Doing Something Crazy: A Blog Series on Writing Well
A few months back, I decided to do something crazy. No, I didn’t sky dive (I’ve done that already). No, I didn’t wander out of a Beijing airport at 2am, totally jetlagged and confused, hoping I understood what I had been told to do (I’ve done that too). And no, I didn’t have a baby and then fly with said 3-week-old baby and her toddler sister to Oxford for 5 weeks (yep, I’ve done that crazy thing, too). This time I did something truly audacious: I sat down to write a three-part blog series on writing well, with the goal of helping my students (you!) think about research writing not as a chore to be dreaded (avoided, and finally—at the very last minute—begrudgingly completed) but instead as an opportunity to develop the skills required to turn ideas into words that inspire action and world change. Of the things I’ve listed in this paragraph, I’m not sure what the craziest item is.
What I had originally set out to do in three blog posts is now eight (nine if you count this one). And, if I’m honest, I haven’t even said all the things I wanted to. But I still think that what I’ve done is crazy—and it just might be helpful. So, I wanted to spend a few more sentences outlining what to expect in this blog series. I will end with an invitation for you.
In the first two blogs, I focus on some topics around orienting yourself to the task of writing. First, I address the question of what scientific writing is (hint: if you are reading this blog on this research website, you are likely have/are going to engage scientific writing at some point in your educational or professional career). Second, I explore two characteristics of effective science writers, characteristics that promote the skill development of writing well.
In blogs three and four, I zoom in a bit and tackle how scientific papers are organized. Blog three covers the purpose of the different sections of an APA style research paper and blog four tackles how to organize a literature review of research as a stand-alone paper. For all things, including writing, I firmly believe that when we understand the purpose of something, we can engage in a way that increases the likelihood of fulfilling that purpose. In science writing, fulfilling the purpose includes clear and effective communication of discovery (e.g., what things are really like, why the world works the way it does), because discovery is the plotline of science.
From there, blogs five through eight take a bit of a nosedive into the weeds of writing. I provide 4 examples of tools that I use in my own writing. I take the case example of a paper I recently wrote, a literature review, and I show a few of my steps from start to finish. I tell you about my Dear Mom Draft; I show you how I organize my early literature review search of research articles to deepen my understanding and preparation to start writing; I give you a peek inside my method for editing—especially how I go about deleting sentences that I know need to go but that are hard to let go of; I underscore how the writing process is the thinking process—revision isn’t just for more clarity of phrase, but for clarity of thought.
Across all these blogs, my goal is to reinforce a basic truth about writing: it is a skill that is developed with practice. I hope that, across these blogs, you’ll be better prepared to engage in the practice of writing well and that you might learn a few tools that are useful in your own skill development.
There are, of course, many other issues (tools, obstacles, ideas) about writing well that these blogs don’t cover. For example, I didn’t talk at all about reading as a fundamental to good writing (it is!) or specifics of focusing a research question and searching library databases for good sources (key concerns!). Another big one mentioned by a student of mine that I don’t really address is how to maintain motivation to write in the face of waning enthusiasm (and an approaching deadline). Perhaps I’ll take these up in another miniseries which I might call revenge of the writing well blog.
Between now and the revenge, as these blogs go live over the coming weeks, I want to issue you an invitation. I invite you to engage these blogs as opportunities for your own development. Writing well is not just about the research, it’s about the world change that comes with effective communication and clear thinking. Sure, this might not come out of that paper you are writing for your class, but the skills that you are practicing may just prepare you to be able to do just that. In addition to this long-term invitation, I want to know at the outset: what is it about writing well that you want to learn more about?
3/7/2022 Update: The University Writing Center, an excellent CBU resource for developing your writing skills, has also contributed their thoughts as a continuation of this blog series. You can (and should) check that blog out here.
Greetings Dr. Smith,
I accept this long-term goal into reading your blogs in order to get more insight into writing. Writing for me personally has always been a struggle, as I have lost the motivation to write or struggle with grammar and spelling. I am eager to learn more about how to improve myself in this category with a greater understanding of the art of research.
Thank you always for enlightening us about writing.
Lawrence-so glad to have you along for the journey! Please feel free to ask questions or share your thoughts on what you’d like to hear more about; I hope you find this series helpful in your development.
I’m looking forward to this blog series, Dr. Smith! The topics you mentioned will be important for both me and my students.
Thank you, Dr. Vazquez! I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts too; I have learned the most about writing when I work collaboratively. There is something really important and special about thinking *with* others.
Hi Dr. Smith!
Long time no see 😉
I wanted to personally thank you for having this idea of creating a blog series that is intended to help students learn about scientific writing! I know how hard you have worked on these blogs and it doesn’t go unnoticed. The way you take your time to really explain each topic with metaphors or examples with your own experience (which is beneficial to not only students, but also faculty) that make you more relatable, makes your blogs more meaningful. Thank you for your hard work as it is much appreciated!
Sioanna: Thank you! Your comment is very much appreciated.
Whenever I read a syllabus that mentions there is going to be a writing assignment, immediate dread and panic sets in. I have never been one who enjoys writing for any particular class, as I struggle immensely to get my jumbled thoughts to make sense on paper. So in efforts in overcoming those feelings, I am accepting your invitation and coming along for this blog series. Hopefully it will be thing that turns around writing for me. Thanks Dr. Smith!
Take a look at the Dear Mom Blog in this series to get an idea about how to start getting ink (digital or real) on paper for these kinds of assignments!