I’ve just read an article in University Affairs (http://www.universityaffairs.ca/Article.aspx?id=112086) written by Roger Graves from the University of Alberta. If you are concerned about student writing, it is worth reading the whole article. I’m going to highlight three points that I think we can relate to our own writing.
The first point he makes is that student writing improves the more they write for multiple audiences. What we do with writing shifts and changes depending on the audience. It makes sense that if you write for different audiences, you will begin to analyse and adapt your writing to meet the audience requirements. If you only write for one audience, then there is the possibility of becoming fixed in one way of writing. So, start writing for multiple audiences. Send granny long emails about your research, write editorial pieces for the newspaper, journals often publish a variety of papers beside research papers, do book reviews on your current readings, start your own blog…!
The second point Graves makes is that writing improves with revision. For a long time, when I was a student, I thought revision was proof-reading and formatting. Writing was so hard and painful, I had no inclination to change a word once it was written. It was only when I started to ‘slap’ a draft together and then ‘fix’ it that my writing really freed up. When I say ‘slap’, I mean that I would have done the reading required and thought about the general direction of the paper but it would by no means be complete. ‘Slapping’ also involves writing quickly, without any thought of grammar, structure, or even referencing. Once the draft is on paper – no matter how short, it is easier to begin revising. I start with the overall argument and structure and then work my way down to sections and paragraphs. Sometimes it is through writing the quick draft that I finally see how the paper will work. Sometimes I have gaps between connections of thoughts/arguments and it takes quite a bit of revising to make the links clear. This way of writing gives me permission to begin writing before I feel ready and to become ready through the writing.
Graves’ third point is that writing rubrics help improve student writing. If they know how they will be assessed and evaluated, they can adapt their writing to meet those requirements. The same principles applies to us. If you know what the journal wants from submissions, or your PhD examining committee wants from your methodology chapter, it is much easier to provide ‘good’ writing. The trick is working this out. I’m not good at matching my papers to journals if I start with the paper. If I start with the journal (‘This journal will take a paper on X – I can write that paper’), I’m much more successful and it often generates ideas that I wouldn’t have thought of. To get to know the requirements, you need to get feedback on your work from others, to read sample papers/chapters and to talk to others who have more experience.
I hope today is a wonderfully productive writing day!