Improve Your Writing Skills by Writing “Less Badly”

Minolta DSCA few days ago, I was talking with a member of my swim class about our backgrounds. It turns out he assists his partner with writing best-selling horror novels.

When I mentioned this blog, he perked up and asked whether I intended to turn it into a book. I laughed, of course, as I don’t imagine myself as a writer–or at least, I recognize the need to improve my writing in order to write something people might actually purchase.

With writing on my mind, I came across an exceptional article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, with an even better title:

10 Tips on Writing Less Badly

Written by Michael C. Munger, a faculty member and university administrator in political science, I wasn’t sure that the tips offered would resonate with scientists. Now having read it, I see it as a trove for any writer, regardless of discipline. Following are Munger’s 10 tips:

1. Writing is an exercise.

I have heard a similar recommendation in past writing workshops and articles: write often. Don’t wait for a big submission to start working on your writing. Try writing several times per week, regardless of where you are with your current project.

2. Set goals based on output, not input.

I appreciate Munger’s example here: set a page goal for yourself, rather than an hourly goal. That is, assign yourself 3 typed pages and stop when you have reached that point, rather than assigning yourself 3 hours of writing without a concrete goal in mind.

3. Find a voice; don’t just ‘get published.’

While publishing is the most widely accepted measure of success in science, it is important that you allow yourself some time to write on topics of interest, whether these topics will lead to publication or not.

4. Give yourself time.

Here, Munger focuses on the process of writing. It takes time to generate ideas, think through them, bounce them off of other people, and to struggle through getting them down on paper. As Munger says, “Don’t worry that what you write is not very good and isn’t immediately usable. You get ideas when you write; you don’t just write down ideas.”

5. Everyone’s unwritten work is brilliant.

And the more unwritten it is, the more brilliant it is. This particular tip made me laugh out loud, as I often fantasize about signing my best-sellers in bookstores across the country. HA! Rather than fantasizing about work that could be great, Munger encourages writers to keep writing and not be discouraged by feelings of inadequacy.

6. Pick a puzzle.

Consider approaching your work as a puzzle that needs to be solved – and that your written solution to that puzzle is one that would incite readers to learn more.

7. Write, then squeeze the other things in.

This tip spoke to me as well, as I struggle with procrastination and tend to put off work that is difficult for me. Munger urges writers to put writing ahead of other work – and to enjoy other activities once your writing for the day is done.

8. Not all of your thoughts are profound.

What? Of course they are! Ok, so they are not, though I can obsess over uncovering the next big topic in scientific career development. Munger suggests that writers start small and write regularly. Through this process, writers may find it easier to refine questions and to bring arguments together.

9. Your most profound thoughts are often wrong.

Again, Munger is clearly not talking about me or you here. However, I think his advice is sage: “Nearly all of the best scholars are profoundly changed by their experiences in doing research and writing about it. They learn by doing, and sometimes what they learn is that they were wrong.”

10. Edit your work, over and over.

Early in my career, I struggled with sharing my writing with others, but have come to rely on the input of others, as I feel it nearly always strengthens my work. I frequently ask for feedback from colleagues, and have recently joined an online writing critique group. Consider doing the same to improve your work, as it will get stronger with every edit.

I hope that these tips have inspired you to start writing more. I know that they have proven helpful to me, even in writing this post. Cheers, Dr. Munger!

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