Whenever I complain about about having to edit some writing, my wife likes to remind me that my skill at writing has improved a lot in the past few years. Not that I am great at writing now, what she is saying (in a nice way) is that my writing really sucked a few years ago. My PhD advisors were largely unavailable in the months leading up to submission of my thesis and I was lucky to have her help with a lot of the editing.
Why has my writing improved from terrible to passable? Well you could put it down to the practice I have had smacking the keyboard since graduating, having written more papers and grants than during my PhD. I also write more regularly now (every day). You need to write regularly to get better, just like you need to run regularly to get fit. Many professionals recommend writing every day, usually in your best working hours, to maximise efficiency.
While regular writing has certainly improved my productivity, I don’t think it’s the whole reason I have improved my writing skill. In fact, if all I did was write papers, my writing would probably be much the same as it was a few years ago.
I think the reason I have improved at writing is that I have been writing like a runner trains. Writing like a runner wasn’t a deliberate choice, I stumbled on the approach by accident. But now I know it works I advise students to do the same. So here’s the logic.
If you are training to run a mid-distance race, like 10kms, you shouldn’t just go out and run 10ks every second day. If you run long distances slowly as training then you will run the race slowly too.
Looking back at my times in parkrun, a weekly running event I attend semi-periodically, I don’t see any improvement. Probably because I usually just go out for long runs at a comfortable pace and never practice sprinting.
A better training schedule is to break up some longer distance runs with interval sprint training. Say every second training session you do sprints in intervals. Then you develop both the endurance required for longer events and a faster pace.
So how does running training apply to improving your writing?
Well I think writing papers is analogous to long distance endurance running. It usually takes a long time, you slog over accurately putting methods and findings into words, carefully explaining the study’s implications and ensuring you have used all the appropriate references.
Most of the writing practice we get in our PhDs is doing the long slow writing of papers and our thesis. That is like only running long-distances. You need to do some sprint writing too.
Sprint writing is one reason I blog. Blogging is fast paced writing. You have an idea, you write it down, edit it once and post it. That’s it. No slogging over finding references, or carefully rewording sentences to get perfect flow (maybe it shows here?).
Another way to think about diversity in training your writing is to think about what ‘better writing means’. You can think about better writing in broadly two ways: First, better could mean writing of a higher quality, such as more accurately describing your findings, or creating a more cohesive story. Or you could also be better at writing by writing at the same quality, but doing so faster. To learn to write faster, you need to practice writing faster! Now, I wouldn’t generally advise trying to write papers faster, at least initially. If you make mistakes in papers, that could hurt your reputation. So you need to find another outlet. Blogging is one way to have an outlet for your writing.
The second thing I did to improve my writing since graduating was seek professional help. Good runners employ trainers, so why shouldn’t we too. After all, as Joshua Schimel has said, scientists are professional writers. Well I didn’t employ anyone exactly, but I did read Schimel’s book and practice his exercises. I would say there was almost an overnight improvement in my writing (I think my wife agrees).
Another problem with trying to improve your writing by writing papers alone is that feedback is typically slow and far between. Psychology tells us that the easiest skills to learn are those were we get instant feedback. Like running or dancing with a trainer who videos you and then critiques your style as you watch the playback.
In our group we have recently initiated weekly get togethers to critique each others writing. The idea is to get more frequent feedback on new writing without having to wait to make it through co-author’s inboxes. The sessions have been very popular and I have found, very helpful.
Incidentally, runners who have a diverse training schedule are also less prone to injury. I speculate that there is an analogue in academic writing. If you do more varied styles of writing you are less likely to burn-out on writing and give up altogether.
I actually thought of this blog while I was out on a long slow run this afternoon. The idea inspired and I threw a few sprints into my run. Hopefully I can bring this idea full circle and improve my running times too.