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Academic Coaching & Writing

IV. An Academic, Writing: Breaking the Silence About Academic Writing

Dec 11, 2012 by Lee Skallerup Bessette

Recently, Dr. Helen Sword, author of Stylish Academic Writing from Harvard University Press, gave a presentation, entitled “Habits of Highly Productive Academic Writers” (you can read the Twitter transcript of the presentation here). I was following along on Twitter and was struck by some of her research findings, especially in regards to how we learn to be academic writers and our attitudes towards academic writing.

Sword asked academics where and how they learned to write academically. No one in the room raised a hand when asked if they had ever taken a course in academic writing. Often you are left on your own to learn how to do academic writing, and as Sword points out, it’s hard to learn on your own. It is slow, haphazard, and arduous. And yet, you are expected to do it on your own and do it well.

Breaking the Silence About Struggles With Academic Writing

I never had any formal training as an academic writer. Any feedback I received was focused on my research, my methodology, my approach, or my corpus and conclusions; it was never about the writing. I imagine this was because this was how my professors learned how to write academically and, thus, they were mentoring me the way they themselves had been mentored. As a result, you are likely to find yourself climbing the academic ladder with very little explicit knowledge about the academic writing process.

Sword also noted that: “Many academics told me about their struggles with writing. I realized there were issues with power.” It never even occurred to me to ask my supervisor or other professors what their writing process and practices were. I never asked for help in part because I didn’t want to appear less able than my peers in the PhD program. It is even more perilous for a professor on the tenure-track, not wanting to look anything less than capable in front of peers who are deciding on tenure cases. It’s safer to stay silent and struggle with your writing alone. PhD students and junior faculty may feel that they are in precarious positions professionally; in a culture where you are expected to know how to write, you may consider it dangerous to admit any sort of “deficiency” or acknowledge that you struggle in that area.

By remaining silent about the writing process, many academics develop negative attitudes towards academic writing. Sword found a predominance of negative words that academics associated with writing including: anxiety, stress, guilt, shame, frustration. How many of you have felt such emotions when writing? How many of you have ever articulated these feelings to anyone? Writing, for everyone else, seems so easy, while you’re the only one who struggles. Negative, destructive peer-review feedback can further harm your fragile writing psyche.

What Sword found, however, is that the most productive writers have more positive emotions around their writing. They find the writing and revision process satisfying. How, then, can you begin to break the negative inner-voice that you hear about yourself and your writing? A Writing Coach can help you begin to break the silence around academic writing. Writing coaches are trained to help you develop habits that will support you to become a better academic writer, and they will challenge you to confront negative self-talk.

In this blog post I talked about the challenge of learning academic writing skills on your own and overcoming negative attitudes about writing. In the next blog, I’ll discuss the isolation that accompanies writing and focus on ways of working collaboratively and socially to overcome the solitary nature of the writing process.

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