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How to identify yourself as an academic writer

Doctoral study involves a transition from student to researcher; a key aspect of that transition is becoming an academic writer. This is not to say that most new PhDs would readily describe themselves as academic writers. But that level of accomplishment requires the development of a set of academic writing skills that were likely not present at the outset of doctoral study. It’s also likely the case that the development of those crucial skills was a significant challenge.

Why is doctoral writing such a challenge? This question is a vital one given the centrality of writing to all that we do as academics. It’s common for new graduate students to feel as though their writing skills have suddenly become worse, as though the adequate writing skills honed over their undergraduate years have abandoned them just when they need them the most. A linear trajectory that would naturally make us better writers with each passing year may seem a reasonable expectation, but the reality is more complicated than that. Understanding this reality can help novice academic writers start to approach writing in a more confident and efficient manner.

Broadly speaking, academic writing during doctoral study becomes more difficult because it matters more. There is, obviously, much more at stake, and graduate students are suddenly writing for people whose opinion matters to them in a different way. This anxiety about audience can lead to uncertainty about the necessary standards. For undergraduates, benchmarks can be somewhat opaque to be sure, but most students are able to grasp what a good paper looks like. Establishing such benchmarks is much harder for graduate students, at least partially because of the distorting effect of published work in the field. Graduate students are also aware of needing to write in new ways without necessarily having a strong grasp of these new genres. Once we add some weak examples of professional academic writing into the mix, we have a recipe for a newly tentative, overly perfectionist, stylistically confused writer. And that’s not even mentioning the cognitive overload and time pressure that comes along with graduate study. Given all this, it is unsurprising that novice academic writers struggle. Some don’t, of course, but for many this array of factors can seriously hamper the development of effective academic writing skills.

[pullquote]Graduate students often tell me that part of the value of my writing classes is the simple fact of being in a room full of people willing to admit that they’re struggling with writing.[/pullquote]The easiest way to confront these difficulties is by acquainting oneself with the normal contours of the graduate writing process. Graduate students often tell me that part of the value of my writing classes is the simple fact of being in a room full of people willing to admit that they’re struggling with writing. Outside of a writing classroom, graduate students are sometimes inclined to suggest that they are managing better than they are; to some extent, this sort of fronting is valuable. A ‘fake it til you make it’ approach, however, supposes that something will change through the faking; eventually you’ll figure it out and get better at it and won’t be faking it anymore. Academic writing doesn’t necessarily work that way. Instead, a novice academic writer needs help: help practicing the craft of writing; help becoming a better reader so as to find useful exemplars; and help finding appropriate productivity strategies.

Since I don’t have room here to expand on concrete strategies for improving our writing, reading, and overall productivity, I will focus simply on one general strategy: identifying yourself as an academic writer. Being a writer is more than just writing since it involves the adoption of a different identity, with all that entails. Assuming the identity requires us to devote ourselves to writing in a new way. A graduate student can’t thrive without a lot of writing, so why not do that writing as a writer? As a writer, you must allocate significant time to the task of writing and to the improvement of that writing by engaging strategically with its challenges. As we enter more deeply into the act of writing, we can begin to focus on the needs of the reader rather than on our own writing anxieties. Our goal as academic writers must ultimately be producing prose that will match those readers’ expectations. While our future readers are sure to be a diverse group, we already know a great deal about what they will need in a piece of writing: interesting information early on; clear indications of the contribution of the research; manageable sentences; purposeful paragraphs; coherent organization; and recognizable signposting throughout. Those elements all help readers find what they need from a piece of academic writing. And if you give readers what they need, you will, in fact, have become an academic writer.

About Rachael Cayley

Rachael CayleyRachael Cayley is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Graduate Studies at the University of Toronto. She teaches academic writing and speaking to graduate students. Before joining the University of Toronto, she worked as an editor at Oxford University Press in Toronto. She has a PhD in philosophy from the New School for Social Research and a BA in political science from the University of British Columbia. Rachael blogs at Explorations of Style and tweets at @explorstyle.