Tell us about yourself.
I studied International Land and Water management, which covers everything from social relations, people to their land and water, agriculture to some politics and economics. For my studies I have been travelling quite a lot, living in Kenya, South Africa, Israel and Spain. After I graduated last May I came here and have been working at the German Development Agency, which is the GIZ. Our project is about biodiversity. We are currently working on biodiversity and erosion control in Akham village of Ismayilli.
You are a recent graduate and are working for an NGO at the moment. How much do you write?
I write every day. For my master’s I wrote quite a lot. For every course we wrote essays and I also had two theses. Now for my work, I am writing and reviewing a lot of reports. Besides that, I also have materials to publish, – posters, papers and information boards – on behalf of the organization. And besides, I am working on a paper to publish in a scientific journal.
What is your writing routine? Do you have any writing rituals?
Whenever I start writing, I start filling out the structure of the paper or report that I want to write. First, I outline what want to write the introduction, the main part, and the main part consists of smaller parts, discussion and conclusion. Then I continue dividing these parts with subheadings and in advance I know exactly what I am going to write. This way I will not forget anything and all the parts will be there. If I forget about it, the subheading is there to remind me that I still need to complete that part. So, this is what I start with and then it becomes much easier than having a blank paper and thinking “Okay, I need to write 5,000 words. Where do I start?” By dividing the paper into smaller tasks I make my writing routine much easier. So I start with an outline, and slowly-slowly by filling up the subparts, I get these 5,000 words.
Is there anything particular that you like about your working space when you write?
I want it to be quiet, no distractions, and no phones buzzing. I usually play some classical music. Other types of music are too distracting for me. When I write with classical music on, I stop hearing it because I am so focused and do not hear other distractions anymore. This way I am totally consumed by the writing process.
Do you experience writer’s block?
Yes. It usually happens when I am writing about a subject I do not know or I have too many things on my mind and I do not know where to start anymore. I usually write down the points I still have to include or what I doubt about so that I come back to them later. I try to concentrate on the part I should be working on instead of starting doing research on other subjects. So I just put it aside and concentrate on the necessary parts. I have also taught myself that if I cannot concentrate and write something within 15 minutes then half an hour is not going to work either. Then I put it aside and start working on something else.
Do you often take breaks?
Not as often as I should. I know it really helps just to go away from the computer and go outside for a walk, but I always think I do not have the time. When I do it, I come back refreshed and work more productively. So I really recommend doing it and I myself should include it in my writing routine more often.
Do you write multiple drafts?
I continue writing the same paper. If I start a paper, I redraft it many times but I always continue the same document. Currently, with my scholarly article for a journal, I am working on my forth draft. I need to finalize it. In fact, I do not like handing in an incomplete paper for a review or anything. Some people hand in half of their papers or unfinished papers. I think that if I hand in something to my teacher for review, then I should take out all the bad parts I can take out myself. I do it because it is not her job; I want her to help me improve the paper and not waste time on the things I can do myself because I am too lazy to finalize it. So I make one perfect draft and hand it in, wait for the review, write another draft where I incorporate the comments and then once again continue with the same process until it is done.
So your current draft is your fourth draft, which means you have reviewed it yourself four times, right?
Yes, I have reviewed it four times and my teachers now – three times. This is how I have come to the current draft.
When you write, do you prioritize content or structure?
While I make sure I have the right content, I prioritize the structure. With a good structure you can make it very clear what the paper is about. This will make reading it much easier rather than writing with fancy words or perfect language but then not telling anything because the structure is totally off. So, for me the most important thing is that when someone reads my paper, he can follow my thoughts. In fact, the structure allows me to focus on the content.
Is there any difference when you write in Dutch and English?
There are differences in academic writing in both languages. However, I have been writing so much in English in recent years that it is hard for me to say. Writing in English and Dutch is similar because both require you to write the thesis and build the rest of the paper around it. There are small differences in finalizing papers, though. In Dutch we do a lot of summarizing in the conclusion. In English it is different – concluding but with less summarizing. So it was quite easy for me to switch from writing in Dutch to writing in English because maybe it was the language change but not necessarily the writing style.
How much time do you allocate to polishing and proofreading?
A lot. Two working days at least. What I do is I print the paper because it is easier for me to spot errors and get highlighters to mark the paper. At first, I start marking the main sentences in each paragraph. Then I look if the actual content of a paragraph supports the main idea. After this I check if the paragraph connects to the next and the previous one. Does it make sense? Are my paragraphs well connected or abrupt and disconnected? I might add sentences that will connect my paragraphs. And only after the structure is perfect, I go over the text or writing itself because I can change it in advance but the sentence is useless and I am going to kick it out anyway. So the word choice and grammar are what I check last.
Do you allocate two days only for major papers or shorter papers as well?
No, I do it only for longer, more important papers. For shorter work-related papers, I spend less time editing and proofreading because people will not read them as carefully as my teachers would. Usually in scientific writing it is important how you formulate your ideas, because you are also referring to others’ papers. If you use a wrong formulation, then the content changes. The writing styles of scientific papers and work papers are different. Scientific papers are usually for people who know the subject well, while my work papers are also for people who would like some more insight. They do not know anything yet, so I use different wording and make it a little easier and understandable, and do not go as deep as I would in scientific papers.
What would be your writing advice to ADA students?
I thought a lot about it. Make sure you know the structure of the paper you are writing. If you do not what to write about, do research. You cannot start writing if you do not know your topic well. Read some news articles. Try to figure out what is interesting because it is really difficult to write about something that you are not interested in at all. This is the main thing. Know what to write about and how to write it.
How do you decide what to write about if your professor does not specify it?
Look at the assignment carefully. For example, for my theses I had lists of topics I could choose from. And I just thought “Okay, this topic is interesting for me. I do not know much about it and would like to learn more.” And there is information available. This is also important. Of course, with research papers, you want to produce more information so you should not take a topic everything has been written about, but starting from zero is also difficult. So try to find some sources, go search if you can find information you will need to write the paper. Also, do not pick a topic because you like it. Debate yourself on why you should pick this or that one. And maybe sometimes a topic you would not choose in the first place is more interesting that the topic that immediately comes to your mind because you will not get biased and are open to see others’ opinions.
Is writing just for yourself helpful or worthy?
Yes. It is for practicing writing. Also when you write for yourself, you read it back you either notice “Ok, I can write a nice story.” or “Ok. I wrote this and I am happy no one is going to see this because it does not make any sense.”
Do you think writing is important after the university and outside of academia?
Yes, of course. Especially today, even our everyday communication is in writing, on WhatsApp and Facebook. It is so easy to be misunderstood if your writing is off and you cannot put your thoughts into wording. Especially with your personal communication. If I am smiling when I am talking to you, you know I am happy. When you are writing, no one is going to see your face and gestures. That is why it is important that you can accurately formulate what you feel.
How did you get good writing skills? Did you practice writing or read a lot of books?
When I was doing my bachelor’s, I was not that good at writing. I would get feedback such as “Nice story but you need to rewrite it.” Suddenly I understood how important it was to use the right structure and I practiced a lot. I wrote papers for every course in my master’s. Every time I got a little bit better. And every time I got feedback and I knew “Ok, I should not do this.” I think it is mainly practicing. Then I started to enjoy it because I figured out I was able to write good papers. And I became even more motivated to write papers. More practice and some insights on how to write. I also think that feedback is important. If no one says what to improve then you do not know. I asked my classmates to swap and read each other’s papers. It was really helpful because I filtered out a lot of mistakes so it only became better.