I have recently become aware of a very unpleasant fact: I am a terrible writer. At least, I’m a terrible academic writer. This awareness has built in progressively, but it reached a peak last weekend, when I had to write the final draft of an essay for class.
I have been aware of this weakness for a while. I just find it difficult to be succinct and synthetic (I guess this is obvious from my style writing in this blog), avoid grammar mistakes, and keep my sentences readable. I even face this ‘far too long sentence‘ bias when writing mails. For me, it is just much more natural to write in French or Spanish.
I also think that most successful research is, at least by 30% percent, about framing, about making it attractive and selling it properly. I recently attended a talk in a workshop. The speaker did not do anything terrific. Most of the contribution was just the data collection and a small conjoint experiment. But I came out of the talk feeling that it was, by far, one of the best talks I have seen in the last year and a half. Why? The framing, the talk, speaking skills were great -it did not hurt that the topic was of substantial interest to me, of course.
Becoming aware of these two facts simultaneously -the importance of writing well and what a terrible writer I am- is of course a very depressing prospect. My girlfriend said she thought, from reading my blog, that I am not that bad a writer (I think she is sincere on this one, she has a rather tough-love style to communicate these things in general). But that was hardly a reason to feel better, since a) she also a non-native speaker, and finds my Spanish transplanted structures much more natural and b) the tone and structure of a blog is very different than that of an academic paper. One of the areas I have problems with is in trying to control how formal I am being, how many words I use to communicate a single idea, etc. Here, you see, I have been writing now for 20 minutes without really saying anything.
I guess I should practice. That is what people suggest, you should practice. But in grad school, at least if you do the kind of work I do, there are less opportunities for writing than you may think. My workflow is only about writing in the very end- which arguably is also a problem which I should correct. Consider this back of the enveloppe calculation. Say that I take three classes per semester, and that I have, at most, two writing assignments per class. For each paper, until now, I started writing the results at most five days before the deadline (yeah, working under stress and so on). That means that in two years, I will gone through, at the very best, 24 writing pieces, with an average of 3 days writing per piece, which makes an overly optimistic upper bound of 74 days, that is, two months and a half out of 24, in the period of my academic life in which I am most likely to be writing most. I believe, however, that given that many of my classes have been methods/statistics classes, and that 2 essays per class is a much too optimistic prospect, the real time is likely to be about half of this. Given that, as I was saying, I believe that at the very least your presentation skills (not just writing, but story-telling, thinking hard about your idea) are about 30% of what makes your research quotable, this seems really small to catch up for a non-native speaker.
I would like to take advantage of any writing opportunity to try to do it well. This means editing my writing as much as possible. Trying to pay attention to how I write, whether it is easy to read, etc. And, above all, trying to be more synthetic. I used this essay last weekend to start doing this. The result was horrible. I finished my first draft on Friday, and edited it every day until the deadline on Wednesday. Every single day I felt I had to do minor to medium editing. When I was analyzing my writing and trying to pay attention to what I do right and wrong, it was particularly painful to discover that I was incurring is the very same vices and biases that I usually criticize. It took an awfully large amount of time to do it. Eventually, I missed a deadline for another class that was completely crowded out of my span of attention.
I have a similar problem with reading fast. This is particularly obvious to me when I try to read books in French or Spanish and my reading speed doubles or triples. And this, in spite of the fact that I almost don’t read anything not written in English these days.
Moreover, there seems to be little hope for improvement and catch up. I have got in a stage where I am completely blind to my mistakes and left of my own. People are polite and do not correct you, so I am not aware of my mistakes. And when they do, it takes the form of a general comment about my writing/language skills, which does not help to improve any particular point.
I am determined to start using this blog to practice my writing, and do it more often, and this post is a form of commitment. I am reading a lot these days, so I may just issue some comment on pieces I read or perhaps report some data results. Hopefully something will come out.