It is not absolutely necessary for you to be a good writer to get your manuscripts published—indeed, economists are living proof of this claim. Poor writing can be buried deep beneath statistical brilliance and the insight it delivers. But at the same time, good writing will never, ever hurt your chances of success, no matter what your field of study. A combination of good writing and sound science is truly the stuff of Nobel prizes. So let’s take a look at some of the top academic writing hacks.
- Read the postmodernists for an example of how not to write. I have very little, if any, patience for postmodern writing, which borders on the absurd. Many PhD students (including myself, back in the day) fall victim to this ruse. The assumption is that, the more indecipherable one’s writing, the better it must be. Pick any random sentence from Foucault’s The Order of Things or Derrida’s Dissemination and you’ll see what I mean. Beneath the syntactically chic disguise you will find little substance. Perhaps there may be some artistic merit in postmodern and poststructuralist writings (much like we may find value in poetry), but there is no scientific merit to any of it (not that postmodernists ever claimed as much anyway).
- Drown out environmental sounds with some high-quality noise-canceling headphones. You could just listen to pure, unadulterated digital silence. I often do this at home when my kids are doing what kids to best: making noise. But, for some academics, silence is not golden. If you fall into this category, then I recommend you listen to either classical music, techno, or foreign language metal (I strongly recommend Rammstein, unless you are German-speaking) while you work. Whatever you do, just don’t listen to music with decipherable lyrics because it will split your concentration.
- Schedule in walks, preferably in nature. Hours spent in front of a computer screen lead to a diminishing rate of return when it comes to the quality of your writing. Sometimes, in order to see the wood from the trees, you literally have to walk through the wood and the trees. I try to schedule at least one walk a day, during which time I can reflect on my ideas. When inspiration hits me, I voice record my thoughts so that I can listen to them later when I am back in front of my screen.
- Take it slow and get it right the first time. Some people take the “quantity over quality” approach to writing: filling the pages with a bunch of messy ideas, with the intention of going back and improving the manuscript later. I personally find this to be a huge mistake. In the long term, the extent of such revisions will by far outweigh the speed with which you write. It’s much better to take your time and produce a high-quality, well-referenced first draft. Focus on the quality of your words, not the quantity.
- Join an editorial board and volunteer to review papers on an ad hoc basis. When you spend time reading and critiquing poorly written manuscripts, you internalize the most common writing mistakes and are therefore better able to avoid them in your own writing. Yes, I’m very much aware of the time commitment involved in reviewing, but my experience is that the return on investment when it comes to the evolution of your writing is worthwhile in the long-term.
Of course, if you are a genius, your ideas (and the methods you use to express them) might well supersede the poverty of your words. But for mere mortals, a well-written manuscript can mean the difference between an acceptance or a rejection. Style can make up for lack of substance.
Professor Andrew R. Timming
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