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.