Writing informally: why it’s important

When I first told people that I wanted to do a PhD, after the initial excitement for me they would usually respond by talking about one of three things: (1) the dedication you need to focus on just one topic for four years (2) the amount of reading it takes and (3) the amount of writing it takes. Personally, I was pretty excited about all three, although most people I spoke to saw these as disadvantages or reasons why they would never want to do a PhD themselves. The formats that I then mostly considered were academic, ranging from abstracts, to conference papers, to journal articles but over the years I’ve discovered that different formats can be just as relevant for academic development. That’s the main reason that I wanted to start this blog: to convey my thoughts in a different venue and to a different audience, in a format that has a lower threshold for myself as well.

I have always loved storytelling, and writing is a big part of my research both as a means to talk about it, but also as one of the main topics that I am exploring. You can find stories all around you, and when you look at the media these days, the companies that can tell a good story are the ones that sell. In an oversaturated market with so many people wanting to make a living off of flashy new ideas, the ones with the best communication and storytelling are the ones that flourish. This is an exciting development: apparently we have so many great ideas that we need to be selective and get creative. However, on the other side, it can be a dangerous development as those with the best stories might not necessarily be the ones with the best ideas. Sneaky framing can be deceptive and commercial organisations know exactly how to deceive to make you listen to them. That is why it is extremely important that scientists also engage in storytelling, to reach wider audiences.

There are many ways to write that are not academic with different lengths, including blog posts (like this one!), essays, short fictional stories, pamphlets, songs, poems, tweets, notes and many more.

It’s never just about one topic

When you are telling a story, every single person in your audience will hear or read it differently, because they are interpreting it from their own unique perspective. For that reason, however limited your scope might be, you are always touching other stories. This is why I write fictional stories, to make it possible to touch upon the different topics related to the topic that I am supposed to be thinking about from multiple angles. My PhD research is positioned in the healthcare and lifestyle domain, which means that I think about how to convince people to adopt a healthy lifestyle. However, to be able to do that, I also need to think about what the life of these people looks like, and what the life of their doctors looks like. When I write academic papers, I am mostly explaining my ideas to a scientific audience, but when I engage with writing

Writing helps you think

I think many things, and I often think many things at the same time. If you’re anything like me, you have loads of ideas that never even make it outside of your head. Writing helps me materialise these thoughts and formulate them into logical arguments so that I can get my story straight. After I have written something down, I often experience that it is much easier to explain it to others, because I have first comprehensively explained it to myself. If I can’t get it onto paper, then it probably still needs some work. Simultaneously, writing something down can really spruce up your confidence about having knowledge about a topic, which can make you more confident when talking about it in the future as well. Simple blog posts such as this one can serve the purpose of gaining the confidence to write a full paper on a topic, or as a way to collect thoughts that I might want to revisit later.

Writing is sharing

One of my pitfalls as a PhD student is that I get stuck in my own head and feel like I need to solve it all by myself. When so much is happening with the four walls of my own brain, it can be hard to quickly ask someone for some help or advice. However, if I can just send them I piece I wrote, however short it may be, it is much easier to ask for some feedback. Not only will it be easier for others to give that feedback, the feedback I get will probably also be more useful as I’ve taken the time to formulate the question well. Besides those you directly ask for feedback, you might also get input out of unexpected corners that is useful. In the past, people have reached out to me based on small bits of project work that I shared on social media, including friends from high school who I usually don’t tell about my work, and people I met at conferences or other networking events but never saw again.

Practice makes perfect

Well, this counts for pretty much anything, but the more you practice, the better you get. To be able to put words onto paper that express exactly what you mean requires skill and it requires training. I always experience the cringe-effect when I am rereading things that I wrote years (or sometimes just months) ago, sometimes it has to do with the writing style, sometimes with the content, sometimes with my wild naivety. However, I know that I wouldn’t be where I am today had I not written that. Even though the exact words that I put down might not always be equally profound and mind-blowing, if the process of writing it got me somewhere, it was worth it – whether that is a new idea, confidence, feedback from that one person that I needed, or just a sense of fulfilment for finishing the thought and sharing it with the world. You might have noticed that this is the very first post on this blog and the topic is not a coincidence. This specific post hopefully marks the start of a new habit and helped me gain that little bit of confidence that I still needed to pursue future blog posts. Stay tuned!

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