How to become a better writer

May 19, 2009 at 10:02 am Leave a comment

In the last post, I said that if you want people to read about your work, “you must strive to make your words and style as readable as you possibly can.” Okay, you answer, how exactly do I do that?

As with anything, the only way to become a better writer is to practice writing. Think about the first time (or first several times) you tried to run an experiment or write computer code. I’m guessing the results were far from perfect – and you probably didn’t expect them to be. You instinctively knew you would have try many, many times before you got good enough to achieve the outcome you wanted.

With writing, however, people seem to forget – or even dismiss – this basic need to practice. After not writing anything for months, they sit down one day to compose a proposal or a paper, and wonder why the writing comes so hard. Unfortunately, these struggles often lead people to conclude that they simply cannot write, but I don’t think that’s it. The problem is, they haven’t practiced enough.

This is why I would encourage you to write something, anything, as often as you can. Write down the results from your latest experiment and what they mean. (I’m not talking about scribbles in your lab notebook either, but an actual paragraph like you’d write for a journal article.) Or write a two-paragraph description of your research for the BACTER Web site (I’d love it if you did that; I’d even help you!).

The more you force yourself to fill a blank page with words, the easier the process will get. Plus, getting into the writing habit has another huge advantage that most people don’t appreciate: Clear writing helps clear thinking. This is one big reason why I started this blog.

Here’s what Washington University mathematician Steven Krantz has to say on writing and thought in his book, A Primer of Mathematical Writing:

“We all know that one way to work out our thoughts is to engage in an animated discussion with someone whom we respect. But you can instead, à la Descartes, have that discussion with yourself. And a useful way to do so is by writing. When I want to work out my thoughts on some topic – teaching reform, or the funding of mathematics, or the directions that future research…ought to take – I often find it useful to write a little essay on the subject. For writing forces me to express my ideas clearly and in the proper order, to fill in logical gaps, to sort out hypotheses from blind assumptions from conclusions, and to make my point forcefully and clearly.”

Give it a try.


Entry filed under: Getting started.

Know your readers, part 1 Know your readers, part 2

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Science of Scientific Writing

This article describes what readers expect when they read - and how scientific writing often violates those expectations.

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