Academic Writing for a PhD: it's a marathon, not a sprint!
A love of research, a passion for learning, a drive for self-development or career development – these are all common motivations for someone to embark on a PhD. However, you’ll rarely hear someone say they’re in it for the love of academic writing. Despite how integral it is to the PhD process, writing is something I think we all have complex feelings about – from exhaustion and frustration to satisfaction and enjoyment
I’m currently finishing up writing a scoping review and am aware that my next writing project will be the big one - my thesis. To prepare myself for this, I used the review writing process as a chance to explore my learning needs, habits and skills around writing. Here’s a quick summary of what I learnt:
1. Know where to find help
Instead of getting overwhelmed by the huge amount of advice online, I recommend identifying
where you need help and focus in on this. I needed to understand what was expected from a thesis, how to structure my ideas and present data: for this, I took a postgraduate module titled ‘Academic Writing for Sciences’, and reading the book ‘Authoring a PhD’ by Patrick Dunleavy provided some excellent guidance. I’d also recommend visiting your university’s Writing Centre – they can help with any aspect of the writing process, and I found them incredibly helpful and reassuring.
2. Become comfortable with writing drafts
“You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”
― Jodi Picoult
First drafts are undoubtedly challenging, and we rarely feel ‘ready’ to write, but at some stage we just have to go for it! Don’t worry if what you produce is awful – that’s where the editing process comes in. You will probably find that, once you start writing, your ideas and thoughts may develop in a way that you couldn’t get them to beforehand -another incentive to put pen to paper!
3. Sleep well, eat well and exercise daily
It may seem like obvious advice, but it’s also easy to lose sight of. Thinking and writing require
deep focus, good recall and a fresh mind. When we prioritise the habits and activities that keep us healthy and balanced, it makes the writing process so much easier.
4. Academic writing is a marathon, not a sprint
I don't know about you, but I can't write (well) for more than a few hours a day. Writing is different to any kind of work I’ve done before; it’s impossible to power through once I’m tired, or work intensely to meet a deadline. I’ve learnt to pace myself and aim for slow and steady progress. My advice: be the tortoise, not the hare, and you'll finish that project without burning out!
5. Keep some perspective.
At times, I found the lengthy, solitary nature of writing this review paper pretty challenging. When I feel like this, a little perspective always helps. It's a cliché, but a PhD is about the journey, not the destination. My life won't change when this review gets published; there will be no fireworks display or awards ceremony. It's through thinking and writing that growth will come, and so all I can do is dive in and try to enjoy the process!
There are just a few of my main takeaways from the last few months – and I haven’t even mentioned social/peer support or the importance of taking breaks yet! With these lessons on board, I’m definitely feeling more prepared and less daunted when it comes to the upcoming thesis writing process. Wishing you best of luck with your own writing projects!