Improving Your Writing Skills

September 29, 2014

Picture of a stick figure holding a big pen. Image courtesy of Microsoft Images.Employers almost always seek candidates with strong communication skills. In a world where much of our interactions are digital, written communication skills take precedence. Maybe you have always struggled with writing, or maybe you have to write in a language that is not your native tongue. Whatever the case may be, writing can be difficult for many. However, as it is a critical skill, it is important that you keep working to improve.

How can you improve your writing skills?

  1. Practice, Practice, Practice.

    The first answer is simple in theory, but not in practice. Writing is a skill. Like most other skills, it is perfected through committed practice. Most writing workshops and articles agree: write often. Additionally, it is important to measure your progress – word by word, sentence by sentence, and page by page. Set a manageable and measurable goal; for example, “I will write three pages of my dissertation each day.” 

    Perhaps you are no longer a student or writing is not a major task in your job description. Maybe you don’t feel like your daily responsibilities allow you to further hone your writing skills. If this is the case, it will be even more important for you to seek opportunities to do so. Volunteer to write articles for your institution’s newsletter or periodicals. Enroll in classes or workshops that will provide you with a structured time and place to work on your writing. The Writer’s Center is a local organization which focuses on in-person writing workshops in Bethesda. There are also many online writing workshops such as Gotham Writers, and don’t forget to take advantage of the educational world’s newest initiative – MOOCs. Many schools and programs offer Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) on a variety of topics. You can view the full schedule at: https://www.edx.org/ . UC Berkeley has a class in progress now which might be of particular interest: Principles of Written English, Part 1.

  1. The second answer is by asking for feedback/help.

    Some people struggle with sharing their writing with others, but remember that being able to receive constructive criticism is an important part of strengthening your writing skills. Most universities have school writing centers with trained tutors to help you out. At the NIH, you should check with your specific institute to see if they offer trainees scientific document-editing services. Also, career counselors at the OITE are available to help provide input on written documents like your cover letters or personal statements.

  2. Offer up your editing help.

    Editing other people’s work can help you do a better job of critiquing and improving your own work. It gives you insight into common mistakes, which you might be making yourself, and it helps to expand your vocabulary and your knowledge of different writing styles.

You never know when you might be called upon to write a grant application, a report, part of a press release, or even a perfectly crafted cover letter for a job application. Whatever the situation, strengthening your writing skills now will enable you to communicate with clarity and ease to a wide variety of future audiences.

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Improve Your Writing Skills by Writing “Less Badly”

September 9, 2010

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!