Why most books on academic writing are useless

March 24, 2017 Sönke

Everybody writes. Especially in academia. Students write and professors write. And nonfiction writers, who are the third group of people my blog and book is aiming to help, obviously write as well. And writing doesn’t necessarily mean papers, articles or books, but everyday, basic writing. We write when we need to remember something, be it an idea, a quote or the outcome of a study. We write when we want to organise our thoughts and when we want to exchange ideas with others. Students write when they take an exam, but the first thing they do to prepare even for an oral examination is to grab pen and paper. We write down not only those things we fear we won’t remember otherwise, but also the very things we try to memorise. Every intellectual endeavour starts with a note.

Writing plays such a central role in learning, studying and research that it is surprising how little we think about it. If writing is discussed, the focus lies almost always on the few exceptional moments where we write a lengthy piece, a book, an article or, as students, the essays and theses we have to hand in. At first glance, that makes sense: these are the tasks that cause the most anxiety and with which we struggle the longest. Consequently, these “written pieces” are also what most self-help books for academics or study guides focus on, but very few give guidance for the everyday note-taking that takes up the biggest chunk of our writing.

The available books fall roughly into two categories. The first teaches the formal requirements: style, structure or how to quote correctly. And then there are the psychological ones, which teach you how to get it done without mental breakdowns and before your supervisor or publisher starts refusing to move the deadline once more. What they all have in common, though, is that they start with a blank screen or sheet of paper. But by doing this, they ignore the main part, namely note-taking, failing to understand that improving the organisation of all writing makes a difference. They seem to forget that the process of writing starts much, much earlier than that blank screen and that the actual writing down of the argument is the smallest part of its development. This book aims to fill this gap by showing you how to efficiently turn your thoughts and discoveries into convincing written pieces and build up a treasure of smart and interconnected notes along the way. You can use this pool of notes not only to make writing easier and more fun for yourself, but also to learn for the long run and generate new ideas. But most of all, you can write every day in a way that brings your projects forward.

Writing is not what follows research, learning or studying, it is the medium of all this work. And maybe that is the reason why we rarely think about this writing, the everyday writing, the note-taking and draft-making. Like breathing, it is vital to what we do, but because we do it constantly, it escapes our attention. But while even the best breathing technique would probably not make much of a difference to our writing, any improvement in the way we organise the everyday writing, how we take notes of what we encounter and what we do with them, will make all the difference for the moment we do face the blank page/screen – or rather not, as those who take smart notes will never have the problem of a blank screen again.

There is another reason that note-taking flies mostly under the radar: We don’t experience any immediate negative feedback if we do it badly. But without an immediate experience of failure, there is also not much demand for help. And the publishing market working how it works, there is not much help in supply for this lack of demand either. It is the panic in front of the blank screen that brings students and academic writers to turn to the bookshelves full of self-help books on writing, a market publishers meet in droves by focusing on how to deal with this horse-has-already-left-the-barn situation. If we take notes unsystematically, inefficiently or simply wrong, we might not even realise it until we are in the midst of a deadline panic and wonder why there always seem to be a few who get a lot of good writing done and still have time for a coffee every time we ask them. And even then, it is more likely that some form of rationalisation will cloud the view of the actual reason, which is most likely the difference between good and bad note-taking. “Some people are just like that,” “writing has to be difficult,” “the struggle is part of the deal” are just a few of the mantras that keep too many from inquiring what exactly distinguishes successful writing strategies from less successful ones.

The right question is: What can we do differently in the weeks, months or even years before we face the blank page that will get us into the best possible position to write a great paper easily? Very few people struggle with their papers because they don’t know how to cite correctly or because they suffer from a psychological issue that keeps them from writing. Few struggle to text their friends or write emails. The rules of citation can be looked up and there is no way that there are as many mental issues as papers postponed. Most people struggle for much more mundane reasons, and one is the myth of the blank page itself. They struggle because they believe, as they are made to believe, that writing starts with a blank page. If you believe that you have indeed nothing at hand to fill it, you have a very good reason to panic. Just having it all in your head is not enough, as getting it down on paper is the hard bit. That is why good, productive writing is based on good note-taking. Getting something that is already written into another written piece is incomparably easier than assembling everything in your mind and then trying to retrieve it from there.

To sum it up: The quality of a paper and the ease with which it is written depends more than anything on what you have done in writing before you even made a decision on the topic. But if that is true (and I wholeheartedly believe it is), and the key to successful writing lies in the preparation, it also means that the vast majority of self-help books and study guides can only help you to close the barn door correctly and according to official rules – not just a moment, but many months after the horse has already escaped.

[From the introduction of “How to Take Smart Notes”]

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