Recently, I ran a workshop on reflective writing for PhD candidates from various disciplines, including sociology, education, computing and engineering. The participants were required to produce a series of reflective essays as part of their research and development programme. For many it was a completely new task — writing in the first person felt strange, and the idea of being their own subject was challenging. The students planned to reflect on different aspects of their practice; for example, as interviewers and teachers, presenting conference papers, and the difficulties encountered in the various phases of fieldwork.
As well as in these aspects of academic work, reflective practices can be useful in students’ development as writers. When I talk to postgraduates about their writing, we tend to address practical issues and techniques for improvement, but frequently they have other concerns, often to do with confidence and identity. Even after publishing, many postgraduate students seem cautious about thinking of themselves as writers.
Observing and reflecting on writerly practices can be extremely productive in these situations. One PhD candidate recently said to me that she hated the sound of her voice in her academic work. As we discussed it, she realised that her voice didn’t feel authentic. Considering this in a reflective framework, I’d say she’d identified an issue, and the reason behind it. The next stage in addressing the matter would be writerly — trying to find a voice that sounds academic while retaining her own distinctive form of expression.
It’s not difficult or time-consuming to build reflection into your writing practice. Simply pause in your work to jot down a few sentences about what you’ve written and how it felt, identifying any difficulties and what you might do about them. You’ll begin to see where you get stuck and why, and you might find new ways to get going again. In this respect, reflection can be both therapeutic and developmental.