Many graduate students struggle with academic writing. In fact, studies show that many graduate students feel insecure about their writing abilities, regard writing as a chore, and try to avoid situations in which writing is required (some of these studies are cited in the “recommended reading” resources mentioned below). These writing difficulties can be compounded for students who do not speak English as a first language and for students who are returning to graduate study many years after earning a previous degree (and thus may not have written academically for a long time). While these difficulties can be distressing to students experiencing them, they are very common and can be dealt with effectively by using proven strategies. The following sections review some time-tested strategies and ideas for tackling the difficulties and anxieties caused by academic writing.
Know that you are not alone
Writing challenges can be isolating. It is easy to convince yourself that you are the only one struggling, while the rest of your classmates are having an easy time. This is almost never true. Part of the problem is what might be called the “social media effect.” On social media, people tend to present the best possible view of themselves and their life—exotic places they’ve visited, interesting food they’ve tried—but avoid mentioning the everyday challenges and difficulties that they experience along with everyone else. A similar pattern often happens in classrooms. Students are required to display the end product of their efforts, but are rarely encouraged to talk about the challenging process of creating them. Thus, struggling students may think that they are the only ones who are struggling. However, as mentioned above, writing challenges are commonplace (see also the “Imposter Syndrome” section of this site).
A successful seminar paper or thesis does not have to be particularly moving, beautiful, or revolutionary. It should, however, be clear, comprehensible, organized, and discipline-appropriate. In other words, student work is an opportunity to show that you are learning the conventions of your field, doing your reading, and staying informed about your discipline or topic. However, it does not have to be perfect. Many students paralyze themselves by insisting that their work should meet an unrealistic standard of perfection (and thus prevent themselves from completing work that is “good enough”). One solution is to follow the advice of writer Anne Lamott and deliberately write a bad first draft. That is, commit to writing a bad first draft of your writing assignment with the knowledge that you will subsequently revise it into a better draft.
Manage your time and schedule to optimize writing
Since a good paper may require multiple drafts, being a successful academic writer requires effective time management (See also the “Time Management” section of this site). In terms of writing, time management involves regularly scheduling time to write, ideally on a daily or weekly basis. Some people use word count, for example committing to writing 100 words (or 500 or 1000) every day. Others use time increments, for example committing to writing 15 minutes (or more) per day. If you cannot schedule daily writing time, do it weekly; for example, you could commit to working on your thesis from 4-6pm every Wednesday. Whatever system you use, scheduling is key. People schedule work, exercise, childcare, social events, and TV watching. Granting the same respect to your writing will immeasurably boost your success.
Learn to write better by reading like a writer
Dr. Mike Bunn has an excellent article on how to improve your writing by “reading like a writer.” Reading like a writer is different from either reading for class or reading for pleasure. When you read for class, you likely focus on efficiency and retention, and you might read quickly, skim sections, or read the conclusion first. When you read for pleasure, you might savor poetic language or enjoy a suspenseful plot. In contrast, when you read like a writer, you slow down, focusing on the stylistic and structural choices the author made and thinking about how you might make similar choices to improve your writing. For example, you might ask questions like “How many sources does the author use per page?” or “Why did the author choose to start the introduction with a quote? What are the pros and cons of doing so?” or “What kinds of words/sentences does the author use to transition between ideas?” Asking questions like these can help you improve your writing significantly.
Recommended further reading
Belcher, W.L. (2009). Writing your journal article in 12 weeks: A guide to academic publishing success. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Pressfield, S. (2012). The war of art: Break through the blocks and win your inner creative battles. Los Angeles, CA: Black Irish Entertainment.
Silvia, P. K. (2007). How to write a lot: A practical guide to productive academic writing. Washington, DC: APA.
Williams, V. K. (2016). I'm not a writer...I'm just in graduate school: A guide to writing critically, clearly and coherently. Tampa, FL: Chrysalis Consulting.