Looking back at previous writing and cringing


Hi everyone,

I joined this forum today because I finally had enough of doing those 'am I actually going crazy' PhD moments alone. Glad to find this forum to share experiences and have a much needed vent!

I am now halfway through my PhD. Everything I write I initially think yep its fine, I worked super hard on it and it's actually semi ok, ready to submit to supervisors. Then I look back on it even a month later and think how awful and embarrassingly bad it is! Seriously, some of the stuff I wrote just 6 months ago makes me cringe it's so bad. It makes me wonder if my writing will ever be good enough. I read other people's thesis in the library and wonder if I will ever sound so eloquent and academic. Seriously sometimes I wonder why I was ever funded in the first place! Anyone else experience this?


Don't be unnecessarily harsh on yourself. Learning to write is part of the PhD process and doesn't come naturally to many.


Slowmo, your post makes me think about the last one year (well, almost a year now). When I started my PhD, i used to submit to my supervisor, essays I wrote, revised and sent in. And she would say "Brilliant!" or "It's excellent, points A B C and T are great, this is intellectually stimulating".

Last week, I submitted a document that was already in Version 8 (i.e. it had been chiselled by me for 8 rounds before reaching her) and she sat me down and spoke for 45 mins where she outlined 26 criticisms, page by page, paragraph by paragraph, and ended with "off you go to do version 9". And I realised even without my noticing it, as I went on writing, and revising and revisiting previous thoughts, and "bettering" my work, feedback kept getting tougher, till I cannot even remember the last time I hear something was intellectually stimulating. Note though, that those essays which got those great comments now read like trash.

My knee jerk reaction to the 45 min critique was OMG my writing has been getting worse and worse. My considered reaction was, OMG my writing has improved so much, my essays are so much better, but there's just SO much of re-chiseling to do!

My point is, looking back is always a good exercise, it makes you see how far you've travelled and also how far you need to go still.. :-)


Cringing at your earlier work is quite positive, in a weird way! It shows that your critical abilities are developing all the time so you can see what's wrong with older writing. It would be more worrying if you carried on for years thinking everything you wrote was so great it couldn't possibly be improved on! As long as it doesn't make you miserable, undermine your confidence or just too fed up to try and improve as you go along, I wouldn't worry, just see it as part of the learning process as the previous posters have said.

I'm still looking at recent stuff I've written (abstracts, the final submitted version of my thesis...) and think ooh dear, that's a bit woffly, hhhmm that could be clearer, so I guess improving your writing and being able to critically analyse your own work is just an ongoing part of academia. I was quite pleased to read something a Prof said about his own early work recently, that he thought it was quite simplistic now (though he didn't say it made him cringe!), but it looks like we're not alone in this way of thinking!


======= Date Modified 06 May 2009 14:59:09 =======
I agree with Rubyw - it's a sign of progress. And the fact that you can detect differences between your work and finished theses (which must have gone through many rounds of revision) shows you are critically aware of writing styles.

So stay positive, keep going, enjoy your progress. Keep reading other people's work and seeing what you can learn about writing from them, and if you're really anxious see whether your uni does any short courses in academic writing skills.

It's one of the many things you'll learn in the course of your PhD, so don't let it get you down! :)


======= Date Modified 09 May 2009 00:37:12 =======
Thanks! It's good to know that others have been there. I just got an email from my supervisors yesterday saying that they have been really impressed by my writing and I have progressed a huge amount so I am definitely taking it as a positive now. Hopefully I will continue to progress because I still feel like a real amateur most of the time. I actually can't imagine having a PhD, feels quite surreal but hopefully it will happen!

Thanks for the replies.