How is research writing different to driving a car?

PhD examiners must read a lot of tortured prose which is technically competent – but lifeless. How do you go from being an OK academic writer to a great one?

Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1988) argue that there are 5 progressive stages we go through when acquiring new skills:

Novice
Advanced Beginner
Competent performer
Proficient performer
Expert

There are some skills (like driving) where it is relatively easy to go from novice to ‘expert’ (you just drive a whole lot). Many people can become competent academic writers with practice, but  is practise enough? How can the Dreyfus brothers’ learning model help us become better writers and scholars?

Each level in the Dreyfus model represents a different kind of learning orientation, not just a level of ability. In other words, as we develop our skills we start to learn in new ways. Let’s think about these stages of knowing and learning and what they suggest about the process of becoming an expert academic writer.

When you were a ‘novice’ you learnt a bunch of objective facts about writing – like spelling, grammar, how to hold a pen properly. Along with these facts you learnt some basic rules for action, for example you learnt that letters in words are spaced closer together so they read as a word, not disconnected letters.

How did you learn this? Think about when you were learning to write at school. You probably spent a long time writing out rows and rows of the same letter just to get the shape right. Context free repetition enabled this knowledge to become ingrained so you didn’t have to think about it when you used it. Learning at this level has a certain mechanical quality.

The ‘advanced beginner’ starts to apply their skills and knowledge in real world situations, which might involve transposing skills from other knowledge domains. My son is nearly 9. I can see he has reached this level because his stories have changed. Originally the they were random collections of sentences – in any order. He has now started to transpose the basics of narrative structure – beginnings, middles and ends – from his reading skills to his writing. The sentences are joined together so that the action in the story happens over time. Learning at this level starts to rely on observation.

My son has a ways to go before he reaches the level that many PhD writers start at: ‘competent performer’. When we reach this level we know all the elements of writing and what it can do, but our writing might tend to be reactive, formulaic and rules driven.

For instance, the other day I found myself explaining the logical argumentative chain to one of my students. The chain will tend to repeat in most paragraphs of a thesis: knowledge claim – reason – warrant – evidence – implications. In fact this is one of the reasons why theses tend to be pretty dull – the patterned rhythm of argumentation can be tedious to read if not well handled.

Later my student told me that he has written this advice on a post-it note and stuck it on his computer so he can remember to follow these ‘rules’. By following this simple rule my student improved his writing – but his next challenge is style: this for me sums up the difference between a competent performer and proficient performer. My student already has a nice chatty writing style which works in email and for basic reports – but he does not ‘sound’ like a scholar. He’s too friendly, too casual. He wants to keep this ease and readibility and be taken seriously as someone who knows stuff.

To move to the next level my student needs to move from focusing on structure to looking at detail. Specifically he needs to pay attention to the tacit rules of writing in his discipline and begin to apply them in novel ways in his own work.

What do I mean by tacit rules? One is the so called ‘topic sentences’ at the start of paragraphs. A good rule of thumb was to avoid including references to other writers in the first sentence of a paragraph – even if you are making a knowledge claim which is pretty mundane and well traveled. If you are the only ‘occupant’ of a sentence you ‘sound’ stronger and more authoritative. You briefly own the stage – singing solo. Have a read of your favourite academic writer – more likely than not you will see this trick being employed.

It is the ability to apply this kind of forensic gaze to the text of others and formulate your own rules of thumb – or have them pointed out to you – that separate the ‘competent’ from the ‘proficient Performer’.  Eventually you develop your own set of ‘rules’ and can deploy them largely intuitively (from the ‘gut’). You may be achieving credible writing, with a sense of individual voice, but perhaps not yet are you achieving true poise and elegance – the domain of the expert.

I have talked about some of the ways that your orientation to learning helps you make the transition between each level. As we travel from novice to proficient performer we change the way we learn: from context free repetition, to rule following to forensic observation and rule making. Most of those who graduate from a PhD program have become proficient performers and are teetering on the brink of expert. How do we make the next leap?

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