I’m currently polishing up a PhD thesis, and I already hold a Masters. I’m a reasonably experienced academic writer by now.
But when I think back on some of my early ideas about academic writing, there were a few that were a bit… shall we say, optimistic. (Read: unrealistic.) If I could go back in time, these are the five thoughts I’d love to convince my younger self not to think.
“I have to write x words over y weeks. That’s x/y words per week.”
I thought this about my Masters. Oh, it’s only 40,000 words in a year. That’s just 769 words per week! Easy.
I thought this again about my PhD. Oh, it’s only 80,000 words in 3 years. That’s just 513 words per week! Even easier. I was wrong both times.
First of all, I wrote a lot of words that I didn’t use. I recast my ideas and threw things out. I edited. I wrote sections that became irrelevant and outdated. I realised I’d given too much attention to several topics and had to cut right down. So the actual number of words I wrote was much, much higher than the word limit for my thesis.
Secondly, some weeks I wasn’t writing. I was reading, or collecting data, or trying to learn a new software programme, or dealing with the personal problems that life throws at us all from time to time.
So the actual number of words I wrote per week was sometimes zero, and sometimes many thousands. Still, this kind of words-per-week thinking helped me to make a regular commitment to writing in the early days of my research, and that was valuable.
“My undergrad essays scored well, so I must be a good enough writer.”
This was true to a degree, but gave me a false sense of security. The standard of ideas expected in a postgraduate thesis is much higher than for undergraduate essays. The same goes for the standard of writing. Despite having a Masters degree in English when I started my PhD, my supervisor has still found at least a dozen mistakes I make regularly in my writing.
I now keep a personalised running list of my most common errors, so that I can check my writing for the errors that I usually miss.
“I can write just as well at home as I can at the office.”
No. Just no. This is different for everyone, but for me, trying to write at home is an impossible task. I get distracted far too easily. I make too many cups of coffee. I get too many bright ideas about how to rearrange my desk. I spot too many dust bunnies that clearly need my urgent attention. Yet I still tell myself this fib almost every Saturday morning, and learn my lesson anew every Saturday afternoon.
“This is just a first draft. I can leave it as rough as I want.”
I patched my first draft together from the many separate documents in which I’d been writing on different topics. I thought I could just copy-paste it into a whole and go from there. I was so thrilled to reach my required word count, that I didn’t worry much about making it read well. Big mistake.
Parts of it were good, but parts were barely more than bullet-pointed notes. Having to read a very rough draft made my supervisor understandably grumpy, and it made my job a lot harder when it came time to turn the first draft into the second. It was kind of like retrofitting a shoddy building to meet safety codes. It would have been much easier and more economical to just build it solid in the first place, rather than having to go back and get it up to scratch later.
It would have been silly to spend months polishing work that wasn’t final. But a first draft does need to be good enough to be readable, and good enough to be reworked into something professional.
“Formatting the reference list will be easy. I’ll let the software handle it.”
The day I handed in my Masters thesis, I spent a solid 12 hours cursing EndNote and wishing all sorts of horrible fates to befall the folks at ThomsonReuters. (I’ve since calmed down, and wish them well.) Long story short, the EndNote-Word connection malfunctioned and turned all my references into nonsense language. There have been a lot of improvements to EndNote since then, but the experience did alert me to the fact that software is not infallible.
Another note of caution: bibliographic software is also only as good as what you put into it. I didn’t take the time to learn how to format my entries correctly, and so I had lots of last-minute clean-up work to do.
Have you had any similarly naïve thoughts about your own writing? Share them in the comments below.