Academic writing is a key challenge in academia. Yet there is no reason why it shouldn’t bring you joy. Here Aya Nassar reflects on how creative analytical writing helped her approach her writing with kindness…
I have always regarded writing as an obstacle, a sort of annoying action I had to put up with, a sort of price to pay for doing a PhD on a topic I care about. As soon as I am faced with a blank page, words from previous teachers, supervisors, and even students ink the blank pages with judgements: too much jargon, the sentences are long, ideas are potentially good but are covered with layers and layers of bad writing.
It has always been a struggle for me to start a sentence. I had to write from one direction towards another, in a line. Lines usually seem oppressive. They do not accommodate how jumbled, everything is, or how I usually feel like writing about multiple things at once. Nevertheless, here I am a couple of years later, blogging about PhD writing and, in fact, enjoying it.
One of the things that helped me through the struggle with my writing was a workshop on “Creative analytical writing”, facilitated by Dr. Elina Penttinen who is a Lecturer of Gender Studies at the University of Helsinki. The workshop was organised by Dr. Erzsébet Strausz, the Social Theory Centre, and Warwick Politics and Performance Network.
The workshop, and indeed my experience of it which I will relay here, is not aimed at prescribing one style of academic writing, but rather to help us as PhD students or even early career scholars to find a mode of writing and expression in which we feel comfortable and even happy.
I was surprised too, but Elina started by asking us to think about how we think about our identity in academia, and whether we are taking joy from it. I have to confess my personal and emotional reasons for doing research at the time were not really positive. If you have to do PhD in politics and/or social science you are most probably angry at or critical of something.
I had to confess at the workshop that I usually wrote while I was angry at something. I actually said that, thinking it was wrong or disruptive to do so in a workshop that emphasises joy. The fact is, it was not. We spoke about how anger has been usually disavowed in academia, and that there are indeed spaces for negative feelings about the world that should inspire us to be critical or ethically indignant. Perhaps, what’s important is to approach our writing – angry or happy – with a sense of dignity, as Elina said on the day when we “feel like we could stand by every word we put out there” and to take pride in it.
Another thing Elina invited us to do was to take some time to think about what sort of feelings and experiences do our writing give us. How many times have you approached writing with judgemental voices already in your head? Who do you imagine watching over your shoulder when you are staring at that screen? Which voices interrupt you as you try to get out the results, the ideas, or the reviews that you have given so much time? Personally most of my writing experiences are engulfed with fear, self- judgement, that the whole experience of getting words out, editing them, or even sharing them with anyone has been an exhausting experience of suffering.
Perhaps once we are aware of how cruel we are usually to ourselves and to our writing, we can try to reverse that a little, by approaching it as a labour of love, something to take pride in, and be kind to. In the workshop, Elina started with a few minutes meditation practice. Since then I have experimented with other techniques. Personally, I have resorted to walking before I write and during the walk I think of all the anxieties I have towards this writing piece and imagine I am taking them for a walk to quiet down.
Some wait for the inspiration, others swear by the methodological rituals of writing. Some go to academic writing courses, and others look for the experiences of prolific academics, even famous authors’ writing habits. Regardless what might work for you, the important thing I have learnt is to show up for writing with a sense of dignity, and kindness to yourself and what you have to say.
Have you been struggling with your writing? Have you found ways to be happy with it and proud of it? Of all the tips on writing out there what has worked for you? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment below.
Aya Nassar is a PhD student in the department of Politics and International Studies (PAIS), Warwick University. Her research looks into cities, space, and the politics of the Middle East. She tweets at @A_M_Nassar