Writing for Research II: Writing as an iterative process


Yesterday, I wrote about writing as a learned skill. Today we move on to thinking about writing as an iterative process. One of the biggest mistakes that graduate students make is thinking that writing their thesis or research paper is going to be like writing an undergraduate essay. That is, they will sit down with a relatively clear idea of what the question is and a relatively clear idea of what the answer is, then proceed to write until both those ideas have been expressed. Then submit, and receive a grade for their efforts.

Two things will strike you as a (post)graduate student writing a piece of research. Firstly, you only have a very vague idea of what the question is – and that question and its answer will develop throughout the writing process. Secondly, you usually have the chance to get feedback on your work before you submit, and if you are a thesis student, it is expected. In effect, this means that at the very least your writing will go through two iterations.

At the PhD and Masters level, and if you are writing for publication, there will be many, many more iterations. Even once you have submitted for publication, reviewers and editors will make suggestions and critique your work, helping you finetune your piece before it is distributed more widely. What I would like to suggest is that we approach every piece of writing as an iterative process, and plan in time to write and rewrite. The time for writing your first draft is really about working out what it is you want to say. My post on writing spew drafts covers some great strategies for this. Most of these strategies can be summed up with the following two memes:

Ernest Hemingway captures the process in the statement ‘write drunk, edit sober’. What does this mean to you? While writing drunk literally may not be your thing, writing without inhibition – for the first draft at least – is what I get from this quote. Then sobering up to edit out some of the less compelling parts of the piece.

I like Stephen King’s writing metaphor even better. Writing with the door closed, without inhibition, and without thinking about what people might think of you. But then coming around to rewrite with the door open, that is, inviting the reader in and thinking about how the reader might feel and respond and understand your piece.

When I was a PhD student, colleague Lorena Gibson (who blogs here) gave me a set of questions to consider when writing up an article or chapter. While I’ve lost the set of questions, and cannot recall the name of the person who drafted them, I do remember that you had to name five people that you hoped would read your article. I still do this when I set out to write or revise an article. When writing your thesis, these five people might be your supervisor, your examiners, a few people you would like to read it because they have similar interest areas. NAME them. Then revise with their knowledge-set in mind.

For example, in revising my PhD thesis, I had an idea of the three people who would likely be asked to examine it. I went through and thought about what they knew of my topic, and what their responses were likely to be. One examiner had a very strong grounding in feminist and geographic theory, but wasn’t likely to know much about China, where a lot of my fieldwork was conducted. Another examiner had a strong grounding in anthropology and was a Chinese person who researched in China, but was unlikely to have much knowledge of the Australian and New Zealand component of my research, or the feminist or geographic framing. I went through and added in bits for both – edited sentences, added footnotes, connected to literature they had cited in their work.

But Stephen King’s door advice is not just useful for editing, but is useful to remember if you are facing some form of paralysis around getting writing done. I would argue that writing your first draft with the door ‘open’ can lead to writer’s block or paralysis.PhD coach Alison Miller changes the metaphor and likens it to having too many programmes open on your old windows PC. If you are writing and just concentrating on what you want to say, you might be able to stumble through an entire draft and get to the end of it, eventually. If you are writing and thinking about what  your supervisor thinks, your examiner thinks, the grammar police think, your PhD writing group thinks, and so on and so forth, you might just freeze up and be unable to progress. I discuss this a little more in my piece on writing spew drafts – which are for you and you alone. In that piece I also outline some other ways of thinking about the iterative process of writing including ‘write that journal article in 7 days/steps’ and the ‘hats’ you need to put on while writing including Crazyperson, Architect, Engineer, and Cleaner. So check it out!

At some stage, though, the door does have to open. This includes rewriting with the reader in mind, but eventually it is also necessary to get some actual feedback from real people. Whether it is from a supervisor, a colleague, a reviewer or an editor, feedback is essential for even the best writers. If you don’t have people to ask, why not start a writing group? That way you can exchange work and get feedback on the experience of reading your writing. When asking for feedback, make sure you ask specifically for the kind of feedback you are looking for. If you don’t want proofreading, make that clear, and ask a series of questions for your reader. For example ‘what do you think my main argument is, and is it coming through clearly?’.  The next post will be more on identifying your argument and the key contribution of your piece of writing.


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