Image: Adventures of Superman (1952-1958)
It’s a shame that graduate-school curriculums seldom include much formal training in the craft of writing for publication — given that success in academe often depends on publication, and publication depends, to no small degree, on the ability to write clearly and compellingly.
But complaining about this particular shortcoming of graduate education may be a waste of time. After all, formal training in writing is only part of what produces excellent prose. Many admired and highly published authors will tell you that much of what they know about writing began with their own curiosity about the nuances of the craft. Self-reflection, willingness to experiment, and a commitment to writing often make the biggest difference in improving writing skills.
The best course of action to improve your writing, then, may be to train yourself. Undertake a program of self-directed study to master the skills that separate obscure prose from writing that earns you a seat at the table of the most interesting discussions in your field. I suggest the following steps to help you teach yourself to be the kind of writer you most want to be.
Emulate Writers You Like
Think about scholars in your field. Whose work do you find most rewarding and enjoyable to read? Those are the people to model your own writing after. Then consider the genre in which you want to publish at this stage in your career. Is your top priority getting published in peer-reviewed journals? If so, identify articles in your field that have meant a great deal to you and that you feel are well written. If you are working on a book, identity two books you respect for their intellectual contribution, as well as for the clear, compelling nature of the writing.
Once you have your list of names, it’s just a matter of taking the time to reread their work — this time read not for the substance but for the style.
Find Your Voice
As you read, consider the elements of style — those aspects of the craft of writing — used by these authors that resonate with how you want to shape your own voice. Of course, that step requires knowing what you most value in terms of voice and style. In academic circles, we don’t discuss voice and style very often, so you may not have have a clear sense of the style you want to inform your own voice. Now’s the time to reflect on that.
Try to separate what your colleagues or advisers think is good writing from what you admire. There is likely to be some overlap. Most young writers spend too much time worrying about what “the field” or their advisers define as good writing — and that can drown out your innate or “gut” instincts about good writing. Those instincts are key to developing what will be distinctive about your own voice.
Eventually, you will have to consider the style of writing expected by readers of particular journals in which you’re hoping to be published. But try to table those concerns for now. Give yourself time to consciously articulate your own sense of aesthetics. Here’s one way to do that: Set a timer for 10 minutes and — writing as fast as possible (to dodge the internal “censors” we all have) — jot down what you most value in the writing style of academics you admire. Then set the timer for another 10 minutes and write down aspects of academic prose that really tick you off. Which stylistic traits frustrate you? Which ones seem to obscure rather than clarify meaning? With your two lists of likes and dislikes, you now have a starting point for articulating both what you want to avoid and what you want to emulate in your own writing style. Keep the list of desirable traits handy and add it to as you read the work of authors you admire.
If you’re like most academics, you generally read for content, to quickly grasp the argument being made and why it matters to your own research. That’s certainly a valuable skill. But reading to understand the way craft and style are used to build a compelling argument requires learning a new approach to analyzing these texts. That means focusing, not on the material, but on the way it is communicated. Explaining how to do that can be difficult, so perhaps a metaphor will help.
From Paintings to Prose
Instead of looking at a text somewhat passively — as you might examine a wonderful photograph or painting — try to tap into another aspect of your analytic ability. Look for elements of the design of these remarkable images. How does a painter draw your eye to what’s most meaningful? How does something in the background of a photograph relate to, or enrich, the meaning of what’s in the foreground?
Now try to adapt those same questions about craft to a piece of writing you admire. What kinds of phrases or signposts does the author use to clearly convey to the reader what’s most significant? Key pieces of evidence in an article or book cannot be described accurately as background, but they are the supporting material for the central claim. Again, scrutinize the types of phrases and transitions used by your favorite authors to help readers understand how the supporting material relates to the central claim.
Read Good Books On Writing
I recommend two helpful books on the craft of academic writing:
- Patricia Goodson’s Becoming an Academic Writer: 50 Exercises for Paced, Productive, and Powerful Writing offers many practical exercises.
- And Stylish Academic Writing by Helen Sword combines sophisticated lessons on the craft of telling academic stories with nitty-gritty advice on the basics of sentence structure.
In the final analysis, the ability to write clear, compelling sentences is an essential building block for making a successful academic argument.