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The emotional journey to clear research writing

· 3 min read
Taylor Krohn

Better writing

My academic writing classes start with skeptics and usually end with converts. The path between can be uncomfortable.

Some participants hate writing. Some have had bad past experiences, which they describe as "frustrating" and even "traumatic".

frustration Photo by Elisa Ventur

The beginning of a class is uncertain; the participants are exposed to ideas that they have never encountered before; it's normal to be skeptical.

The end is rewarding and hopeful. They have seen their writing transform. They have learned things they never thought to ask. And I hope that they feel empowered to make their own decisions about how they communicate their research, grounded in science and logic.

thoughtful Photo by No Revisions

During the course, as we open our minds to new ideas and practice new skills, we usually have to work through some uncomfortable emotions: fear and vulnerability. It is extremely uncomfortable to be confronted with everything that we do not know.

Most PhD students in my classes are mature, self-aware, reflective and emotionally intelligent.

But occasionally young people will struggle to be so far out of their comfort zone. The students who are most susceptible to struggle are usually those who feel less confident in their position and who fear making mistakes.

Younger and less experienced students can have a hard time managing this discomfort. The fear and vulnerability may come out as arrogance: a defense mechanism.

When we are too afraid to acknowledge our fear and discomfort, we block our learning by closing ourselves off to the first and most important stage of the learning process (Shu): the one where we feel the most discomfort. (Shu is the first stage of learning according to the Japanese concept of Shuhari, which I wrote about here.)

Fear and vulnerability may be disguised as defensiveness and arrogance

If you refuse to even try a new technique, it can look like arrogance. You might say you don't believe in it or claim that you have your own style--but really, deep down, you are just afraid to fail.

If you have been expressing your fear and vulnerability as arrogance, you are not alone: arrogance is a common obstacle in this first stage of learning according to Shuhari1:

"Arrogance and overconfidence will urge you to skip SHU. This is impossible to do and attempting to do so can be dangerous. SHU is necessary. Sometimes, certain people tend to be ignorant and don't realise all the work, the effort and focus that is required to master something. They see skilled people (but not the effort they put in) and assume they are able to emulate these people, without the work and effort that is needed to achieve that skill.

Put simply, you can't "break the rules" if you never learn what those rules are in the first place. It's wandering blind. A person who tries to skip SHU is highly likely to make dangerous mistakes, for themselves and others around them.

To think that you're able to skip the most important lessons when you don't even know what those lessons are is the very definition of Arrogance.

Don't be arrogant, be patient and take your time, learn everything you can about the system and the rules. Only then can you consider progressing into HA [the next stage of learning]."

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  1. The quotes are taken from this site.

Developing your own academic writing style

· 3 min read
Taylor Krohn

Better writing

My students sometimes feel that applying the principles1 of clear writing conflicts with them developing their own personal writing style.

We can resolve this conflict if we think about our stages of learning. I particularly like using the ancient Japanese concept of Shuhari.

How does the ancient Japanese concept of Shuhari relate to modern day academic writing?

Shuhari describes the stages of learning from beginner to master:
'Shu' 守 means 'Follow'
'Ha' 破 means 'Digress'
'Ri' 離 means 'Transcend'.2

Or more simply: "Follow the rules, Break the rules, Make the rules."

  1. When you first start learning a skill, you must "follow the rules."

  2. After you are comfortable with these rules, you can move to the second stage: "break the rules," where you question the rules to understand how and why they work.

  3. Once you have truly mastered the skill, you can "make the rules" or go beyond the rules. The rules are within you, but they do not limit you.

I think of this third stage as "being at one with the rules"--you no longer think consciously about them, but you use them freely as you have mastered them completely.

So how do you develop your own academic writing style?

First, you look at the stage you are in (and recognize that there is nothing wrong with being in SHU). If you are in SHU or HA, you are not ready to develop your own style yet. You must first learn these principles deeply -- internalize them-- before you can choose to digress or transcend.

We need to take the time to learn and understand before we can break out.

Developing your own style happens in RI. Try not to skip steps.

You might wonder if you even need to get out of SHU to write well academically. I am not sure you do. Maybe trying to move through the stages of learning is not the goal in academic writing. If you can write well by following the principles exactly3 then why digress? Maybe it's enough to just clearly communicate your research.

Enjoy the poem below.

three Photo by Alicia Perez


The Art of Mastery
by Azumi Uchitani4

守 SHU Protect

I practice the form, I protect the form.

I respect the form. I repeat the form.

In this process, I learn the principle.

The principle is the heart of the form.

Without a solid form,

nothing can be held.

破 HA Break

I detach myself from the known,

Breaking the form of basic, with trials and errors,

I discover what works for me and what doesn’t.

It is scary to be here.

But the principle I learned never leaves me.

I trust my soul and I evolve.

離 RI Transcend

I see I have wings now.

The wings, gifted by the divine.

With the colour of my soul,

With the patterns of my skills,

With the power of my principle,

I fly with my wings, with the divine.

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  1. The main principles are parallelism, given to new, and verbs.

  2. I do not know any Japanese. I trust that the translations are correct and I am grateful for the educational materials found here.

  3. Yuval Harari comes to mind when I think of an academic writer who follows the principles of clear writing precisely and writes clearly and engagingly

  4. This poem can be found here.