What is Good Grad Writing?

I’d like to begin this post by talking about bad writing. There are, essentially, three kinds of bad writing. The first is writing that avoids its proposed idea; that is, this kind of bad writing talks around the idea, circling it, ever wary, forever introducing the idea, but never engaging with the idea, never becoming, as it were, intimate with it. A colleague of mine calls this kind of writing “throat-clearing.” Sometimes, we, as supervisors, will receive 30-40 pages of this kind of writing. What is happening here? On the surface, writing of this sort lures the writer into thinking she is accomplishing the task, that she is doing due diligence to her field, its history, by way of providing a literature review. There are two problems here: the first is that the student fetishizes the idea of the literature review in order to avoid the true task—engaging the idea itself, of making the idea her own. The second is that she is silencing her own voice, her own claim to intellectual/scholarly authority, by drowning it in summary.

So, how does one avoid this problem? By recognising that there is a profound difference between research and writing. In my opinion, scholars often conflate the two, at their peril. It’s understandable—if we call what we do research, and the fruit of that research comes in part from publication, then we think of research as writing. But it is not. By way of analogy, to conflate research with writing is rather like conflating buying a piece of land with owning a house. Research is the land, the ground upon which writing, or the house, is built. Writing builds the house; research provides the space upon which the house is built. When we write seemingly endless summaries of other people’s work, we are not building a house; rather we are describing a neighbourhood of other houses, built over time, a neighbourhood in which we would like to live, in a community we would like to join, but we are avoiding laying claim to our desire to live there—to invest ourselves in a property and build accordingly.

In sum, one must situate one’s work, one must acknowledge the work of those who work in the same field, the same scholarly community, but we must also move quickly into demonstrating how our work is contributing to the community of scholars in our neighbourhood, as it were. If you don’t, you are merely deferring the task of writing, in the same way that throat-clearing defers the act of speaking.


The second kind of bad writing is writing that fails to do justice to the idea. That is to say, we actually do engage with the idea, we have done our research, but we experience a kind of fear about the act of writing itself. Interestingly, although it is a truism that say, young scholars in the sciences are terrified of writing (and it’s one of the reasons why they regrettably, try to avoid taking courses in the arts and humanities, or the social sciences, where you are much more likely to encounter the Gorgon of writing, that is, God forbid, ESSAYS), what is less acknowledged is that young scholars in disciplines like mine (English) are, in their own way, often just as terrified. Why is this? Why is writing terrifying? The fear, I would suggest, is a kind of resistance. A resistance to the fact that you must, in a sense, remove your own ego from the task of writing. For people in the sciences, writing is a skill that would seem to run counter to the comfortable objectivity of the scientific method. But one of the reasons why they are afraid, I would wager, is that science students think that labs, experiments, trials, etc., are the stuff of objective thinking, and that writing is the realm of subjective emotion. Writing makes them feel that they must suddenly throw off the mantle of objectivity, and stand naked, in the thrall of writing’s demands for feeling, confession, and subjective experience. But, as I will suggest in a moment, nothing could be farther from the case.


So often, we confuse writing with ourselves; we have all heard, at one time or another, a student exclaim, upon receiving a poor mark on a writing assignment, that she “really tried” or some version of “This grade is not a reflection upon the work, but a reflection upon me, as a person.” It gives rise to fantasies like “The prof hates me,” or what have you. (And yes, sometimes grades or profs can be unfair, or unduly harsh. Sometimes. And there are mechanisms for these problems). But all of these remarks point to a valuable lesson: the writing is not you. Your ego, and the young science scholars reading this might be cheered by this news, your ego is irrelevant to the task of writing. I have, on occasion, read and examined graduate writing that engages with ideas smartly, but the thesis is presented sloppily, and is replete with signs of haste. Sloppiness and signs of haste—not just mechanical errors around writing (grammar, spelling, sentence structure, and so forth—those are issues that are, in relative terms, easily remedied), well yes, those too, are indices of a resistance to writing which shows that, as the American poet Delmore Schwartz put it, “The ego is always at the wheel.” Some young scholars will repair to excuses like “I’m too brilliant to bother with vulgarities like proper formatting, citation, and presentation of my ideas. Such things are beneath me.” Instead of being seduced by remarks of this sort, which are often made implicitly rather than explicitly, my response is usually to ask something like “Why do you think you are more important than your ideas?” After all, we are scholars; this is part of our task—to demonstrate that we have both the knowledge and the skills necessary to give ideas a proper voice, not to give ourselves one. That is the ongoing task of democracy, for example, to make sure that people, all people, have a voice, in the name of community, not in the name of the ego.


