Advice for writing academic work

Students with Asperger’s can have great difficulty starting, completing and handing in work on time. For me, I never knew why I couldn’t get started on a piece of work, which lead to avoidance of the work, feelings of anxiety and inadequacy, and inability to access help (I didn’t know what help I needed and couldn’t answer the questions I was asked about why I was finding it difficult).  After many years I have identified some common themes in why my work has been repeatedly late or not handed in:

  • Difficulty starting tasks (executive function)
  • “I haven’t read *everything* yet”
  • —I don’t know what to write (decision making)
  • I don’t know what the tutor wants (unclear brief, unspoken rules about freedom eg “you can write whatever you like [as long as it’s what I want]”)
  • I’m too preoccupied with something else going on in my life (friends, family, relationships, money, health, shitty boy/girlfriends)

If any of that sounds familiar to you, then here is some information about how I approach written work now, which may give you some ideas.

How I work

I write essays by collecting all relevant information, editing it and rearranging it to answer the question.  I need to get to grips with a whole topic before starting any work on it, and as you can imagine for most subjects it’s just not possible or practical to find out everything first.  The lesson in writing a ‘good enough’ essay was very important for me, and I still only know it in theory, I find it very difficult to apply.  Before I begin writing I need to know and understand what I am going to say, then I plan backwards until I reach the first step and can then begin.  In a similar way, up until my final year of my PhD, I had difficulty explaining my thesis topic to anybody because I didn’t have the answers.  I can’t give an incorrect answer, or an incomplete interim answer, I have to know and believe what I’m saying.

Things tutors could do to help: Encourage and check essay plans; providing example essays or essay plans; suggest working backwards (as may not have occurred to student).

Breaking down tasks

Before I write an essay, I write out a list of the steps involved.  The list might look like this:

  • open Word,
  • write essay title & name,
  • save document in folder for course with title as file name,
  • find out word limit, deadline and where it needs to be handed in,
  • put this info at top of document as a reminder
  • write title in own words,
  • check interpretation with mentor,
  • make list of required reading,
  • read required reading & make notes,
  • list subheadings that need to be included in essay,
  • drag list into coherent order,
  • show to mentor,
  • allocate a word count to each section,
  • transfer referenced notes (from reading) relevant to each subheading,
  • starting with the easiest (not the first), flesh out each subheading using notes but in own words,
  • leave introduction until last when content written,
  • when essay complete, delete notes to self, spellcheck document and check word count not exceeded,
  • print essay and proofread,
  • when happy, hand it in.

I keep the list in the same document as the essay and use ‘strikethrough’ font to cross each one off as I complete it.  You could also keep it in a separate document or print it out and cross them off in pen.  The list might seem very detailed, but by ensuring that all necessary steps are on the list and therefore will get done, I don’t need to constantly worry that I have forgotten something.  Once something is done I can look at the list to know what to do next, rather than holding it all in my head.  It takes the organisational pressure off and frees up brain space for doing the actual work.

This approach also applies to bigger pieces of work, and in a similar manner I wrote my 80,000 word thesis dissertation.  I found a thesis online that had a similar subject area and structure (i.e., introductory chapter, then several experimental chapters, then discussion chapter).  I copied it into a word document, and then deleted everything except the chapter and section headings (e.g., method, results, discussion).  I saved it as ‘thesis template’, then I began pasting things in between the headings that I already had on my pen drive, for example, annual reports of experimental work which I had had to do for my department. Then for the rest I started with the ‘definites’, sections like the method and results, which did not need interpretation only description.  I worked backwards, leaving the introductions to each chapter, the overall introductory chapter, discussion chapter and abstract until last.

Other tricks I used to get myself writing included:

  • Telling myself that I was just writing for me, and that no-one else was going to read it ever.
  • Telling myself that I was just going to write for ten minutes and then stop (seemed easy enough to do and then once I had got going it was easier to continue due to my natural inability to stop tasks once started!).
  • Going on a course called ‘managing long Word documents’ which taught me how to properly use headings, sections and table of contents, and to cross-reference things like tables and figures.
  • Listing the sources (references) I needed to include from the literature, and dragging them into the right order to tell a coherent story in my head, before fleshing them out into actual text about the work that had been done by others, which formed the rationale for my experiments.
  • Writing each chapter in its own Word document and then joining them up at the end, so that the task looked smaller and was easier to navigate.
  • Typing with my eyes shut(!) really helped, I have no idea why!

You may or may not find these tips helpful, but the important thing is to find the way YOU are able to work and stick to it. Don’t worry about what other people are doing, or the ‘right’ way to write coursework.

© Catastraspie, 2012.


