Why must academics be good writers?

Dr Daniel Soule
6 March 2017
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Mo Harber-Lamond

We often overlook the importance of good writing skills when it comes to journal articles and research papers. To introduce our new Writing for Academic Publication course, we spoke to course director Dr Dan Soule about why good writing is essential.

  • Understand the journal-publication process
  • Target journals more accurately
  • Plan more effectively
  • Write more efficiently
Writing for Academic Publication course

Christina Bunce – Hi, I’m Christina from Professional Writing Academy, and I’m here with Dr Daniel Soule, who is the course director of our Writing for Academic Publication course. Hi Dan!

Dr Daniel Soule – Hi Christina.

CB – Dan, imagine that I’m a career academic, just starting out in my career. I’m excited about being published, and getting my work out to a wider audience. Why do I need a course in how to write? I know what I’m doing.

DS – You might know what you’re doing, or you might think you know what you’re doing. Most people struggle with writing to some extent — they experience procrastination, or problems with having to deal with far too much data and not knowing where to start. Most academics are used to getting rejected, and the number one reason for getting rejected is lack of focus in the paper, and that happens across all disciplines.

There’s a lot you can learn about how to target and focus a journal, about the process of writing to make it more efficient, and also, a lot of people don’t actually enjoy writing, which is a major problem if you’re going to be spend a lot of your career writing. You’re going to have a lot of time being miserable, and that’s not an ideal situation either.

So, what we’re trying to attend to in this series is how to write productively. A large part of being productive is enjoying writing a lot more, and having focused strategies for producing effective plans, dealing with large amounts of data, and everything in between.

If you’ve never thought about what constitutes writing a really good paragraph, you’ve probably never done it.

Dan Soule

CB – Thanks, Dan. Do you think this will help speed up the writing process? Because you’re right, I’m not that keen on the writing, although I enjoy the thinking. Will this help me to get more efficient at producing these papers?

DS – Definitely. Especially if you’re early on in your career, my experience is that what happens to a lot of people is they bring writing strategies across from undergraduate degrees and masters, that were successful at that level. They’re successful at doing very different types of writing tasks, however. You’ve been writing short documents where someone has set the task for you, they’ve given you the question, framed the activity, and very often they’ve given you a reading list. They also give you a deadline with a sanction. All of these are very helpful for getting you to write effectively.

When you get to a postgraduate, or postdoctoral level, none of those things apply. There’s no real deadline or sanction, the reading list might as well be infinite, there’s no specific framework by which you’re assessed, and the texts are much longer. Even in a practical sense, like how most people produce plans — on the back of an envelope with a list of subheadings with some bullet points underneath them. That’s a good mnemonic if you’re writing a 2,000-word essay. It’s not particularly good if you’re trying to write an 8,000-word research paper, where you have to design everything about the paper. Why is it relevant? What are you adding that’s new? It might also be based on an absolutely huge data set.

Those kind of brief frameworks just aren’t fit for purpose, and that’s just one practical example about why the writing process becomes hard. It might also be your first time being a truly creative writer, and a lot of academics don’t think of themselves as creative writers. You have to produce everything.

Most things are hard to write, but if you have a set of principles, then it can be a more enjoyable activity.

Dan Soule

CB – So, not only will I get it done, but I’ll enjoy it, and become more creative in the process?

DS – Well, yes! One of the ways I think about writing is like playing a game. Most of us play the game without knowing the rules. Creative writers might balk at that, but essentially, I use this game as almost a psychological trick.

If you’ve never thought about how to write a fantastic first line, or last line, or what constitutes writing a really good paragraph, you’ve probably never done it. You’re like one of the infinite monkeys at typewriters. It’s possible you’ll write Shakespeare — it’s just highly unlikely. If you design an algorithm, or design the rules of a game, if you like — what four things constitute a good first sentence, how do they work, how does the first sentence relate to the title, or the contribution of the paper, etc. Once you start working out those dynamics, you can design how you play the game.

Why that’s useful is, psychologically, even when you play the game badly, it’s feedback. You know how to fix it. It’s not some existential problem, and you’re not saying to yourself ‘I’m such a terrible writer, why do I find introductions so hard to write’. Everyone finds them hard to write. They’re technical. Discussions are hard to write. Most things are hard to write, but if you have a set of principles, then it can be a more enjoyable activity.

CB – That’s fantastic, thanks Dan. Of course, feedback is what you get plenty of if you take Dan’s course, Writing for Academic Publication.

 

Dr Daniel Soule

Dr Daniel Soule is a freelance academic and director of Grammatology, a training organisation specialising in supporting academic researchers as they write and publish.

Dan has 10 years experience of academic and research-writing training in universities and other research institutions, and has helped thousands of postgraduates and research staff write complex documents including research articles, theses and dissertations for academic, lay and popular audiences.

Dan received his PhD from the University of Glasgow and has been both a research fellow for at a multi-university research consortia as well as a lecturer for more than five years at Glasgow Caledonian University. He now works in universities, clinical and research settings across the UK, Ireland and Norway, including Russell Group universities and national graduate Schools. He’s both a published researcher, with a monograph and research papers, as well as a creative writer, with many short stories, poems and non-fiction essays and reviews.

Writing for Academic Publication

Begins: 29 January 2018