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by Cally Guerin

I’ve almost finished the current series of seminars I run for PhD students during their first semester of study. One of the big reminders I’ve had this time around is just how much I myself need to take into account the advice I’m happily handing out to them about their writing.

This became clear to me the other day while I was preparing a book chapter on writing groups, and realised that I was failing to take my own advice on the importance of ‘introducing’. It’s easy to tell others that they must provide sufficient context for readers to catch up with the author’s thinking; after all, the author has been working on the same ideas for months, even years, but it’s brand new for the reader. Somehow I found myself assuming that my potential readers would know just as much about the topic as I did, and that they would easily see why I was putting certain ideas together. At a rough estimate, I think about 20% of a journal article is taken up with various kinds of introductions—for the whole article or chapter, for each section of the piece, and then again at paragraph level. Sometimes this can seem a bit boring for the author, but it’s a great help for the reader trying to zero in on the ideas.

Similarly, when I was working as editor recently with another author (also a writing teacher), we needed to streamline the paper and reduce the word count considerably. As she looked at the comments and suggestions I’d made, she too responded that this is exactly the kind of thing she says to her own students. Getting to the point, not including any unnecessary or redundant words, were precisely the issues she was in the habit of pointing out to her own students. We didn’t use Helen Sword’s ‘Writer’s Diet’, but the online test for how ‘flabby’ one’s writing has become can act as a useful reminder to get to the point. (Yes, I checked this piece of writing, and it’s not toooo bad!)

Here at doctoralwritingSIG we look over each other’s posts before they go public. Often my colleagues’ comments inspire in me a reaction along the lines of: ‘Of course! It’s so obvious! How could I not have seen that myself?’ It’s wonderful for all authors to have people who are willing to read our work through fresh eyes and reflect back our own advice. But this isn’t always readily available in other kinds of writing situations, and I’m starting to think it’s important for everyone to have a checklist along the lines of ‘Good writing techniques I tend to forget’.

So while it might seem that we repeat the same advice over and over again, it really is useful to keep reminding ourselves of the key elements of good writing. When we are busy focusing on the content, it’s easy to lose sight of the ‘mechanics’ of writing. What are the elements that you find yourself forgetting about? What is the key message you return to again and again in terms of writing advice you have given or received? What should we include on the checklist?