“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” – Ernest Hemingway
Being confident in your ability to formulate thoughts into words that end up as coherent text on paper is a necessary skill for succeeding in your graduate career, to say nothing of life beyond. Yet many students view good writing not as a skill—that is, something that can be learned—but as a blessing gifted to the fortunate few: like winning the lottery or having nice hair.
But as your incoming APAGS Member-at-Large, Research/Academic Focus , I’m here to tell you that writing is a skill, and becoming a better writer takes little more than practice, dedication, and time. As communicating ideas through writing is an essential aspect of psychological science, I’ve assembled some tips for how to become a better scientific writer below. They may not make academic life effortless, but they do a pretty good job at stopping the bleeding.
- Write what you mean…
Seems pretty simple, right? More often than not though we find ourselves knee-deep in word-muck at the end of our third paragraph, unable to decipher which variable we hypothesized to predict what outcome. At the outset, it is very easy to get wrapped up in jargon so write exactly what you mean, even if it sounds (at first blush) like a kindergartner wrote your introduction. You can always go back through your writing a second time to polish it up, but the single most important thing in writing is to manifest readable content.
2. …and mean what you say
Aim to make every sentence meaningful; that is, if there is no message behind the words, it likely can be deleted. Delete repetitive ideas and information not central to your topic. Every sentence should pack a punch.
3. Start writing by reading
It’s a little known secret that great writers are great readers. The elusive “writers ear” is picked up through exposure to norms. So if you’re ever stuck on how to approach a new piece of material, pick out several books or articles in that field to get a feel of how others write. Make sure to find examples where authors clearly present their ideas, and where others struggle. Comparing and contrasting approaches will help you form your own style.
4. Go into the process knowing that there will be multiple drafts
The fear of writing well can be easily overcome by recognizing, up front, that you will complete multiple intermittent drafts. In short, take the pressure off. Write a first draft that is sloppy, cringe-worthy, and barely comprehensible – but that is complete. Then take a break (a minute, hour, or day will do) and revisit your work. The job of the first draft is to let go of the emotions that writing builds up inside of us, the most common of which is fear that things won’t turn out exactly “right”. Get past this by acknowledging that no first draft is ever perfect.
5. Write every day
This is a common tip for becoming a better writer and speaks to the fact that you cannot become a better writer if you don’t practice. Make writing a daily habit, like checking e-mail. I bet you’re really good at navigating your Inbox, right? I wonder how that happened …
6. Welcome critical feedback … and try not to take it personally
Getting feedback on your work is vital to advancing your career; therefore, it is a necessary (yes, necessary) step in your writing process. Ask advisers, mentors, peers, best friends and parents to read your work and welcome their critique with an open mind. In this way you will learn about how your own writing style is—and is not—clear. While this process can be scary, note that critical feedback is, and should be, about the writing you produce. It is not a reflection on your worth as a student, researcher, or person.
Jacklynn Fitzgerald currently serves as the APAGS Member-at-Large, Research and Academic Focus and is a 5th-year graduate student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Department of Psychology, Behavioral Neuroscience program. Jacklynn’s research aims to better understand neural functioning during emotion dysregulation following psychological trauma and in those with PTSD using fMRI and EEG methods. Outside of the lab she considers ways training in psychological science can be improved, and is committed to advancing under-represented students in the sciences, particularly women. She can be contacted here.