The Struggle to Scientific Writing

Make it a habit to write every day – that is one piece of advice from my supervisor that stays in my head. Assuming that I should get the hang of it by now but I still often wonder how and what to write every day. When I first started, I was asked to submit a write-up of 2000 words on human related turtle conservation issues globally and locally. Thinking back, I struggled to write up to 2000 words because having some background knowledge on conservation issues was not enough. I had to start reading (a lot). Reading took time, plus it was a thing to read and another thing to digest what I had read and start writing. Eventually, I managed to finish the write up.  Being a perfectionist, details matter to me and no matter how many times I re-read what I had written, I would still find things to correct. The correction seems to be never ending. As everyone said the first draft of anything is shit but it took me a long time to get that the first draft need not be perfect, they just need to be written.

Next came a comprehensive report of 7000 words I needed to work on, which details out what my research would be about, its theoretical framework and how I would proceed to do it. Once again, I felt the struggle. Obviously, writing didn’t come easily to me, especially in scientific writing where every point needs to be supported by one or more references. By then I was already introduced to the concept sustainable livelihoods approach. The framework appears to be straightforward to understand but the knowledge to apply it to my study was vague. My experiences showed that livelihoods and conservation are connected and I saw the importance of local people in conservation where their needs and interest should be considered but knowing that was not enough to write a report of 7000 words. Once again, I started to read papers that focus on the human dimensions in sea turtle conservation and sustainable livelihoods approach. Human dimensions itself are multi-faceted and diverse. There are many aspects to it, including socio-economic, cultural, tradition, sustainable use, political, local perceptions, local ecological knowledge, local support, behaviour, values, beliefs, legal, etc, which all provides crucial information that contribute to conservation. That 7000 words was a write up of that, plus a brief introduction on sustainable livelihoods approach. Why only briefly on the latter? I had not read or understood enough to incorporate this approach to elucidate the human-sea turtle interactions.

Having to accomplish a 7000 words seemed like a big deal to me at that time as I posted on Facebook that after spending so much time on it, I was glad that it was completed. Of course, I should have known then that PhD is all about writing and there is no end to it, probably not even after graduation. The next assignment was 14,000 words of literature review and a conceptual framework, explaining my research design and the approach I would use to answer the research questions. 14,000 words is double the word count of 7000 words. I no longer knew whether I was terrified by the amount of words I had to write or the fact that I would have to read a lot more in order to write more. Compared to the previous write ups, this one was the most challenging but also the most rewarding.

It was easier for me to read turtle related papers as I am from a science background. My research, however, is a social science research. Like many who are from a natural science background, I am familiar with hypothesis and quantitative methods and not conceptual framework and qualitative methods. I felt that the knowledge I had acquired to do research could not all be applied here. Reading journals alone were not adequate to understand the methods or concepts. I realised that I would need to read up on social science research and sustainable livelihoods approach. I started by borrowing 10 books related to social science research and it took me almost a month to read and understand about worldviews, qualitative methods, case studies, etc, and to finally decide on the methods for data collection and analysis. Despite knowing the link between livelihoods and conservation, I had to write out why a livelihood approach would be suitable and how its framework would be useful to the research. One thing about taking too long to write is it causes the mind to feel saturated. It is okay to take a break once in a while but not leaving it aside for too long.

In the end, 14000 word count was not a concern anymore, rather the content of the write up that matters. I was asked to improve it a few times and had since re-submitted a couple of times that all I felt was that I had spent enough (or way too much time) on this write up and that I was ready to move on. When a text stating “very happy with your new doc” from my supervisor arrived today, I felt relief. Of course, meantime while waiting for her reply, I had started working on analysing data for some preliminary findings. Writing and reading became a routine in my life now. The are many times when I did not want to spend time in front of the computer screen. I miss working in the field even though the work was demanding, it was fulfilling. Still, I can’t escape from writing. I might still feel the struggle in writing but I am taking every opportunity to write to improve my writing and I hope (as what most people say) it will get easier eventually with a lot of practice.

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