write, and write regularly.

If you find the volume of PhD writing difficult then there is advice and support to help. You can use voice-to-text software, which is improving all the time. You can join a regular Shut Up and Write session, or start one of your own. You can join one of the increasing number of online writing rooms. And you are now likely to be able to access writing workshops in your university.

However, this writing also needs to help you to move away from being a “student”.

I said earlier that scholarly writing was different from the writing you’ve done up till now. And it’s not just about volume, frequency and regularity. It’s also about the kind of writing you need to do.

Scholarly writing is not the same as undergraduate or taught course writing. The thesis, just like journal articles, chapters and books, is different from essay writing. In an essay the student’s job is to say everything there is to know about a topic. The good taught university student can reasonably expect good marks for coverage and clever interpretation, and outstanding grades for giving a brilliant answer to the question someone else has set.

But as a researcher, you now have to argue and persuade – you write in relation to your topic, you use literatures and evidence to support the case that you are making. So getting practice at writing for another reader – your supervisor – is very helpful. Helpful if you can see this writing for your supervisor as learning how to become scholarly, rather than a performance you have to get right. When your supervisor comments on your writing, it is not about whether you are correct or not. Their comments are designed to support you to make the shift to thinking and writing as an expert, as an authority.

You generally don’t get to know how to write as if you are expert straight away. So do be forgiving to yourself it this doesn’t all jell at once. It’s learning – it takes time.

And the academic writing you do is based in your particular discipline. Every discipline has a load of writing conventions, particular terminology and hidden rules you need to know about. Getting on top of these “hidden” aspects of writing happens over time. But your supervisor is likely to be very helpful here too, they can make these covert practices more explicit.

However, it’s good to know that academic writing generally isn’t just one homogenous thing – even the most apparently stodgy disciplines can encompass various genres and styles of writing. While a few rules, such as citation to acknowledge when you’ve used other people’s work, rarely go away, there is often more room to move in academic writing than is sometimes acknowledged.

So it’s important that at the start of the PhD that you don’t try to copy what appears to be the academic style of writing. Your job at the beginning of the PhD is to get on top of ideas, lexicon and argumentation. And you can use your writing to help you think through all of the “stuff” and the experience, and to communicate your current thinking clearly and economically.