Written by: Jack Tilbury, Information Systems Master’s Student
In the Academic Writing Workshop, facilitated by Professor Sioux McKenna on 9 May, various writing techniques and tips were discussed – especially that writing is a practice – and so to become good at it, you need lots of practice!
The overall aim of the day was to assist students to enhance their writing and to build confidence in entering into the academic conversation. The workshop was well attended with honours, master’s, and doctoral students from all faculties. A few postdoctoral fellows and supervisors also attended. Despite a brief interruption at the start, when the power went out, significant light was shed on how to become the best writer you can be.
To many postgraduate students, the thought of writing your research paper or thesis is a daunting one. Whether you are enrolled for an honours, master’s, or doctoral degree you will be required to write a large-scale document – ranging from 30 000 to 100 000 words. It’s no surprise that this scares students initially. However, once the ball gets rolling and students familiarise themselves with the topic, so the process becomes more manageable and writing becomes easier – after all, mountains are there to be climbed.
In opening the workshop, it was quickly established that we do not have good or bad writers per se – rather, the question that must be asked is “How often you do you read and write?” To write a research paper (at whatever level), one must have read research papers at that level to gauge what is expected of such a piece. It’s also crucial that you become familiar with the current conversation in the literature about the phenomenon you’re writing about. We were warned about the dangers of simply highlighting and summarising the literature, rather than engaging with it and thinking through what the literature means for our own work. We learned about how a reading journal can develop voice and about the dangers of too many direct quotes.
Useful videos on engaging with the literature can be viewed here:
Reading without writing almost makes the practice of reading pointless. To fully engage yourself within your topic, one should read, reflect on what was read, and then critique/analyse and contribute to the field – essentially carrying out Bloom’s Taxonomy.
Postgraduate students contribute 40% of South Africa’s research output – this shows the importance of postgraduates understanding themselves as significant knowledge producers. Research comes from a wide range of fields and disciplines and of course there will exist certain norms within these disciplines that relate to, and affect, your writing. However, there are some commonalities amongst all research. All research attempts to build an argument that convinces the reader of the position being presented. The ways in which such arguments are made differ significantly across disciplines but all use a series of claims and evidence. To become a strong academic writer means figuring out how to build an argument in your field. What is an acceptable knowledge claim? What kinds of evidence are considered valid?
Useful videos on building an argument can be viewed here:
When writing, your work not only reflects the norms of the discipline, it also reflects who you are and how you view the world – through what lens do you look at things? It is important for postgraduates to reflect on their theoretical lens when writing which tells the reader how they view the construction and understanding of knowledge.
A useful video on the role of theory in research can be viewed here:
Effective writing, that produces a convincing argument, might look different across different disciplines but all writers need to learn how to produce it. How do you make your point without multiple repetitions and making vague statements? It is significantly harder to provide a coherent, concise argument with solid evidence than it is to waffle on.
“I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter. I didn’t have time to write you a short one” – attributed to both Blaise Pascal and Mark Twain
Various tools and practices for writing also took up a large portion of the conversation with emphasis on the phases that your writing should go through. What students often do is get stuck in straight away when writing essays, assignments, thesis chapters or their proposals. Their very first words are a draft of the final product and they try to edit as they go along.
But experienced writers will tell you that pre-writing is essential for good quality work. Pre-writing is a time when you can write for yourself in an informal manner which allows you to gain an understanding of the arguments in the literature, the key concepts in the field, and generally what it is that you want to say. Pre-writing can take various forms. It could be free-writing, where you write non-stop on a concept for five minutes. This is easy to fit into any busy schedule as we all have five minutes here or there where we could develop our writing practice. Other forms of pre-writing include mind-maps and reading journals.
Only when you have done enough writing for yourself to be sure of what you want to say should you move on to drafting. Drafting is a shift from writing for yourself to having an imaginary conversation with readers whereby you present your argument. This takes a lot of reading aloud and sharing with others to ensure that the text is coherent and easy for the reader to follow. Writing groups are a perfect space to test out your texts with fellow postgraduates.
The third and final phase of writing is the proof-reading. Getting the spelling and punctuation right is essential and must be done very meticulously. But it is not good to do it too early. You can paralyse yourself working on the perfect sentence when you first need a strong coherent draft.
Essentially, good writers go through three phases of writing: generative writing (free-writing); drafting (thinking about the audience); and editing (making it look professional).
A video on the three phases can be watched here:
To better manage your research, and the writing within, you need to give it the sufficient attention and practice it needs. Putting off writing can make the whole process feel unmanageable.
“A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight. It is barely domesticated, a mustang on which you one day fastened a halter, but which now you cannot catch. It is a lion you cage in your study. As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, "Simba!”
Putting together a sound research paper is far from impossible, but it does require hard and focused work – with the consistent attention that builds momentum. It is not a matter of finding time to write, as time exists and is already there, but rather a matter of making time – prioritising your postgraduate degree.
The PowerPoint from the workshop can be found here:
The Writing Guide that was handed out at the workshop can be downloaded here: