Getting to Grips with Academic Writing

Yikes ! I can’t write this assignment!

Some students find it difficult to get to grips with academic writing tasks. Whereas they often understand key concepts associated with an assignment or task they find it very difficult to express these in writing.

The problem can lead to stress and frustration on all sides as written assessments may not be seen as a fair measure of student learning outcomes.

Of course every person is unique and it is not always easy to provide good advice for all situations; that said, I have noticed similarities in the challenges students face and so I hope the advice I provide below can be of help.

Technical versus Mindset

There are two types of barriers to writing ability. The first is ‘technical’, by this I mean literally the skills of grammar, vocabulary and composition – the kind of stuff you should learn in school. For a various reasons, students often miss out on these skills and need to work on their basic literacy and writing technique. Thankfully, this is not a common problem in higher education but it is important to be mindful that people can get very far in the system by avoiding situations that force them to write. In the end this lack of skill is exposed when the first assignment is posed and the student is unable to respond.

Students with serious deficiencies in the technical aspects of their writing skills will require support and supplemental classes to bring them up-to-speed. Although it takes time and effort, most students will build their skills through practice and feedback.

Another type of type of barrier – the ‘mindset’ barrier – is much more common but often overlooked. In this situation students are good writers in other contexts but struggle when it comes to academic writing.

How to overcome mindset barriers

The first step is to try to understand what’s happening. Sometimes I need to decode what people are saying in order to get to the root of the problem. So when a student reports “I’m just waiting until I’ve read everything I need to know before I start to write”. Often what they are really saying is I am putting off writing this assignment for as long as possible. When a student says “I’ve written the first paragraph but I can’t get past that point”. What they’re really saying is I have written the first paragraph again and again and again trying to make it perfect. And when a student says “I’ve written the paper but I am not happy with it and now I have to rewrite it”.  It really means My standards are such that I cannot possibly meet them in my own writing.

I’m not trying to imply that people are dishonest or deceptive about their challenges. No that is not the case, rather it seems to me that when we encounter a problem we do our best to analyse the situation and come up with a solution. Our first attempts are often hampered by a misunderstanding of the nature of the barrier and hence we come up with a faulty diagnosis.

Try this, imagine there are two aspects of the writer’s mind – one is the worker and the other is the manager. The manager says ‘get going and write this assignment as best you can, remember there are marks for this and you are going to be judged‘. The worker gets on with it and writes the first few sentences. Then the manager intervenes and reads to sentence ‘that’s not quite correct you’d better rewrite‘. You can see what’s happening – the manager never gives the worker a chance, always second guessing and interfering with the process. This is the most common barrier encountered by students.

The situation is greatly amplified by the characteristic requirements of an academic writing task. In many cases the assignment is part of a high-stakes assessment regime and this gives the ‘manager’ in you an inflated sense of importance. Add to this, technical requirements such as academic citations, formal language and highly specialized terminology. Now the ‘manager’ function is elevated to supreme importance. And, in practical terms, completely suppresses the poor worker. You can’t complete a sentence or paragraph done without persistent self-examination and critique! This leads to doubt and stagnation and undermines the self-confidence of the writer.

The irony is that it is the over active ‘drive to achieve’ that acts to impede achievement. There are many analogies in real life, you will not get a note from a wind instrument by blowing hard, a tennis player who over hits will be out of court and an aggressive opening in chess will often lead to an early demise.

The solution is to manage the ‘manager’. Tell it to be quiet, step back and let you work. Of course your first outputs will not be perfect but you will make progress as you do (rather than think about) the task. Yes there are appropriate times to take stock, re-read and improve; but you also need to have something to work with.

For my part, I always write my first paragraph once and then leave it alone until the very end. Only when I have most of my paper written do I revisit the opening paragraph. It is often the last thing I write. This has the added advantage of allowing me to state in the opening all that the reader can expect. I see a written composition as a sequence of ‘full draft – then revise’, rather than ‘write a bit- then revise’ and ‘write another bit – then revise’ and so on.

It’s very simple. Nobody is born with perfect writing skills. Writing is developed through practice. Practice involves doing. You learn to write by doing, not thinking about, writing.

So good luck with your task and tell that manager to go away and leave you alone so you can get on with it!

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