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5.3 It's all about practice

Writing is a life skill that involves ongoing hard work; developing good writing skills is a continuous learning experience. On the journey there will be times when you feel anxious or frustrated but also highly satisfied and fulfilled. Listen to Professor Gary Barkhuizen talk about his own writing journey, and hear the advice he offers.

When I started university I had absolutely no idea about academic writing. I was quite good at creative writing, which is something that we’d done at high school, such as poetry and writing stories and so on, but academic writing I didn’t know what it was. And when I got to university, I did subjects that required quite a bit of essay writing such as Sociology and English Literature and so on. And what I did was to take out chunks from the textbook and from other books I found in the library and to use those in my essays and weave some sort of argument together based on what I could find in the reading that I was doing. Now, of course, that is plagiarism and everyone knows it is plagiarism, but at the time I’d never heard of the word and didn’t realise that it was something that you shouldn’t be doing. And the lecturers never corrected me; they never told me it was something I shouldn’t do. Their feedback focused on the content of what I was saying, the ideas I was writing about and my thoughts about what I was writing about. But I soon realised, after my first year moving into second, third and postgraduate study, that what was important was what I wanted to say, that my voice needed to come through in what I was writing. And so the ideas of others and particularly their own words took very much a backseat and supported what I was saying rather than me discussing what they were saying. So there was a gradual shift in me coming through in my writing. And when I was able to do that, I found that my writing got better because I found, my own writing is better when I’m writing in a more personal, narrative style. That, that’s the strength of my writing.

And so the more I did that, the more I found that I could write with ease, although it was never easy, it was always a struggle to write. And when I went on to do my Master’s that happened more and more. I needed to in my writing explicitly say what I thought and in order to do that, the writing needed to come from myself rather than from other sources. And when I went on to do my doctoral studies, my doctoral studies, even more so, because there you’re writing about your own topic that you decided to research; you’re writing at a much higher academic level. And I remember once I submitted a paper for my doctoral certification, and when it was graded and given back to me, I was very pleased to see I got a very good grade. But more important was that the professor had commented that my writing was good. And I was amazed, I’d never thought my writing was good. And from then on, I found that with more encouragement and support from my professors, which I got constantly throughout my doctoral programme that I became a much better writer. And even now when I look back at my thesis I’m still surprised that I actually wrote it, I think I probably reached my peak at that point. But yes, that was in my early experiences and how, how it developed into my graduate studies.

The type of advice I would give undergrad students would be to look for support that is available within the University, attend workshops that are available, the more you do of that the better. But perhaps more important is to practise. It’s something that you just need to keep doing. And the more you practise, the more you write, and request feedback on your writing! Ask your lecturers: ‘what is my writing like?’ And just to practise, to keep doing it. And there’s not going to be a magic fix that happens over the weekend, it’s something that will take time. And I think if you realise that it’s going to take time, then you don’t feel so anxious or so threatened about your writing at the present. So if you imagine yourself in the future as a better writer, you’ll eventually work towards those goals. And it certainly does take time. And moving out of the university context into the workplace where you’ll be doing different sorts of writing – again there’s an adjustment, you know, that you make, depending on the genre or the type of writing that you’re doing. But it takes time, it takes lots of practice. To talk about your writing, ask for feedback, I think are important messages.

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