One of the most common myths about academic writing (and academic research in general) is that it’s a straightforward, linear process. Research projects are often characterized as beginning with reading, and perhaps ‘writing up’ a literature review, followed by data collection and analysis, before the final stage in which one ‘writes up’ one’s findings. The term ‘writing up’ is frequently used in documentation around doctoral study. PhD candidates can apply for ‘writing-up status’ and pay ‘writing-up fees’ when they reach the final stages of their research.
Underpinning this characterization of writing is an assumption that it is simply a process of instantiating in written form what one already knows. From this perspective, writing is a transparent medium for conveying information, and the creation of knowledge is seen as separate from its dissemination.
However, for many writers, writing is a means of thinking. The quote “I don’t know what I think until I read what I say”, variously attributed to Flannery O’Connor, Joan Didion and EM Forster, illustrates this perspective rather nicely. Ideas often begin as half-baked, foggy notions based on hunches. In the process of writing, we dig deep into reading, we filter and select ideas, we write through the lens of theory, and foreground certain perspectives at the expense of others. In so doing, we shape knowledge into particular forms for our reader, but as our ideas crystalize, we likely reach new insights ourselves.
Seen this way, writing is an act of creating knowledge. And this, as any academic will tell you, is a project of blood, sweat and tears. It takes time and it can be frustrating. Sometimes an idea has to brew for a while. Sometimes it has to be written and re-written multiple times. We may re-read source texts, or stare at our data to verify or generate ideas, to explore the meanings we are formulating, and to figure out how the pieces fit together.
Even those, like myself, who cannot get started without a fairly a well-developed plan, may still end up producing something different from what we envisaged at the start. We learn something new along the way, or pragmatic constraints (deadlines, comments from colleagues, reviewer’s demands, etc.) mean that we end up changing the emphasis here or omitting a claim there. Literature reviews may be drafted early, but they are usually edited in light of how the results and discussion panned out, to create a coherent story.
Good writers make telling a good research story look easy, but behind the scenes lies a messy and time-consuming blend of reading, writing and thinking, often without clear boundaries between them.
What about you? Do you recognise anything that might be called “writing up” in your own practice? Do you agree that writing takes on new, sometimes unanticipated shapes?