In cases like the one I have described, the young scholar has over-identified with the writing, to the detriment of the ideas. This over-identification, this egoism, is a way of coping with, but not confronting, the fear of writing. Good graduate writing makes plain a process that should have always already been in play even for undergraduates—that is, that writing means turning off your ego, and opening up the space where writing, writing and revision, re-rewriting and re-revision with other people—are the norm. That you begin to realise that your work is not entirely your own, anymore—it is in the process of becoming—of becoming a result in which other people will be involved—supervisors, supervisory committees, examining committees, journal editors, copyeditors, readers, proofreaders, in short, the larger scholarly community you hope to join, or least, whose conversation you hope to join, or to prove yourself worthy of joining. That is why the ego has no place in writing; it’s not about bolstering your ego. If you resist writing, if you hate writing, if you hate yourself while writing, it’s not that you don’t have enough ego—it’s that you have too much. Your resistance comes from confusing your ego with the idea. And the result is, usually, bad writing—writing that fails to do justice to the idea.


The third kind of bad writing is writing that is not allowed to be written. This problem has two registers. The first demonstrates that writing is only writing, only affirms its existence, by being read. We all know the adage: “A good thesis is a done thesis.” Supervisors will sometimes despair for certain of their students, who seem to be doing everything in their power to prevent their writing from being read. Are they afraid of writing? Not necessarily—some young scholars are veritable graphomaniacs, writing, writing, writing, but, just as diligently, deleting, deleting, deleting. Some students edit and polish their writing into virtual oblivion—40 pages will become 12, 12 pages pored over and polished, sliced, mocked, loved, derided, avoided, loathed, wept over—it’s like a bad relationship that just. Won’t. End. And you’re only on chapter one. The graduate student becomes so obsessed, so mired in trying to produce perfection that she loses sight of the larger community for whom this writing is being produced.


We tend to dismiss what we do as something that “only a few people will read.” And sometimes, that’s true—only a few people will. But on the other hand, this dismissal produces and deepens a sense of isolation that writing of course demands, but makes it almost pathological. When writing becomes a struggle with housing an idea, with the scaffolding surrounding the idea, it becomes obvious that, in a twist perhaps worthy of Kafka, the scaffolding is not scaffolding at all. They are prison bars. And you are on the inside. The idea remains locked in the prison house of language, and you are locked inside with it. So, how to get out? You must give your supervisor the chance to read it. When you are in this state, you no longer have the necessary perspective on your work. Your resistance to writing is, in this case, not governed by your ego, but by your self-imposed isolation. The solitude and the rituals necessary for you to do your writing have become a prison. The key to that prison door is your supervisor. Your supervisor is right there, waiting to be used at any time, but you have become more fascinated by editing, by the prison house violence you can do to your work, rather than give it to someone else to read. It’s bad writing because you won’t let it become anything else. In this case, it can only become good writing—or perhaps, allowed to be the good writing it was all along--once it is read. By other people. Now. Not later. Now.

The second register of this kind of bad writing is borne not of fear, not of refusing to let writing be read, but by anxiety. Anxiety, and its partner, depression, are cruel, demanding masters. Now, of course, there is counselling, therapy, pharmaceuticals to help cope with such things, if they become too severe, but there is another kind of anxiety, a discourse of anxiety, the chatter about anxiety which surrounds so many (all?) grad programs, that becomes another form of resistance. Anxiety is an affect, and it is different from fear. Fear has a definite object of which one is afraid; one does not feel anxious if one has a gun pointed at one’s head. One feels fear. Anxiety, on the other hand, has an object, but its identity is unknown to us. Anxiety stands right in front of us, in front of writing, silent, invisible, but nevertheless present, nevertheless making itself felt—its only voice is the discourse surrounding it. How does one combat this? Well, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan has what I think is a very sensible answer: desire. The desire to do things—to finish one’s courses, one’s exams, one’s thesis, by way of examples—provide definite objects, definite goals in the pursuit of desire. If you are anxious (and again, I am not dismissing the clinical dimensions of anxiety, far from it, I am talking about anxiety as a discourse), but if you are anxious, one fundamental reason is that you have lost sight of your desire. Your desire, your enjoyment are under attack. Desire places a marvellous mask over anxiety; it masks its haunting, yet invisible nature, it spurs the pursuit of a definite object, one that is mapped out by a series of tasks, of “hoops,” as we often put it, by way of achieving a goal. Anxiety stops writing in its tracks because it substitutes itself in the place of the idea. It is seductive, cruel, and persistent. Desire keeps the discourse of anxiety at bay, and opens up the path of writing. Which brings me to my final point. The discourse of anxiety posits itself as a problem; as such, it gets in the way of the task. But it is a lure, one that can be resisted through discipline and ritual, one that can be resisted by claiming one’s desire.


If you genuinely desire the degree, if you genuinely care about the idea, if you genuinely care about contributing to your community, then claim your desire—claim your right to do justice to the idea by giving it a voice. Because writing a thesis is not a problem; it is a task. Having cancer or being hit by a truck is a problem, but a thesis is a task. Make room and time for your desire, if you see what I mean—by writing a little bit every day. Even 20 minutes a day will make a difference. Focus on a particular problem or paragraph for 20 minutes, but do so faithfully and diligently. But as you do, remember that it is a task, an object of desire, an object that focusses you on it, on its value, on the value you help make possible; it gives shape and direction to your life. Your work. The discourse of anxiety tries to rob you of your desire, rob you of your enjoyment. But desire gives shape to your task—writing--a task that leads to a solution.