This post continues our series, The Smart Scholar, with a focus on improving academic writing.
As a dissertation coach I have been contacted lately by numerous prospective clients with one pressing question:
“How do I improve as an academic writer?”
As a graduate student, I too had this question—I was not initially a strong writer. However, over the years—through my own quest to improve my writing and now supporting students writing their dissertation—I have picked up on some strategies and tips to improve as an academic writer. In no way are my recommendations below the only tips and strategies, but I do think these will give you a place to start.
Simplistic writing is key
As a novice academic writer, I became mesmerized by the long, complex sentences that I read in various academic journals for class assignments. Initially I believed that to become an academic writer you needed to use complicated jargon and string together long sentences. My thought process was: if it is published, then this must be what I have to do to succeed as an academic writer.
I was completing one of my first written assignments as a graduate student and my professor wrote the following comment on the paper: “The content you are writing about is already complex, there is no need to make your writing complex also.”
Initially I did not understand my professor’s perspective and was somewhat apprehensive to the advice. However, now having an intimate understanding of both the writing and publication process, I have come to one understanding: Simplistic writing is key.
Now when I sit down to write, I look to see how I can make my writing concise and simplistic in its delivery. I believe writing with this point of view has been vastly helpful. It allows me to approach explaining complex concepts with common language that my reader can understand.
For those who are just starting out, my advice here is to use simple, concise sentences to start. You want your reader to understand what you are talking about without being distracted by the prose. As you become more advanced and confident in your writing, you can begin to incorporate some of those complex writing passages that you see published by your favorite authors.
Increase reading inside and outside of your discipline
I know from the title of this piece you were probably expecting my suggestions to be focused specifically on writing. However, I have found that in order to improve your writing, you must become an avid reader. When I tell my clients to read widely they often say something like, “I don’t have time for that if it’s not related to the assignment I need to accomplish.”
Be intentional about carving out time to read literature inside and outside of your discipline. I find that this gives you various examples of how to approach writing. From the variety of examples you read, you can begin to incorporate some of the writing styles from various authors. Additionally, reading outside your discipline provides you opportunities to learn about concepts that you would have not engaged with traditionally, which can lead to you developing new theories and insights for your field.
Find a writing partner to share drafts and discuss ideas
A key to my improvement as an academic writer was having the ability to work with a writing partner. Dr. Larry Walker, who is now an assistant professor at the University of Central Florida, was (and still is) one of my writing partners. We began this process as first year graduate students at Morgan State University and have carried it on throughout our careers. We bounce ideas off of each other and share drafts of work for critique.
In order to improve as an academic writer, it is important for you to cultivate a support structure where you can share drafts and get critiques from trusted writing partners. Having writing partners is important—you hear from various individuals to get diverse perspectives about your work. And, when sharing drafts with trusted colleagues, you can begin to adapt the strengths you see in your partner’s work into your own work.
What tips and strategies have you found to improve your own academic writing? Please share them with me on Twitter!
Author Bio: Dr. Ramon B. Goings is an assistant professor of educational leadership at Loyola University Maryland. His research examines gifted/high-achieving Black male academic success PreK-PhD, diversifying the teacher and school leader workforce, and the student experience and contributions of historically Black colleges and universities to the higher education landscape. Dr. Goings is also the founder of The Done Dissertation Coaching Program which provides individual and group dissertation coaching for doctoral students. For more information about Dr. Goings’ research please visit his website www.ramongoings.com and follow him on Twitter (@ramongoings) and for more information about The Done Dissertation Coaching Program visit www.thedonedissertation.com.