“It is perfectly normal to doubt yourself with academic papers and writings”

23 Feb 2023

Struggling with your term paper? Then get down to the Writing Marathon and the Long Night of Procrastinated Papers at LMU!

Organized by LMU’s Writing Center, these events are scheduled from 27 February through 2 March 2023. In this interview, overall coordinator Tina Werner-Werhahn talks about individual approaches to writing, keeping to your central theme in scientific writings and what helps motivate students and doctoral researchers to finally get started on their writing projects.

Writing advice at the Long Night of Deferred Term Papers.

Schreibberatung bei der Langen Nacht der aufgeschobenen Hausarbeiten

© Fiona Schweizer

What is your advice to students who have to write a term paper or their thesis?

Tina Werner-Werhahn:

Talk to your fellow students about the issues and difficulties you experience in your writing! It is perfectly normal to doubt yourself, feel out of your depth or just not make any headway with academic papers and writings.

When I was writing my bachelor’s thesis – nearly ten years ago now – I reached a point of desperation where I wrote my supervisor an e-mail. I asked him to read an excerpt from my paper, because my impression was that the whole thing was rubbish. Part of his reply was this: “Your doubts are absolutely normal. I too still doubt myself with every text I write.”

If you suffer from writer’s block, just start writing something, anything – not with the aim of putting it in your paper, but just for yourself. That will help you better understand content issues, discover new correlations and become aware of the object of your paper.

Why do many students procrastinate when it comes to term papers?

I think we often procrastinate when we don’t really know how to approach a task. Many students are uncertain about what a term paper should look like. And how are they supposed to know, especially when they are only beginning their studies? Left to their own devices, they put it off because they feel out of their depth.

There are other reasons too, of course: Perfectionism is one example. Perfectionist students don’t want to put anything down on paper until they have thought it through from start to finish and are completely satisfied. The funny thing is, though, that your thoughts often develop while you are writing.

Keeping the central theme

What problems do students often encounter when writing academic papers?

The most frequent complaint I hear from students and lecturers alike is that they have trouble keeping to their central theme. Many of those who come to us for advice do not even realize that they need an academic question. In many cases, they have far too broad a topic in mind and want to write something about it. But if they lack focus, they don’t know the direction in which they should start out.

The second sticking point can then be that the person is unclear about what “academic” actually means in a given specialized context. For example, what sets a literary question apart from a linguistic one in terms of didactic methodology? It is not enough merely to ask any question that relates to the subject of the seminar. It has to be a question that is relevant to the given didactic context. But to develop this understanding, students must dig far deeper into their subject than they already are, especially at the beginning. That takes time and intensive engagement with representatives of the given scientific community, which is itself a lot of work.

Peer-to-peer advice sessions

How can you support these students?

Both on the Long Night and at the Writing Marathon, specially trained writing tutors will provide peer-to-peer advice sessions on writing strategies and methods. Most of them will themselves have had very similar experiences and will offer assistance with issues such as narrowing your topic down, structuring your paper and revising the rough draft.

Sometimes, all that is needed is for students to be able to voice their uncertainties and get confirmation that they are on the right track. Participants in both events can book writing advice sessions on site.

Our workshops and exercises on academic writing are available on the Long Night only. Here, students can pick out those topics that are of the greatest relevance to them. I personally am looking forward especially to a talk by Dr. Bernhard Goodwin of the Munich Science Communication Lab about the link between comprehensibility and comprehension: If we ourselves write in such a way that others understanding what we are saying, we ourselves understand the topics we are addressing better.

What makes for good time management?

To organize your time properly when writing, you first have to grasp the process of writing. That is a very personal matter for which there is no patent recipe. That said, it is useful to think about the individual steps in the process: You need to do research, read, talk to others about what you have read, possibly gather, analyze and interpret data, write, and so on. But these are not clear-cut steps that follow each other in a chronological sequence: Some steps in the process repeat themselves and overlap.

It is also worth thinking about your own personal approach to writing. There are online tests that can be very enlightening. Essentially, the issue is whether you plan everything before putting pen to paper, or whether you simply start writing first. Neither approach is better than the other: Different strategies can lead to the same goal.

To put that in a nutshell: If you know how your mind works when writing, you can manage your time accordingly. One aspect is knowing what to expect and when. In the context of academic papers, that also means being flexible enough to accommodate the unexpected and being ready to regularly adapt your planning. Why? Because research means that we do not know the outcome in advance.

Relaxation techniques will also be presented at the events. Why are they important?

There is no point constantly chaining yourself to the desk. Writing is a demanding and complex cultural technique. The specific cognitive resources we need for writing are finite. So, we need to relax and recharge our batteries from time to time if we want to be able to write a complete text over a longer period. PROFiL will present a selection of exercises on this subject during the Long Night.

Could you briefly explain what people can expect of the two events: the Writing Marathon and the Long Night of the Put-Off Papers?

We normally write alone, and it is not unusual for that to leave us feeling lonely and perhaps abandoned. We want to turn the tide: At the Writing Marathon, students can receive one-on-one advice from our writing tutors; and they will also be together with other students who are in the same situation. Over coffee and snacks – all free of charge, incidentally – they can share their experience with others.

At the Long Night of Procrastinated Papers, we are also organizing workshops and exercises. The University Library will have a booth providing advice on literature research, while a tutor from our cooperation partner – the Writing Center at the Rosenheim Technical University of Applied Sciences – will offer advice on citations. As a special treat, there will also be a creative corner with a competition and prizes – another good way to take a break. Our sponsoring partners Lo Studente and DomPierre will lay on all kinds of delicacies.

Does the Long Night of Procrastinated Papers build on the Writing Marathon, or can the Long Night be attended in isolation?

You can attend on just one day or you can come every day. However, we would recommend taking part from start to finish, as that will really help you get things done. Once you have got your writing out of the way, you will be more free to enjoy the time when there are no regular lectures.

What are you looking for?