One of my many jobs here at SGS is helping students work through their writing challenges and develop their academic writing skills. In doing so, I have noticed that the vast majority of my students grapple with very similar problems. I provide advice below based on their most commonly reported writing difficulties.
Know your resources
Many students struggle with academic writing simply because they are not aware of the writing resources available to them at the university. This, of course, is not surprising. Most students have just begun their university careers and are still grappling with the most basic of questions including where can I find a comfortable pub that serves cheap beer? Still others are vaguely aware of the writing resources available to them through the university but have never used them. As a writing coach, I implore all of my students to book an appointment at ASK, the unit for academic writing here at GU this very second. Advisors at ASK can help students at every stage in the academic writing process including brainstorming so there is simply no reason to wait. Moreover, if you think you don’t need their help, you’re wrong. Everyone needs help with their academic writing, including me, and if you think you’re the exception rather than the rule, I am here to tell you that you are mistaken. Book an appointment!
Of course, the internet is brimming with excellent resources too. My favorites include: the University of Manchester’s Academic Phrasebank, the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina, the Student Skills and Development Centre at the University of Sheffield, and the Purdue OWL.
You are not alone
Many students tell me that they feel like they’re the only ones in their courses that have yet to figure out how to write an academic text. They feel lost, overwhelmed, and alone. While this is no laughing matter, I can’t help but chuckle when I hear this for the 100th time during a single course. I am here to tell you that everyone including your lecturers and course coordinators struggle with academic writing. Admittedly, some struggle more than others, but everyone struggles. This is because academic writing is not only profoundly challenging, it is impossible to master. There is always room for improvement. My advice is to keep your writing challenges in perspective with the knowledge that all of your classmates share your insecurities, even if few admit them out loud. I also suggest that you find a classmate or a group of classmates and form a writing group so that you can work through your academic writing together.
One of the most common reasons why academic writers struggle is because the strategies they have always used no longer work. And, trust me, this tends to happen to students as they transition from upper secondary school to university. To make matters worse, many students simply do not have alternative writing strategies to employ. My advice is to get creative and try new things. One of my favorite lesser known academic writing strategies is to read your text out loud. I mean it. Go into a room, close the door, clear your throat, and read. This will help you 'hear' how others may experience your text and will help you identify areas for improvement. For example, if you get tongue-tied while reading a particular sentence, it is likely that your reader will have difficulty understanding that sentence because it is too long, too complex, and/or too confusing.
A slightly less creative strategy but one that very few of my students have used before is to identify an academic text that you enjoy reading and come up with strategies to emulate it. Ask yourself: What is the author doing? How is he/she expressing his/herself? What sorts of words and phrases is the author using? How is he/she using them? If you are able to dig into and identify the writing strategies used by an author whose writing you enjoy, you'll put yourself in an excellent position to write in a similar manner.
The counter-intuitive writing strategy I use every time I write is to work backwards. I start with a vague idea of the question I want to answer in my text, but I don't get too bogged down obsessing over each, individual word. Once I have answered my question, I go back and revise the question itself so that it is in line with the answer I provided. This is helpful for two reasons. First, it is easy to stress over the question and never get enough time to devise the answer. (Sound familiar?) Second, it is really tough to know your question until you've answered it, so why put yourself in that situation?!
Whatever you do, hang in there. You are here because you can do this and, if you ever feel like you’re struggling, ask for help. There are innumerable people out there ready, willing, and able to help you out.
Elizabeth Olsson is a Ph.D. student at SGS. Prior to coming to SGS, she worked as a classroom teacher in the United States, Japan, Sweden, and the Occupied West Bank. Her research interests include interpersonal classroom conflict, the school's democratic mission, and resistance among educational actors. She serves as the writing coach for IR1111.