the monster in my head...academic writing

I don’t have an image of monsters except for the ones in cartoons and the story books I’ve read. And in spite of my active imagination, as a child I was never indulged to “believe in” monsters even though I read about them a lot. So the monster I have in mind is a different kind. It’s the intangible mental block that writers don’t talk about. In academic circles, writing is assumed as something students will learn in university and become better with over the years. Almost 6 years later and the monster of academic writing has become strongly established in my mind...a month before I am supposed to hand in the Masters thesis.

I have never been taught how to write academically. I first became aware of academic writing in my second year while doing Philosophy 2 and English 2. Initially I thought I was stupid and would never make it to third year and my whole life would unravel before my eyes. What was worse, I seemed to be the only person carrying this shadow and monster with me into every tut where I was required to hand in written work. All the students in my undergrad classes had mastered the “smart swag” where everyone except me, knew how to speak and write Philosophy. After conversations with a trusted friend about my angst and bursting into tears in a lecturer’s office because in my mind I heard “you can’t write”, I decided to take matters into my own hands.

I told my Philosophy tutor and she tried to allay my fears. The action plan we put together required me to hand in any writing I had to do a week before the deadline and she would check it and talk me through my thoughts and “tighten the wording”. I would then go back to her comments and rework the writing afresh for handing in. Throughout the process, I missed the memo that writing is a process that requires work. Instead I convinced myself I was stupid. The process was repeated again while doing English 3 when a friend’s mom assisted me (she had known me since Grade 1 and had an understanding of some of the struggles of aspiring writers).

What I didn’t realise was that even though I was planting seeds for the hard work that is academic writing, there are still many assumptions in the process of becoming a writer. And now I am sitting with the process of doing the process again, but something is amiss. The problem with academic writing is that it is one of those assumed practices in university where everyone always tells me “it will come together, you’ll see”. The other assumption is that if one is the model student who does the necessary reading and can articulate their ideas verbally, they will eventually find the rhythm of the expected kind of writing. And this is a dangerous assumption. There’s nothing normal about building an argument. It is mental work that requires some kind of apprenticeship or guidance, beyond the reading that students are expected to do.

Then there is the conundrum of adding my voice to academic writing. I want my writing to sound like me and I have learned that every time I do this, I am told I’m too wordy or the writing is woolly and difficult to other words, verbosity. And perhaps that’s how my voice is—too much. I am invested in the process of writing not purely as an academic exercise but writing has always helped me make sense of my ideas and place in the world, but somehow when it comes to formal academic writing, I fall short.

The irony is that I have written many articles for newspapers and people who read my work have warned me of my errors but have worked through them with me and I have been able to develop as a writer. Those who read the final product are always excited about what I’ve written and perhaps this adds to the confusion of what it means to be a writer: because this suggests that when I write for myself, I write with a different tone, when I write for people, it’s another tone and when I write essays, it’s another voice. I am aware that writing pithy opinion pieces is different from writing a thesis and that’s okay. But something’s got to give...why is academic writing made to seem like it is a mountain that needs perseverance? And once one has been to the top of that mountain, they may decide to stay up there with their smugness of smartness or discover there’s another mountain to climb, Mount PhD!

The added anxiety has been through listening to friends who have sailed through doing Masters in a year, others have managed to do 2 Masters back to back, others have swiftly moved from writing a Masters into their PhD in record time. And I consider that almost two years later, I still struggle with the writing.
Yes, this is a pity party blog post because I need some enlightenment about what the problem is. Is it the Englishness coupled with learning to structure my thoughts in a language that is my primary language but still doesn’t come easy?

I know I am not the first person to have this angst, but I get the feeling there’s shame in not being able to write academically so those who have struggled with this keep quiet about it because no-one wants to look like they can’t make it in academia, with all the pressures of deadlines while trying to construct an argument and choosing the correct words. The truth is though, I can’t decide if academic writing is a myth in academia or the monster and shadow I have carried with me while trying to master the university code of understanding the process of knowledge production, or simply trying to show that I know what I’m writing about.


Anonymous said…
Oh Atha, I so hear you. And having recently completed my M, still worry anxiously about my ability to write - I also feel I am too verbose, my work is too dense, I am complicating things rather than simplifying them. What I do know is that during my M, things started flowing better when I pictured an audience made up of freinds - like you, Injairu, Henriette. Part of the "mysticism" of academic writing is that we imagine an audience that is the "other" - those clever critical people who think we are naive and stupid. These are the monsters, and if we replace them with sistas they disappear and writing becomes, again, an interesting engagement, where we have something wonderful to say, and people who want to hear it. And it IS a journey, a process, which is probably NEVER over. hugs and love, corinne xxxx

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