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Cursory Advice for Writing in the Academy

Updated: Nov 7, 2019

When was the last time that you wrote anything? What was it for? Was it a class paper? A grant application? A paper for publication? Heaven forbid—a job application?

Writing can be one of the most invigorating—and demoralizing—aspects of the research process. It is a central part of conducting research and, unfortunate though this may seem to some of you, there is no escaping it. Weeding through boatloads of literature to craft an argument, finding the right words to represent your findings, and figuring out the clearest and most cogent way to interpret your results can be infuriating and exhausting. Never fear: You are not alone in this. Every scholar everywhere on the planet is working through the challenge of how to write well.

There are some great resources out there to help you target specific aspects of the writing process that you may struggle with most. Time for a plug: Read Dr. Barbara Sarnecka’s Writing Workshop Book

(available on Amazon, and soon for free as a digital print). By synthesizing lessons and materials that she has used over the course of many semesters’ worth of leading writing workshops and classes, Barbara has created a strategic roadmap for writing in the academy, from creating an Individualized Development Plan (IDP), to logging your writing hours and productivity, to honing your writing for different purposes (e.g., grants, pubs, personal statements).There are also tons of resources at the University of Maryland (and and at just about every other academic institution) at your disposal: At Maryland, the Graduate School Writing Center (5th floor of McKeldin Library), is a fantastic place to get individualized feedback from fresh eyes on your writing. This can be really helpful in refining your argument and ensuring that your writing has not gotten too jargon-y (the worst kind of sin, for general writing). In general, regardless of your institution, or the level you've achieved in the academy (lowly graduate student on up to full professor), it's helpful to have another set of eyes on the work that you produce. You read things the way that you mean them, and through the perspective of your own academic lens. Getting someone outside of your discipline, or only peripherally related, can be very helpful in ensuring that your writing is clear and understandable.

Your main takeaways here: (1) Do not be afraid to write; you do not need to show your work to anyone if you do not want to. It can be all yours, and yours alone, free from judgment or critique—even constructive critique; (2) Writing in a community is the best way to hold yourself accountable, and to create an environment of shared support (and commiseration); (3) Cliché though it may be, practice, practice, practice; like any other craft you learn, writing has to be repeated in order to be improved; and (4) Show yourself some kindness: be patient with yourself, and get in the habit of setting realistic goals for productivity. Congratulate yourself when you have met some stage-goal (I wrote three paragraphs today, yay!), because this whole endeavor is hard, and the fact that you are doing it at all is worth acknowledging. I, for one, am proud of you.


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