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When writing, focus on your strengths

There’s a world of knowledge out there and it all intertwines. The study of any one subject begins to touch on the boundaries of others, motivating study into the new subject. When reading and when writing, we learn new things, which could lead to feelings of treading on unfamiliar ground.

I’ve met some brilliant and hard-working people in my life in academia. I’ve met people who read articles by the bushel and books by the shelf, but I’ve never met one who had read everything worth reading. There’s too much knowledge out there for any one person to know everything there is to know and to read everything that has been written. And, of course, we recognize this; it is the motivation behind the specialization all around us. Nonetheless, it is not unusual to become paralyzed by the sense that we don’t know enough.

At some point we have to stop looking for something new to learn—some new answer or some new scholarly source on which to rely—and start trying to figure out what answer works for you. We must shift from merely accepting the work of others to beginning to explicate your own voice, your own wisdom, your own discovery. This is central to academic work. Though we may stand on the shoulders of giants, still we must add our own height.

If you are trying to write a dissertation or thesis, the time to stop reading is now. Universities do not set you on a dissertation expecting you to read—they expect you to write. The criteria for getting your dissertation accepted is not based on what you’ve read, but on what you have written. Of course you are expected to have done some reading. But the dissertation is about writing—it is about completing a written work.

Think of it this way: which person is more likely to have their dissertation accepted: Person A, who has read everything there is to read on his/her subject, and has written only an incomplete dissertation draft or Person B, who has written a complete work that uses only a handful of sources?

The answer is obvious: person A, lacking a complete work for submission, has no chance of having a dissertation accepted, while person B, has a real chance of getting his/her dissertation accepted.

At some point you have to stop reading and researching and start writing—and what you use to write is your strengths—those things that you have studied, and especially those things that you know best. Rather than trying to fill in all the gaps in your knowledge, and rather than spending your time focusing on those gaps, focus on what you do know. Focus on using the strengths that you have developed during your studies. Focus on what you know best. Use the material that you do have.

Of course it is necessary to do some research and some reading; of course it is necessary to be diligent and careful and to be aware of the limitations of our knowledge. Your work should not be founded simply on your untested opinions. There must be a solid foundation, not one of dreams. But if you have built a solid foundation, rely on it; focus on the strength it gives.

Copyright © 2007, Dave Harris. All rights reserved

Dave HarrisDave Harris, Ph.D., academic writing coach and editor, helps writers rework their writing process, fine-tune their final drafts, and everything in between (;