Ways researchers can be better, different writers
28 March 2017 3 Comments
After leaving the academy to pursue her dream of helping others achieve their writing goals, Kellye McBride started her own freelance editorial business in 2015 and has never looked back.
She is enthusiastic about helping graduate students, researchers, and scholars improve their writing and developing their skill sets when it comes to articles, book proposals, and dissertations.
Kellye lives in Portland, OR in the United States, and blogs at kellyemcbrideediting.com. She regularly posts about academic writing and scholarly publishing.
As academics, we often emphasise the importance of research, networking with others in our respective fields, and building a profile when it comes to professional opportunities. Though these are important topics worthy of consideration, the most crucial aspect of our jobs is often overlooked when we are so focused on advancing our academic careers: writing.
Not only is the average scholar is expected to have a number of professional publications in peer-reviewed journals, many disciplines also want them to publish a book to establish themselves early on in their career. Additionally, if scholars want to secure the right amount of funding, they must also become effective grant writers. The list of required written documents for early career researchers can be endless and, frankly, overwhelming.
Training and support for these kinds of writing are practically non-existent. Even if a scholar has an effective advisor and is well practiced as an academic writer, they might still run into trouble when it comes to grant writing, crafting text for a teaching portfolio, or writing for the public. This is not the fault of the academic. It’s like being a talented oil painter who is asked to learn watercolor overnight for a particular commission. Scholars are often poorly trained when it comes to being adept at the types of writing that will help ensure their success.
Sadly, the need to improve one’s writing skills often arrives after when they need it the most. Once saddled with administrative duties, budget constraints, or preparing a new research project, it’s difficult to develop a new skill in the midst of everything.
Fortunately, there are ways to remedy this problem. One in particular is to seek out advice from non-traditional sources. Here are a few of my suggestions:
The world of creative writing has a ton of resources that would benefit the academic writer. For example, there is a volume of literature on writing book proposals and seeking literary agents that could benefit an emerging scholar looking to publish their first book. The Art of the Book Proposal by Eric Maisel offers advice on all aspects of creating an effective proposal, including the outline, chapter summaries, and the all-important marketing section. Additionally, manuals on style and crafting effective prose would be helpful for a scholar who is well versed in a specific aspect of their field, but has zero idea of how to communicate it to the general interest reader in a trade magazine. For example, Stephen B. Heard’s The Scientist’s Guide to Writing: How to Write More Easily and Effectively throughout Your Scientific Career offers practical advice for scientists looking to write clearly and effectively as a means of communicating to their chosen audience. Or, if they need help with the storytelling aspects of framing their idea, Matthew Ricketson and Caroline Graham’s Writing Feature Stories is useful for turning research into articles for generalised audiences, plus tips on how to pitch ideas to editors.
Likewise, an investigation into the world of non-profits would be an asset to aspiring grant writers. Arts administrators who must rely on grant proposals in order to obtain funding year after year have tips that would benefit researchers across the disciplines. The important thing to remember is that form matters more than content in this case. Grant writing follows a specific structure which requires clear, effective prose that summarises the scope of a particular project. For an academic working in a concentrated field of study, this may seem counter-intuitive at first. Remember that the value is in the general strategies on offer. Ellen Karsh’s The Only Grant-Writing Book You’ll Ever Need (US context, but useful more broadly) has concrete suggestions for every stage of the grant writing process with step-by-step instructions.
The value of writing resources is not only limited to professional development; it can also help with understanding individual work habits.
The most important of which is to develop a daily writing schedule. Some scholars neglect this even after years of postgraduate and postdoctoral study. Professional writers, creative or otherwise, all agree that the key to becoming a successful writer is practicing the craft almost every day.
Developing a daily writing schedule is of utmost importance when it comes to writing well. Think of it as a muscle: left alone, it can become flaccid, but properly exercised it can become stronger every time it’s used. This applies to all kinds of writing, whether it’s crafting academic prose or proposing a new course. This kind of information, which is well-discussed in the publishing world, is not mentioned in academic circles enough, and to great detriment.
Confident writers are those who understand their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as their work habits and areas for improvement. For example, I had low self-discipline when it came to writing. Unless I had a deadline hanging over my head, it was impossible for me to find the motivation to write at all. Even worse, I had trouble finishing once I had started, letting my critical inner voice get the better of me. I realised that my dual-headed problem of procrastination and perfectionism were rooted in fear. I was afraid that my work wouldn’t be good enough so I freezing when it came time to put words on the page. I decided I would write 500 words every day as soon as I got up in the morning. It didn’t have to be good, the goal was to just keep moving forward with the draft. I told myself could always edit later. Though I still struggle with self-doubt, I finish a lot more drafts than I used to and have improved with practice!
What are some difficulties you’ve faced as an academic and as a writer? What are some ways you are looking to improve, either in your department or your own work?