12 Responses to Advice for writing academic work

  1. lyn cain says:

    Thank you so much!! This is very helpful as I am in an online PhD program and should be writing another paper right now instead of reading your informative blog 🙂

    • catastraspie says:

      Thanks for your comment! 🙂 Wishing you the very best of luck with your paper and your PhD program. I also used a pomodoro app (Pomodroido) for a bit to make sure I did some productive work.

  2. This is a very useful resource. I did figure out on my own that I need to write each chapter in its own word document and join them all up together afterwards, but some of these things I’ve never thought of. I’ll go try them out and see if they work for me (fingers crossed, because my horrendous lack of executive function ability is a massive problem as far as getting important work in on time).

    Did you eventually manage to figure out how to access help (eg could you figure out what kind of help you needed from others)? I have never been able to answer the questions I’ve been asked about why I’m finding it difficult. “I just can’t do it” isn’t helpful, but I still can’t quite find the words to explain executive function to people who haven’t heard of it.

    • catastraspie says:

      Thanks, I’m glad you found it helpful. I’m a lot better at asking for help I have already accessed and found useful. I’m still not very good at identifying when I am having problems, or knowing where to start in tackling them. I find talking things over with someone I trust really useful because often they suggest or point out things I hadn’t thought of.

      • For me, what would probably be the biggest advantage of diagnosis (including self diagnosis) is that it would give me a better understanding of myself which could help me identify what is causing problems and where to start tackling them. That’s always the hardest part of actually fixing things.
        I find it hard to talk things over with people because I often can’t find the words to express in what way doing something is difficult for me, which makes it difficult for the other person to understand and suggest or point out things.

      • catastraspie says:

        Yes, difficulty finding the right words and how to convey something to another person is a huge obstacle to getting appropriate help and support. Sometimes people think they know what you mean and jump in with a suggestion that isn’t going to help. I find it easier to ask for help via email, then I can spend as long as I need finding the right words to express myself, and reread it or ask someone else read it through and say if it is unclear.

  3. Ess Dee says:

    I found your blog after specifically searching for ‘writing a thesis when you have Asperger’s’ and oh, the relief of finding others with the same approach to and deficiencies with writing! I am currently in my final year writing up my 80,000 word thesis and also have to actually look at how another similar piece of work is written before I am able to ‘get it’. This process always takes a lot longer than others without such differences expect and which also causes me a great deal of frustration. Unfortunately, my primary supervisor (also my director of studies) has no patience with my differences, which has made it incredibly hard to feel anything but useless when it comes to my writing. I also struggle to explain my research to others as it never seems as clear as I would like it to be – and I know this is because my writing is not clear. However, although it may feel that within academia nothing I ever do is good enough, I have been told that I am very good at devising and presenting lectures, seminars and conference talks. Yet, as everything hinges on writing up and publishing research, I know that for me, no matter how much I love conducting research, putting pen to paper (when I actually get around to it in time – another commonality) feels me with trepidation. Thank you for posting your experiences and allowing me the relief of knowing my issues are shared with others. x

    • catastraspie says:

      Hey, thanks very much for your comment. Sorry to hear that your primary supervisor is not very understanding, do you have any student support in place? I wasn’t sure what help they could give until I asked, but I was allowed to have an extra person in my viva, who was not asking questions but was there as quiet moral support. Had I needed them to liaise with my supervisor they would have done, but he was pretty understanding. It’s great that you are good at devising and presenting lectures, seminars and talks (I’m hopeless at those!) as those skills carry more weight than you might think in academia. Although publishing research is important, some universities are more teaching focussed and put less pressure on staff to publish (particularly for early career researchers), as long as their teaching is informed by their research and they try to publish at least once a year. You can also work collaboratively with others (unlike your thesis) and co-author papers where perhaps you aren’t the lead author and may not need to be so involved in the writing – at least until you are more confident in doing so. Best of luck with it all! 🙂

  4. Autumn says:

    Ahh such a nice post… and as an aside, i love the name of your blog. Well I’m writing my Masters thesis and procrastinating/ freaking out over the lit review (yep, i haven’t read *everything* yet). I have begun the headings n copy/paste stuff as i write it. I think i need to chill and then cone back to it with your template idea. Thanks ♡

    • catastraspie says:

      Thank you 🙂 Sorry for the delay in replying, I got overwhelmed with work stuff. I hope your thesis literature review is going well, and that you have managed to tame it a little! Nobody reads everything, not even the people who will be marking your dissertation, the key is to make sure you have read the key literature for your area. Assessing relevance is a skill I still struggle with. Good luck with it all.

  5. Meghan Ghent says:

    Oh. my. god. This is a godsend, I mean it. I’ve been paralysed over an MA course project that’s like… what, four months overdue now? I thought I just had depression or anxiety, but the more I read about aspie struggles the closer I feel I get to understanding just what I’m wrestling with in my own brain. Everything you described is me to a T. I am bookmarking this page. I am printing this page. Thank you so much.

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