Toward Good Writing

Toward Good Writing
Photo by Luca Laurence / Unsplash

To be a successful researcher, you need to be at least an okay writer. You cannot be a bad writer. But weirdly, you don't need to be a good writer.

In grad school, most researchers are sufficiently motivated to grow from bad to okay writers. Yet growth often stops there, with few of us (including me) growing into good writers. Let me differentiate what I mean by bad, okay, and good writers.

Okay writers write well enough to defend dissertations and land academic jobs. They communicate important and complex ideas in ways that make sense. They learn the tricks of the trade, stick with the style, and use the right jargon.

Okay writers should be proud. Their scholarly communities take them seriously. They get papers published and grants funded. They make meaningful marks on their literature. They're in the game.

Bad writers, in contrast, do none of those things. They can't quite learn the trade or clear the bar, so they're writing is "rejected" (I hate that term) by their scholarly communities. They never get off the bench.

Grad school conditions are usually motivating enough to help researchers grow from bad to okay writers. This growth is probably driven largely by negative reinforcement, which is unfortunate. But grad school helps most people, most of the time, get in the game.

I've been a researcher for 15 years (counting grad school) and have a good number of publications. If you read me, you'll see I'm an okay writer; I thank grad school for that. I've also trained grad students who turned out to be okay writers; and I'm proud of that.

When I read my writing, however, I'm dissatisfied with it. Same when I read my grad students' writing. I know it's okay, but I want it to be good.

Photo by Daniel Thomas / Unsplash

Good writers do everything okay writers do and then some. Their writing makes sense and fits the mold—but it's also clear and interesting and enjoyable to read. They communicate important and complex ideas—and they do so in ways that entice and engage readers. They make marks on their literature while also impressing readers.

For me, the way to tell the difference between okay and good writing is to notice how I feel when reading it. Okay writing feels heavy and sleepy. Good writing feels light and refreshing. When I finish an okay paper, I'm worn out. When I finish a good paper, I'm energized.

Unfortunately, academia doesn't incentivize good writing. Good writers don't necessarily get more publications or citations or grants than okay writers. But I suspect they get read more because people like reading them more. I also have a hunch they get read more in whole: instead of skimming for the gist, their work gets read all the way through.

And that's really why I want to be a good writer. Not because I'll get more academic rewards, but because I want others to like reading me more. And I want them to read me all the way through.

Maybe someday academia will value and incentivize good writing. Grad school mentors will train students to write in ways that researchers actually like reading. Journal editors and peer reviewers will give feedback on improving the feel or likability of manuscripts. Somebody will develop a reading likability metric—the L-index—that everybody puts on their CVs to show off growth toward good writing.

Yet that day is not today. So, in the meantime, how can I get you to like reading me and my grad students more? How can I grow toward good writing?

I took these questions to Twitter and got some helpful answers.

Most people recommended reading books on the topic. Turns out there's a lot of writing about how to do good academic, science, and psychology writing, most of which I haven't read. Here are the recommendations:

On top of that list, I'll add the few I've read recently that are worthwhile:

Many folks endorsed parts of what I'll call the RDF method: reading (R) lots of writing, doing (D) lots of writing, and getting lots of feedback (F) from others about your writing.

Other resources people recommended were a free online course on science writing and smart web apps for self-editing: Grammarly and Hemmingway Editor. Some suggested finding real people—mentors or paid editors or peers—to do the things the web apps do. There were also one-off recommendations for doing peer reviews, teaching writing to undergrads, and blogging.

I don't know which of the above might be most useful for helping me grow toward good writing, for helping me and my grad students write in ways that you like reading. But I plan to give most a fair shake to find out.

I'll also keep hoping that academia will come around to valuing and incentivizing good writing. Becaues that's the only surefire way to help us all like reading each other more than we do now. ▲