Writing for Beginners

Every time that a researcher/writer enters a new situation, takes on a new project, works in a different context, writes for a different audience, or collaborates with a new person, he or she has to re-evaluate his or her writing style. I am constantly thinking about my own academic style as I continue to develop as an early-career researcher, so I thought I’d share some thoughts.

At school, I was not taught how to write. Ok, I was taught how to write, but not how to really write. By the time I got to university, I knew my way around verbs, nouns and adjectives as well as I knew my route from the bank to the pub. I knew how to describe, evaluate and argue. I was guided at school by my excellent English teacher. However, as an eighteen year old, my writing was undoubtedly naive because I was still young. By the time I graduated, I had grown somewhat. I knew how to write a good essay, to enhance my descriptions, to improve my evaluations, and to support my arguments. However, writing, and the reception of writing is an area that is covered in a fluffy carpet of subjectivity. You could say that an undergraduate has used a word in the wrong context or that her grammar is incorrect, but it is hard to say, conclusively, that there is something wrong with her overall writing style. Of course, someone who does not write elegantly is unlikely to gain the highest possible grades, because examiners will naturally shy away from the top grade boundaries. However, beyond the basics of good grammar and appropriate vocabulary, academic writing style is personal and difficult to alter. It is possible to get a first-class degree without being an ingenious wordsmith.

Botticelli, Madonna del Magnifica. Wikimedia Commons.

Botticelli, Madonna del Magnifica. Wikimedia Commons.

I was in for a big shock upon graduating. I entered the world of Marketing and PR. Suddenly everything I had learned about writing was out of the window. Suddenly, someone could say that she hated my writing style. She could say that, because I was being paid for it!

I was told by my new boss that my writing style was ‘too wordy’. I waffled, I over-elaborated, I adorned my sentences with glorious, wonderful, unnecessary adjectives! Why? Because, naively, I thought that using big words in rambling sentences was clever. In my first PR job, I was taken to one side and told that if I only remembered one thing about writing press releases, it should be the ‘5 Ws’: who? what? where? when? and why? Then, later, I was told that I should write like I would explain something to a friend in the pub: get to the juicy bits very quickly and be clear, concise and straightforward. In my second short marketing position, my creativity was allowed a freer rein – I was allowed to craft punchier sentences, go crazy with alliteration, and even include the odd bad pun. However, simplicity was still at the core. During that year, I even won a limerick competition at work. Surprising. A year earlier, my idea of a short limerick would have been: ‘There once was a human who for the purposes of this poem we have assigned a male gender | Who was located geographically approximately in the area of the west midlands, which is in central England ….’ Undoubtedly my limerick would have been littered with the words ‘semiotics’, ‘poststructural’, and perhaps, ‘meta-(whatever)’.

You get the idea.

Upon eventually abandoning my embryonic marketing career and re-immersing myself in the world of academia, I left behind some elements of my newly-acquired writing style. Nobody, reading about the battle of Agincourt in an academic article, wishes to read: ‘Henry V, Northern France, goes into battle, 1415. