Open secret: Graduate students don’t like writing

I came across a blog post titled How Not to Suck at Graduate School over at McGill’s Connections lab. I agree with most of the author’s points, but I have something to say about the first argument:

The first draft of everything is terrible, even for the best writer. You may be an extremely good binge writer, but I promise that the work will be better with another draft and some time to consider and change content.  Plan your time well. The draft of any project should be completed three days to two weeks before it is due. The remainder of the time can be spent in the real work of writing: editing.

Drafting is best, but most students are unlikely to follow this advice. Although I have met the rare grad who was never instructed to write multiple drafts, I more often come across students who do not like writing. Progress in writing requires some level of enthusiasm and sense of play. Many grads, even at the PhD level, do not enjoy writing. They like thinking, reading, arguing, and being in the field, but writing is an afterthought. Their disdain for the craft will no doubt follow them into jobs, punishing their colleagues with dense and unwieldy prose for years to come.

The ‘draft’ problem is really an ‘interest’ problem. The grad finishes the painful first draft, runs spell check a few times, and is ready to hand it in because they cannot bear to look at it again. They have already moved on, and to return to a draft means facing their internal critic.

Drafting is hard for every writer, but if you enjoy the process, and maybe even have a background in creative writing, then you are better able to face the critic, whether it be internal or external. The best academic writers I know have a prior relationship with writing, even if it’s just scribbling lyrics on a napkin or submitting a short story to a magazine. One need not be a former aspiring novelist to enjoy writing, but if you view the process as drudge, you are less likely to want to go back and make it better. To continue to develop as a writer without joy is doable of course, but I wouldn’t recommend it, unless one’s career goals do not actually involve writing for a living.