By Iain Stewart
This is the first of six video posts reflecting on the Writing Project series of videos, which feature historians from QMUL reflecting on their own experiences of the writing process.
Students have more in common with their lecturers than they think. As an undergraduate struggling through my first essays, I assumed that the writing process must be so much easier for academics. My teachers were specialists, sometimes world-leading ones. With all their knowledge, I could never have imagined them tearing their hair out trying to make sense of difficult sources, or pulling an all-nighter to meet a deadline. My grades were mixed. I got my share of firsts in the end, but I started out with 2:2s, even the occasional third. The people marking my essays seemed to belong to a different universe.
It’s been a few years now since I stopped staying up all night writing my own essays and started staying up late marking other people’s. Now I am a published author with several articles under my belt and working on my first book. It’s fair to say I didn’t picture this when I read the feedback on some of my undergraduate essays. If I write much better now than I did back then it’s because I’ve had so much more practice, and taken on board a lot of criticism in the process. But that doesn’t mean it comes easily. In fact, writing is just as difficult for me now as it was when I was a student.
What I have come to realise is that academic writing is supposed to be difficult. If it isn’t, then you’re probably not doing it right. I remember writing the first draft of the first chapter of my PhD. At the time, knowing relatively little about my subject, I found it deceptively easy. I wrote about ten thousand words in a week and sent it off to my supervisor with a sense of great satisfaction. Never before had I been so productive as a writer. Never since have I written anything quite so bad. Writing the second draft of that chapter took about six months. It was agonising. But by the time I finished the work was good enough to publish. What started as a writing disaster ended up as my first article.
Student essays and dissertations, like some of their lecturers’ articles and books, can be ‘ugly ducklings’: they don’t always begin their lives beautiful. Making the most of feedback is really important here. Most students don’t realise that the books and articles they read when researching their essays have been through a process akin to marking. Before an article or book is accepted for publication, the author usually has to make a series of minor or major changes suggested by editors and anonymous reviewers. The final product can differ significantly from the original draft, and as such is more of a collective endeavour than first meets the eye. Next time your writing comes in for criticism, remember it’s probably not long since your reader will have had to respond to some feedback of their own. Your work, like theirs, will be all the better for making the most of this.