Cultivating the Art of Writing

Eva Lantsoght
12 dec ’13

Let's talk about the nitty-gritty of academia today. If you are thinking about applying to PhD programs (in the Netherlands, or any other place in the world), you'll need to be ready to roll up your sleeves and type and type until your keyboard comes apart. If you are a seasoned researcher, you know that writing is important, and today's post can help you get your focus clear.

Writing is a skill that I always considered very important. However, when Cal Newport from Study Hacks did the math to determine what makes a successful career in science, and found out that it your number of published papers, and how often they are cited, I realized that, more than anything, writing is what matters in academia.

To understand writing in its different aspects, I've been running the Writers' Lab series over the past year. The writers' lab series contains posts about my experiences writing my dissertation, guest posts from academics and writers from all walks of life, and other topics related to (academic) writing.

But let's say that you are a fledgling graduate student, or an early career researcher wanting to be successful in academia. the previous has shown you that, more than anything, you need to cultivate the art of writing. How do we develop the habit of writing so that we can steadily produce our reports, dissertation chapters and papers?

1. Schedule time

If you start writing a conference paper the night before the deadline, something is wrong with your planning. Research has shown that academic writers who write steadily for a certain amount of time every day, have a larger academic output than those who go for binge-writing.

If you are an (aspiring) PhD student, this means that you should continuously report your work, so that you can pull from that material later on when you need to write a paper, or for when you start writing your dissertation. If you are an early career researcher, this means that you should try to set aside chunks of writing time, preferably every day, so that you can steadily work on your publications.

2. Have a writing planning

When you schedule time consistently throughout your months and weeks, you also need to know what you want to be writing from week to week and from month to month. Make an overview of the reports, chapters and papers that you need to write, and make a planning for your writing.

PhD students, this means that you have the general overview of which chapters you will be writing when (in which year of your program), and keep space to write background reports and papers that will come up along the road.

Early career researchers, you'll need a planning for writing your journal papers. With all other responsibilities popping up in between, I understood that (when the research is done) 2 to 3 months per paper is a good estimate.

3. Write a lot

Train that writing muscle by writing a lot! It sounds like a no-brainer, but it is so important. By the way, writing e-mails and tweets doesn't count towards your "writing a lot". Develop your writing skills by writing for different audiences. Outside of academia, you can further develop your writing skills through journaling, blogging and writing fiction.

4. Learn from examples

Nothing is a better teacher than an example of a paper that you find particularly clear. Did you notice that some papers seem to take you forever to understand, and that you have to read sentences twice? That can be a sign of poor writing, more than of your poor understanding. On the other hand, do you have a paper that you find yourself nodding along, making little side calculations and sketches? Signs are that this is a clear paper. Analyze papers that you appeal to you. How is the sentence length? How much jargon did the author use? How is the structure of the paper? Learn from this example, and apply these lessons to your own work.

5. Become your own critic

It's time to grow up, folks! Nobody is going to come with a red pen and correct your writing anymore. Your adviser might help you out at the beginning of your PhD, but afterwards poor writing will just be sent to the "reject" pile. Learn to become your own critic. Analyze your sentences, analyze the flow of your paragraphs, the structure of your chapter/paper, and the visual clarity of your figures. Give your work a few weeks of rest, and then return with the sharpest eyes.

6. Figures are part of writing too

When we think about writing, we think about words and sentences. Writing is more than that, however. When we ski through a paper, we typically read the abstract, introduction, conclusions and then glance over the figures. As such, figures are a vital part of our writing. Learn how to draw clear figures (admittedly, I still struggle with this area of my writing). For good references on visual information, check out Edward Tufte's books.

7. Revise profoundly

Revising your work is something that needs to be scheduled too. Don't just make a planning based on the time it takes to write your first draft, but plan time for editing, for letting your work rest, and for discussing it with others. What I learned last year, is that editing my dissertation took twice as much time as writing the first draft. Even though I had major parts of my dissertation in conference papers and reports, revising still took much more time than I could have imagined.

When your writing does not flow, erase an entire paragraph, define the message you want to convey in that paragraph (you can do this by talking out loud: "I want this paragraph do describe such and such based on X and Y"), and then rewrite your entire paragraph. Don't be afraid of wiping out text here and there and starting over new. Instead, know that this is an essential step in moving your writing forwards and towards higher quality.

8. Write with others

As a PhD student, you will mostly be writing with your adviser and committee members. But, if possible, try to broaden your pool of co-authors. You might reach out at conferences to fellow researchers, with whom you might like to work on a publication. When you are exposed to other writers, from different institutions, you will learn from their writing styles, and your own writing will mature as well. Break out of the confinement of your fixed group of co-authors and actively seek cooperation across institutions, countries and disciplines.

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