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Common problems

I have ideas but find it difficult to turn them into text

The first step here is to get the ideas onto paper. This is a pre-planning stage and could be a brainstorm or mind map in which you jot down all your ideas in random non-linear fashion. Mind maps are useful for:

  • summarising information
  • consolidating information from different research sources
  • thinking through complex problems
  • presenting information that shows the overall structure of your subject

The next step is to work on putting these ideas into some kind of linear order – an outline. An outline is a series of headings and sub-headings which can always be modified at a later date; it is never something that is fixed or final. Once you have created an outline, you will find that you can use it as a road map. You can see where you have come from and where you are going.

Writing a dissertation

If you are writing a dissertation, your first provisional outline will be a series of headings corresponding to the main sections of the dissertation (and/or divisions into chapters). You can then work section by section (or chapter by chapter): this immediately breaks down your large mass of material into more manageable sections. Before you write each section/chapter, you need to prepare a more detailed outline of that section/chapter, listing main headings and sub-headings. Two important points to bear in mind here are balance and logic. ‘Balance’ means that each main heading should cover a similar amount of material at approximately the same level of generality. ‘Logic’ means that the order of main headings (and of sub-headings) should be coherent and justifiable.

Once you have a provisional outline for a section/chapter, you should have a useful overview of that section/chapter. Check that your outline is clear, logical and reasonably balanced. Check that there is nothing missing from the outline and that everything in it is relevant. The better your outline, the easier it will be to write coherently. It will also be much easier to write a section/chapter when it is broken down into smaller parts in your outline. Should you find any particular section/sub-section difficult to write, you can always prepare a more detailed ‘mini-outline’ of that particular part.

The process of preparing an outline for an assignment or research report is the same as that given above for a dissertation. The only difference is that the task is on a smaller scale.

The final stage is to turn the ideas, headings and sub-headings in your outline into sentences and longer pieces of text. Initially, you could try a ‘splurge writing’ technique as a first draft. But you will need to come back to this later in order to work on such things as clarity, sentence structure and word choice.

I usually do not know where to begin writing

Many people start their writing with their Introduction. This is not always the easiest place to start since Introductions are quite complex. The Introduction might also contain your Literature Review which is a difficult section to write because it involves both summarising the relevant available literature and being critical where necessary.

If your research report/dissertation includes a Methodology section, this is a fairly easy place to start. This is because it is a descriptive account of the method(s) that you have used and the procedure(s) that you have followed. The other advantage of working on the Methodology section is that you can begin before you have obtained and analysed all your findings. This means that you do not need to leave the writing until the end. Also once you have some results you can format them and do some preliminary discussion of them.

In general, begin with the section (or sub-section) for which you have most information, or about which you feel the most confident. Many people also find it helpful, when finishing a session of writing, to break off at a point where it will be easy to get started again.

If you have not yet started a research project, then you can always work on turning your notes, from your reading (or lectures), into short summaries.

Getting started is the most difficult part

Starting to write is not difficult. Anyone can start to write. The problem that most people have is that they aim to produce a piece of perfect writing from the beginning. At this level of academic writing this is not possible; you are going to have to draft and revise each piece of text more than once and perhaps several times. If you remove this ‘desire’ to produce perfect text in one draft, you should remove the fear and worry some people associate with writing. No-one, other than yourself, is going to see the first, second or even third draft.

Research has shown that experienced writers use a number of tricks to help them get started. One of these is called ‘splurge writing’. This consists of sitting in front of the computer for 3 – 5 minutes and writing on your topic, fairly quickly, without stopping. It is quite an intense activity, but you will be amazed at how much text you can produce in just a short time. It is important not to stop writing; you have to keep those fingers moving. And it is important not to worry about things like spelling, punctuation, the precise choice of words or even organisation. These things can be worked on later. Some writers claim that their rapidly moving fingers seem to ‘pull ideas out of their head’. Try it and see for yourself.

Another version of this technique is to use a pen and paper. You need to keep the pen moving forward, non-stop.

There are times when I am just not in the mood

Most of us have a preferred or best time for writing. This is rarely in the middle of the day when our body normally ‘expects’ to be active. Early mornings, late afternoons or late evenings tend to be good times. Many people find that they are unable to write until after they have engaged in some physical activity, such as an early morning swim or walk. So you could build this in to your daily schedule. A period of physical activity also makes a good break between sessions of writing. However, if you really do not feel like writing, then do not write: unless of course you have an urgent deadline to meet! You just need to ensure that you do it tomorrow instead.

I just do not feel my writing is good enough

Well you now belong to the largest ‘club’ in the world. We all have doubts about the quality of our writing. Even many of the world’s greatest writers have believed this about their own writing, and have often struggled with repeated drafts of text before they are happy with their final ‘products’. The truth is that we can all improve our writing skills, and nearly all texts can be improved with further work. You are never going to write a perfect first draft (even if you think that is what you did as an undergraduate!).

The important thing to remember, however, is that you can only improve your writing by writing. The basic formula is ‘the more you write, the better you will become’. Like any active skill or activity, a small amount of practice on a regular basis will lead to gradual improvement over time. So aim to do some writing four or five times a week, even in the early stages of your studies.

I always seem to find excuses for not writing

There will always be reasons not to begin writing: you need a cup of tea or a sandwich; you must phone a friend or clean your room, or you are just too tired. Of these, the only item which is probably a valid excuse is the last one. If you are too tired, you will not be able to think clearly. All the others can be set aside until after you have done some writing. Also, you can use the sandwich as a ‘reward’. For example, in the case of the sandwich, start to time yourself and make sure you do an hour’s writing before making a sandwich. The spin-offs of doing this are actually quite significant: i) you will have produced some writing, ii) you will feel less guilty so that you can enjoy the sandwich, iii) you will be thinking about your writing whilst you are eating the sandwich. An added bonus to doing this is that our brains are usually more alert if we are slightly hungry. But do not starve yourself!

Alternatively, if you always need a drink and a sandwich when you write, have them ready before you sit down to write.

When you sit down to write, make sure that you have everything that you need at hand. Then, do not move until you have written what you set out to write, but be realistic about how much you can achieve in a given time.

I always rush to get my writing completed on time

You should try to avoid rushing to complete any stage of writing. Good writing takes time, so you need to build writing time into your timetable. For good writers, writing is a cyclical or recursive process; that is, they may complete one chapter, or perhaps parts of this, and then they return to it some time later. If you do this, you will find that you can always improve the earlier piece of writing. Also, you may have come across things which change your ideas, and so what you have written previously needs changing or even editing out. The other reason for doing this is that when you return to a piece of writing after a period of time, you find it easier to read the text as a reader, rather than as a writer. Writers are generally too close to their own texts and need to ‘stand back’ to get a sense of the reader’s perspective. It is always a good idea to leave yourself at least a day before reading and revising a piece of text.

Good timing, knowing when and what to redraft, and when to finish the drafting process, are key skills that you will need in order to become a proficient writer.

Also, do not think that the final stages of writing are any easier. You need to proofread and check such things as pagination, consistency of headings and referencing very carefully. These seemingly easy stages can sometimes be the most stressful.

I am worried about what my supervisor will say

The primary role of the supervisor is to direct you in your research and to assist in your development as a professional researcher. This assumes that you are still developing as a researcher. It is only when you give your work to your supervisor that they are able to help you and if they do find areas of your work that need to be improved, then that is your opportunity to learn and this should be valued. However, remember that your supervisor is not there to be your personal editor or proofreader. If you feel you need some reassurance before showing your work to a supervisor, you could always ask a fellow student to have a look at your writing.