How can I become a better writer?
August 7, 2011 4:52 PM   Subscribe

Help. I am a junior academic but I'm not as good of a writer as I'd like to be and I'd like to change that.

I'm very good at reviewing literature and finding all sorts of references, I'm good at data collection and analysis. I have quantitative skills that are quite impressive on paper and my qualitative skills are above average too. Interpersonally, I have a good memory for past literature and can cite it off the top of my head, which impresses people at conferences.

I feel like a lot of my publications are due to my unique research context and my quant skills. (I'm not worried about tenure.) I also often write with co-authors that help me tidy up my work.

When it comes to writing introductions and discussions, however, I'm not all that great (and I'm comparing myself to other academics, not to laypeople.) I can put out some interesting thoughts about the work, but they're rarely organized and I KNOW that I have trouble making them sound sophisticated. I want to be an author that makes people say "omg - that is an amazing insight into this phenomenon that was brilliantly presented."

Part of the problem is that I had a great advisor who is a good editor, but more problematic - he writes like me too. We both don't have deep insights. Although I can riff on them in conversation, he doesn't very much.

So at this point, I'm not sure what to do. I know someone will suggest "write every day..." -- oh I write every day and all day. I've also tried recording my riffs on my material and auto-transcribing them. Other ideas on how I can improve in this area?
posted by anonymous to Education (9 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

I've found that reviewing for journals and conferences, as well as grant proposals, has made me a much better writer. Seeing other people make common mistakes really helped me see when I did the same things myself. In particular, seeing other authors thrash around and spend way too long on introductory material or ideas that were really just tangential made it easier for me to cut through that crap and get to the point.
posted by chbrooks at 5:46 PM on August 7, 2011

Read this.

Orwell writes in a very clear and elegant way about how to write what you mean to, and only what you mean to. You might think it's not applicable to scientific writing when you read it for the first time, because it covers some political writing. You might also think it is too British and too old. But the central message - that you should try and express your thinking as simply as you can, and that words have precise meanings which allow you to do so - is the essence of good technical writing. Since reading it I've had positive comments on the prose of every scientific article I've written, which certainly never happened before.

I am also very impressed with Stephen King's "On Writing" for similar reasons.
posted by cromagnon at 6:34 PM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't just write every day; I'd read every day, too. I'm sure you already do that, but what I mean is that I would identify some authors and/or texts you particularly admire and try to identify what, exactly, you like about them so. Look at them not just through an argumentative lens but also through rhetorical and stylistic lenses. Like the way an author opens an idea? Try to identify exactly what that author is doing and how and to what effects. Like how an author transitions from one idea to the next? Try to figure how how she or he is leading readers through the development of that idea. Like the turn of a phrase? Try to determine what (syntax? language? metaphor? trope?) pleases you. Creative writers are taught to read other authors' work with a particular eye toward these structural issues. I think academics should do so, too. And it wouldn't hurt to read non-academic writing and see what you can learn from it, as well.
posted by pittsburgher at 6:46 PM on August 7, 2011

You might check out Michael Alley's book The Craft of Scientific Writing, which is a great resource. Considering the subject of the book is actually scientific writing, it's a remarkably good read, which is probably testament to the fact that Alley knows a thing or two about good writing.

(Even if you don't get the book, his website has some good writing-related resources as well.)
posted by dseaton at 11:05 PM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Is it really that you're concerned about how good a writer you are (in terms of the sheer mechanics of writing), or more about wanting your ideas to be insightful and inspiring, seeing links and connections that other people have missed etc etc (I'm going here by your comment 'we both don't have deep insights')?

If it's the former, then I'd say that a lot of the responses posted thus far hit the spot. But if it's the latter (and if you're an academic, I'd say that the mechanics of your writing should be pretty much top notch), then I'd say that you need to speak with more academics whose research you'd like to emulate. When I go to conferences (also a junior academic, so totally know where you're coming from here), I'm blown away by some of my colleague's ability to just pop off a ridiculously well informed and sophisticated statement that makes me (occasionally) green with envy. I think that by speaking to researchers who you know to be 'at the top of their game' will give you lots to think about yourself after the fact and will make your own creative research juices flow.

I'd also add that you are a *junior* researcher and (I'd assume) that most of the work you're looking up to is from more experienced researchers who have been in their field for decades. When I look back to my PhD thesis (only submitted in 2009), I'm slightly embarrassed by some of the things I put in and the way in which I argued things. Now that I'm working on journal publications and so on, my writing has come on leaps and bounds, so I've no doubt that in 10 years or so, my thinking should be far more refined than it is now, and able to produce those 'insights' you mention.
posted by Scottie_Bob at 2:56 AM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm a big fan of Boice's Professors As Writers. (Yeah, it applies to us grad students too.) Some of it is, you know, "Write every day" and that sort of thing, but he also talks about stuff like recruiting social support, and how to do academic writing when you're not feeling "inspired" by a brilliant insight.

I agree with Scottie Bob, though: it sounds like you're not really worried about writing, but about coming up with Big Ideas. In my experience, what helps the most with that is face-to-face discussion. The more I teach, give conference talks, go to other people's talks, etc. etc. etc., the more I feel like I've got a handle on the Big Ideas that connect to my own work. Partly, I think, it's because teaching and conferences force you to think about material that isn't in your own sub-sub-sub-field, so it puts you into a more holistic frame of mind. And partly, too, it's just that you get instant feedback from presenting stuff face-to-face, and so it helps you develop a gut sense for what sorts of explanation work best, what sorts of question grab people's attention, and so on.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:52 AM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am a huge fan of the writers' workshop format. You plus some friends who also want to write better get together once a week or once every other week and read one or two of the members' most recent short writings, and critique. The rule I've used for this in the past is that the person who is being read should stay silent through the roundtable review. This prevents you from responding defensively to feedback, which would prevent you from actually hearing the feedback. You might appoint one person as referee to keep things from getting nasty, but this is *usually* not necessary, since everyone has to take a turn being quiet and letting people tear their work apart.

You'll never get better feedback than having four or so people that you trust reading your stuff line by line and explaining what writing structure works and what writing structure doesn't. You'll also get a lot out of reading their stuff.

As a bonus, make it part reading group and use one of the above recommended books to guide your critical reading.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 6:51 AM on August 8, 2011

Read at least as much as you write.

This was Ben Franklin's approach to teaching himself to write. Hardcore!
posted by The ____ of Justice at 11:02 AM on August 14, 2011

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