My experience being a terrible writer in academia

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.

My experience being a terrible writer in academia

2 thoughts on “My experience being a terrible writer in academia

  1. Pablo Fernandez-Vazquez says:

    Hi Luis, here are two pieces of advice that I have found useful. First, paragraph structure is vital. I have learned to start paragraphs with a short sentence that conveys the meaning of what I want to show. The elaboration goes in the middle, and the last sentence wraps everything up. Second, sentences need to be short. If they feel long and convoluted when you read them out loud, then there is room to cut them. I have found George Orwell’s 6 rules useful for this purpose:


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