Join Adekiite for hints and tips on improving your writing skills and letting go of some common myths.
You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence. – Octavia Butler
When Ernest Hemingway was asked why he rewrote the last page of A Farewell to Arms twenty-nine times, he explained that he was just “getting the words right.” To be fair, the journey to writing an A grade thesis where the arguments are just right and clear is one of the banes of graduate school. Although some people are so naturally gifted that they simply get the words right at the first opening of a new tab, it can be a real challenge for many others. I am sure you have once wondered, just as I did after getting a grade C on an assignment that I thought would be an A, that maybe this writing thing is meant only for the born naturals and geniuses after all. Well, nothing could be further from the truth. Great writing can come from mere mortals like you and I. We can indeed say farewell to grade C. But first, we must let go of the myths holding our minds captive.
Myth #1: Good writers write quickly and efficiently
Reality: Good writers prewrite, draft, revise, edit, and sweat over their writing. A case in point is Ernest Hemingway, a Nobel Laureate in Literature, who has just been mentioned. As stated, he had to rewrite the last page of his novel ‘A Farewell to Arms’ 29 times. This was not because he was not smart (the Nobel Prize is awarded only to the best of the best). From his account, he was just “getting the words right.” And that’s what writers do. Friends, writing is an iterative process even for Nobel Laureates!
Myth #2: You can only write when you are inspired
Reality: I think this is the biggest misconception about becoming and being a writer; that you write only when you’re inspired. Well, as a grad student, if you wait till you are inspired, you are either likely to miss your deadlines and could be penalised for lateness or you submit substandard work. Being a writer is writing even when you don’t want to, that’s the only major difference. But with that comes another misconception: that inspiration is out of our control. Building a writing habit is building the ability to inspire yourself. With walks or shower musings, with a steaming mug of coffee or a window view. Anything really. No one spells it out clearly, but as a graduate student, you are a professional writer. Forget the obvious title, you are here to study and that involves a lot of reading but the main way to show what you are learning is by writing. If you want to be a writer, you must write! So, choose a time and stick to it. It has been shown you are 42% more likely to do something if you write it down. So, write down your writing goals. Make time for your writing and adjust other activities around that time not the other way round. The quote below is witty but drives home the point:
“I only write when I’m inspired, so I see to it that I’m inspired every morning at nine o’clock.” – Peter De Vries
Myth #3: Writing is a linear process
Reality: Writing is not linear. That is a simple truth. The actual writing process involves jumping between the steps and between sections of your paper. I know some of us to have these unspoken rules that we must not proceed to another section such as the body of an essay without first finalising the previous section. Even when we have run out of ideas, we remain stuck in it losing valuable time during which we could have explored fresh ideas for other sections. The good news is that the marker doesn’t care if you wrote your conclusion before your introduction, what matters is that your final piece has all the necessary sections and is arranged sequentially. So, next time you are stuck on one section, allow yourself to move on to others, you can always come back to it. Disorder is in order at the writing phase.
Myth #4: You should know exactly what you want to say before writing
Reality: I can hear you asking, but shouldn’t I know exactly what I want to write before writing? Well, you should have an idea of what to write but you do not need to know exactly what. Naturally, you would have conducted some research and equally done some reflections before starting to write. However, your thoughts on the topic do not need to be crystal clear. A large part of writing involves discovery and exploration. Thus, you are free to explore the initial idea you have and change it as you please. You do not need to brood on an idea until it becomes perfect. You can hone it while writing or even change it if you find that it does not work.
Myth #5: You need a black and white answer or explanation
Reality: The struggle for a nuanced answer is a real one. I have been there, scratch that, still there…. It cannot be emphasized enough that the goal of academic writing is for students to explore ideas. At the postgraduate level, nuance is key because most issues you would be asked to discuss are complex anyways. You do not need a black and white answer. In fact, your answer may not be grey but be a query on why we are even considering colours at all (pun intended)
Myth #6: Only terrible writers get feedback
Reality: I used to think the same until I gave one of my works to three colleagues for their reviews and all returned with similar comments. This shocked me because it meant that an error that was obvious to everyone somehow eluded me. Everybody, and I mean everybody, need feedback. I know feedback can be painful, but they help you to grow and improve. Good advice though is to try to discuss your thesis and arguments with your lecturer during their office hours to get as much feedback as possible before the submission of your paper. This may mean more positive and less negative feedback after the submission.
Myth #7: Long, complex sentences mean you are smart
Reality: I have fallen prey to this myth many times over. I believed convoluted complex sentences were the needed inputs to earn me the A grade in critical thinking. This was mostly not true. Long sentences only made my essay more monotonous and harder for the marker to understand. While it is advisable to mix short and long sentences as much as possible to add some rhythm, short concise sentences always win. Instead of trying to sound complex, it is better to write clearly but with a stronger focus on improving the depth and scope of the content.
Myth #8: You need perfect conditions to write
Reality: Some students can only write if the room temperature of their study is exactly 28 degrees Celsius, the table is placed facing the window for a direct source of natural light and their cup of cappuccino is freshly brewed…and the list goes on. I know we all have different writing rituals and preferences. While these are all helpful and can improve writing, sticking to those rituals can hinder us from writing which is often problematic when there are looming deadlines. The reality is that writing can be done under any condition so long as one puts the mind to it. The key to note here is that you are not likely aiming to write a perfect draft while you are outside in a loud noisy area. But you can pen a rough draft that sets you closer to the finish line.
By debunking these myths, I hope it has been shown that academic writing is not an impossible feat that only the truly gifted can accomplish but a skill that anyone can master. Generally, it is helpful to observe how the experts in one’s discipline write and ensure the writing fits. After all, as a grad student, you are not writing for yourself but for your lecturer and other members of your academic community. It remains crucial to request feedback and critical reviews on drafts before submitting them. The importance of writing, re-writing, and re-writing again cannot be overemphasized. The only way to get better and say farewell to the C grades is by practice!
“I try to write a certain amount each day, five days a week. A rule sometimes broken is better than no rule.” – Herman Wouk
University Writing Services SLU.edu/success 314-977-3484. Saint Louis University