On Learning to Write

One piece of advice when it comes to the PhD process always seems to be clear: do not leave ‘writing up’ until last. This is not a linear process; it is not as simple as collecting all of your evidence and then writing it up. As a wise man from Bury once said: Good advice. Sound advice. In practice, however, that’s not how it happens. Or, at least, that’s not how it has happened for me. My PhD process has more been about writing, and then not writing at all, and then (re)learning how to write. In conducting fairly embedded research, where I was employed at my case study organisation, I spent around six months being so busy with the combination of paid work and preparing, conducting and transcribing interviews, not to mention keeping field diaries, that I ceased to think about the craft of writing. Now, having left the field (not to mention taking a leave of absence immediately afterwards), all that’s left to do is write. Think and write. Only it seemed I’d forgotten how, to the point where I’d convinced myself I never knew how in the first place. ‘Good Writing’ suddenly seemed like an impossibility; that elegant prose I can admire in others was just something that they could do, naturally, and I couldn’t. “I’m just not cut out for this.” That’s what I’ve told myself on any given number of days.

Unsurprisingly, that kind of attitude will get you nowhere, so I needed to start addressing this (admittedly rather large) stumbling block. And I started, like so many before me, by getting myself a copy of Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists. Anything to demystify the task. Anything to remind myself that the elusive practice of ‘Good Writing’ isn’t some kind of skill that arrives, fully formed, one morning when you can wake up (that may sound ridiculous, but surely I’m not the only one who has kicked themselves repeatedly for just not being able to spill out the sentences with ease). On a more creative level, I also picked up Neil Gaiman’s Make Good Art speech – yes, I did this partly because it is a beautiful little book, but again, it contained wise lessons which essentially came down to the suggestion that if you care about what you’re doing, just get on and do it. Do your best, and when that’s not good enough, keep doing it until it is.


I suppose what I’ve been trying to teach myself here is patience. It’s probably something I’ve never been good at (at least not with myself – I can apply my patience to others with very little trouble) – I try things out, get to a certain level of skill, and then berate myself for not improving as quickly as I’d like to. I did it with sport in school. I did it with playing the guitar. I did it with my years of attempted music journalism. But learning a skill is about leaps and then plateaus, and this time I’m determined to conquer this plateau of writing and make the next leap. Bizarrely one of the things that has persuaded me to be more patient with myself when it comes to the craft of writing is actually sport. I’m not a sporty person, and I haven’t played team sports since I was in school, but I recently moved to a new city where various people I know are involved in a sport I had never tried before: Roller Derby. So I’m learning to roller skate. It’s physically hard work, and it’s a totally new set of skills for me. But it’s great fun and comes with three major benefits: the exercise, which a sedentary writing-up year in front of my laptop will not provide; the camaraderie of a team, which counteracts some of the isolation of doing something so specific and solitary during the day; and the lesson: learning is about patience, not simply having the skills to start with. If I can learn to skate, I can learn to write. Or so I’m going to keep telling myself.


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