Trouble with academic writing? Reviewing “How to fix your academic writing” book

Writing and academic success go hand in hand, and it’s not always easy to develop the skills and techniques needed to write great academic papers. If you are involved in the academic world you have probably had already the experience, at least once, of an intense sense of being lost in the ocean. And if you didn’t experience this… well, either you are very good at it or you didn’t take time to think about what you were doing! But if you have some relations with the academia of any kind, this blog post may interest you.

Text work is identity work. Becoming an expert academic writer is inseparable from the process of becoming an academic.

I. Mewburn, K. Firth, S. Lehmann

Many books exist to help you better understand how to approach the specific techniques behind this monster called “academic writing”. Many of them are structured as practical guides explaining the different possible types of academic products or they may dive just into some of them. But I have found one that is really really good in supporting the process of writing an academic paper or thesis, from the perspective of the most recurrent mistakes.

The book is called How to Fix Your Academic Writing Trouble: A Practical Guideand it has been written by Inger Mewburn, Katherine Firth and Shaun Lehmann.

The authors

Inger Mewburn is a professor, researcher and author of the famous blog The Thesis Whisperer. She has a long history of prompt and books on the topic of better academic writing. Katherin Firth is an innovative educator, working on academic program at the university level. She has an ongoing book, that will be published in 2023, with the title “Writing Well and Being Well for Your PhD and Beyond: How to Cultivate a Strong and Sustainable Writing Practice for Life” (I cannot wait to buy and read it) and she is the insider of the Research Degree Insider blog. Shaun Lehmann is a Academic Language and Learning Facilitator at the university level. This brilliant group of people also wrote the book “Level Up Your Essays: How to get better grades at university”.

The book

With “How to Fix Your Academic Writing Trouble: A Practical Guide”, they truly provided an interesting book for anyone involved in academic writing at many levels, even if there is a strong attention to PhD students. The book is structured around 7 chapters, many of which start from a common mistake or a negative comment potentially received by an advisor. As an example, chapter 2 is titled “Your writing doesn’t sound very academic: How to convince your reader you belong” and it discloses many ways to make your writing more aligned with your own research field language and way of writing. Other chapters dive deep into paragraphing and thesis structure, readability, but also into taking a step back from your work and being more critical.

I found it complete and in line with the real comments used by supervisors. One of the main aspects I appreciated is the applicability of their prompts to almost all research fields, as they provide concrete examples of how to do so. Thus, you will find many interesting prompts both if you come from the engineering field or the arts and humanities.

The structure itself is very interesting as it will allow you to jump from the different chapters according to the most urgent or recent “problem” you have to solve. For a comprehensive overview of all the elements covered (they are many) I suggest going directly into the book. The following two tips are my favourites.

Bootcamps and writing retreats

Writing a PhD thesis, as well as research articles or a research book, is usually an individual activity. Many PhD students refer to the feeling of solitude that this time can sometimes bring. Of course, not all PhD programs are the same, and some research groups and fields are less individualistic than others. Personally, I was included quite early in a larger research group, so this feeling was less evident for me, but I still had many times when it also affected me (while writing the different drafts, for example).

A very effective way to overcome these periods is to participate in writing retreats and bootcamps. These are quite common in many universities across the globe, but some countries may be less practical about them. Even if they are not organized by your university, you can try to organize one of them on your own with some colleagues and friends.

The principle is to be in a different space with people who need to write something. In a well-organized bootcamp, you will also have tutors and guides who will support the group with exercises, icebreakers, and similar activities. This happens, for example, in the thesis bootcamps organized by the book authors.

I personally find this suggestion very interesting and effective for boosting students’ and researchers’ motivation and creating supportive networks of people.

Action points to try:

A. Check if your university organize writing Bootcamps and apply to one of them

B. Organize a shorter session of just 2-3 hours in a local café (or other location) with colleagues and friends that need to write.

Photo by fauxels on

One of the most successful versions of the academic writing retreat model is a ‘Thesis Boot Camp’ – three intensive days of writing for late-stage PhD students. Some people think Thesis Boot Camp means locking unprepared people in a room and shouting at them to keep writing, but a well-run Thesis Boot Camp, supervised by experienced personnel, is a well-researched, encouraging and productive environment that can transform your relationship to your writing. Similar to Shut Up and Write, the mean-sounding title and promise of unfettered productivity are a big attraction to weary PhD students who want to get that dissertation out of their life!

I. Mewburn, K. Firth, S. Lehmann, p.10

Generative and free writing

What links free writing and a PhD thesis? When I first read it, I was a bit confused. Free writing is usually used for creative writing, while a thesis is a technical and very specific way of writing. But soon an image popped into my mind: those awful hours of being seated at my desk with an almost blank page in front of me and the fear of not knowing how to start. Or even those moments when I was just writing and rewriting hundreds of times the same sentence.

Does that sound right?

Generative and free writing can be very effective in these situations. Basically, you start with a blank page, a few notes, and a limited amount of time (usually 10-25 minutes) and you just write without stopping or editing. It’s a great way to plan and overcome writer’s block. Think of it like warming up before running a marathon – it helps get your creative juices flowing. It can be used very effectively from time to time just by writing down the topic of your thesis to check if all parts are still fitting in your main hypothesis, but it can also be useful after long reading sessions to jot down the main points discovered and how they are linked to your research. Finally, it can be useful when starting to draft some specific parts, especially those that are less technical.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

If writing a dissertation is a marathon, generative writing is a way of warming up. Generative writing is good for first drafts where you need to be telling the story of your thesis, or first drafts of discussion, the Introduction and the Conclusion. We find generative writing promotes big-picture thinking; producing a synthesis or narrative structure, rather than a collection of small details. Generative writing is a tool bag of writing techniques to help you solve a number of different writing problems.

I. Mewburn, K. Firth, S. Lehmann, p. 76

Action points to try:

A. Block 10-25 minutes and just jot down your thesis description (objectives, themes, hypothesis) without stopping and without caring much about the form. At the end look at what emerged and highlight the key aspects. Is there something missing? This part that is missing is really important? Is your current research aligned with this outline?

B. Use generative writing for first drafts of the thesis discussion, introduction, and conclusion.

And you, do you have any books that are helping you overcome writing troubles and writing anxiety? Let me know in the comment below.

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