There is a lot of advice about academic writing on the internet, usually full of imperative verbs, and I don’t feel I’m really qualified to add to it. But when I started out as a postgraduate I would have liked to have read something which addressed how we feel about writing (or at least, how I and most of the people I’ve asked feel about writing) and owned up to how unpleasant it sometimes is. So this post is a list for my younger self of things I’ve learned.
Pain is not a useful assessment
I enjoy writing but it is also almost always painful, even when it is going well. One of the key discoveries I made during my master’s was that this pain is not a reliable judgement of the work’s quality. When I am writing everything I write seems terrible. On returning to it later I often discover that it is indeed terrible, but sometimes it’s acceptable, and sometimes it is even good. In these cases there was never any difference in the amount of pain. I became much happier when I realised that when writing I can simply ignore how I feel, because I’m always going to feel the same. And if I write frequently I can at least get used to it.
Compromise is useful
When writing I oscillate between idealism (it has to be good) and pragmatism (it has to be finished). Both of these states are useful—necessary, even: it’s the idealism that makes me proof read carefully and propels me through the boring bits which justify the exciting paragraphs, while without pragmatism I’d never be able to say that what I have is good enough even if it isn’t the perfect piece I imagined when I started. Pragmatism’s also a useful mode of thought for limiting research plans. One of the most useful things anyone told me before I started doctoral work—and I think it was Mary Flannery who said it to me—was that on one level a PhD is simply an exercise like any other. It’s a big and intellectually stimulating thing, of course, and it’s a thing which is worth doing well, but it is also a thing you do to the expected standard and then submit.
I’ve learned that everything becomes much more efficient when I make an effort to notice these two impulses consciously and either harness or reject them as appropriate.
Despair is really bad
As some of the pastoralia I study are keen to emphasise! It’s fine and often perfectly logical to feel bad but I can be productive while feeling bad. Despair means stopping, which is much worse. Nowadays if I notice that I am starting to despair I try to talk about how my work is going to someone else as soon as I can.
Working can be thinking
‘Against Thinking’ by Peter Stallybrass (PMLA 122 (2007), 1580–87; accessible copies can be found by Googling) is one of the most useful bits of advice about thinking I’ve read, even if its core is a memo aimed at undergraduates. And despite its emphasis on databases and other such brushed-metal things, it chimes with even the most basic essay-writing approaches I used as an undergraduate, such as ‘do some close reading and see where it takes you, then think about the essay’. Stallybrass’s piece is perhaps deliberately provocative, but I would put the useful takeaway like this: for me, particularly at the beginning of any writing process, most of the thinking happens as part of the grindy, seemingly ‘less academic’ working.
Books about writing
Other than that, well, there are books out there about academic writing. From the few I’ve read I gather the research mostly points in one direction: for most of us effective writing is frequent and habitual writing. Have a schedule, stick to it, that sort of thing. I haven’t found anything much more developed than this, though it’s true that I haven’t been looking very hard. Is my writing frequent and habitual? Not nearly as much as I would like. But it heads that way in my more productive spells! And at least now I have a model of behaviour to aim for.