Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing.
I’m sure part of it is because I just turned in my thesis, the longest written work I’ve ever completed. Another part, I’m sure, is my recent decision to go to grad school for science writing. While I’ve always enjoyed writing, I still find it difficult enough that it’s strange and terrifying to think I may soon do it for a living.
But even if you’re not taking that crazy leap like me, writing is a necessary part of research (among many, many other things). And like every other skill, writing only gets better through practice. But how you practice matters, and so — while much of the advice below can be summed up as “just keep writing, all the time” — here are three particular strategies that have worked for me.
If you’re stuck, just keep writing. There’s a lot of advice out there about how to make sure you have the best outline (and writing really is easier when you’re fleshing out an outline instead of pushing ahead blindly without any guidance). But even an outline can sometimes feel like too big of a step when you’re faced with the blank page.
When that happens, it helps to get something – literally anything – down on the page in front of you. Even if it doesn’t make it into your paper, it helps to get the creative juices flowing. On occasion, I’ll write down ideas that seem entirely irrelevant to the paper or article I’m trying to write. Sometimes it turns out they aren’t irrelevant, and I just needed a new perspective. Sometimes they will be irrelevant, and I’ll use them for something else, or not at all. But just getting into the act of writing — whether as part of a specific project or just as a creative habit – is essential to moving your skills, and the task at hand, forward.
Write something awful
When you write down just about anything that comes to your head, some of it will inevitably be bad. Not revise-and-it’s-okay bad, but just plain awful. You can feel when you’re writing something awful, and that can make continuing to write difficult.
But just because the writing is bad doesn’t mean it lacks novel insights or exciting potential. Perhaps you can’t find it, but a fresh pair of eyes can. Editors – whether research mentors, writing center fellows, or helpful friends – can help see through the mess and pry out what you’re trying to say. And the more your work is edited, the better you’ll get at prying that out yourself.
There are so many different kinds of writing out there. These days, it seems like everyone has a blog. I’ve met professors here, like Michael Graziano, who write everything from science fiction to children’s books. Ta-Nehisi Coates, renowned writer on national issues for The Atlantic, recently tried his hand at an entirely different medium – the new run of Marvel’s Black Panther comics. Writing dialogue, action, and exposition for the super-suited king of the fictional country Wakanda is an entirely different process than writing essays for the The Atlantic, but Coates has said that writing Black Panther has expanded his skills and experience of language, making him a better writer.
I haven’t tried comics, and I prefer to forget my high-school experiments with writing Sci-Fi; but I do, whenever I get the chance, write poetry – and that has improved all of my writing (even my exceptionally-non-poetic thesis). Mind you, I don’t use symbolic or poetic language to describe the protocol for a fluorescent assay or the results of a Western blot. But poetry has taught me to control and stretch my language in ways that academic writing can’t teach. Any medium can teach you something new.
How did I become a writer, then? Really, it was quite simple – I didn’t stop writing.
— Bennett McIntosh, Natural Sciences Correspondent