Writing a Lot in Academia

by on 22nd of January, 2009 in Writing, Publishing & Presenting
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About Dan Rhoads
Dan is a postdoc working at the University of Cyprus in developmental biology. He has a BSc in molecular biology and a PhD pharmacology and biochemistry.

We all know that surviving in the publish-or-perish world of academia requires that we write a lot. For myself, I view blog-writing as a form of writing practice — I used to really suck at it. Okay, actually I still get stuck sometimes when trying to write, especially for grants.

So, psyching myself up for a new postdoc position, I went out and got a copy of Paul J. Silvia’s book How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing, wondering if writing experts had any helpful suggestions.

Medium ImageReading through Silvia’s book, it occurred to me that while building a set of habits is much needed for academic writing (which the book does rather well), writing for science-related reasons really shouldn’t be as frightening as some might make it out to be. One passage from the book echoed this impression of mine:

When people tell me they have writer’s block, I ask, “What on earth are you trying to write?” Academic writers cannot get writers block. Don’t confuse yourself with your friends teaching creative writing in the fine arts department. You’re not crafting a deep narrative or composing metaphors that expose mysteries of the human heart. The subtlety of your analysis of variance will not move readers to tears, although the tediousness of it might.

What’s more, this tedious analysis is tied to just the thing that makes you a good scientist or not: your ability to choose and plan good experiments. That’s an important thing that you have to write about — the experiments you have done and those that you want to do. And sure enough, Silvia spends a lot of time in the book talking about writing for journals and for books.

But that’s only half the story of course. You have to sell your research, especially when writing grant proposals. Grantsmanship is a skill, no doubt about it, and it’s perhaps the most difficult and stressful aspect of academic writing. You need to be shrewd in selecting a title, a popular subject, and a solid body of data to draw from. And even then, not having the most sympathetic refereeing group can really hurt.

The worst part of it is that these issues of grantsmanship aren’t so much a skill that you can teach, or learn from a book.

Some scientists have it, and others don’t.

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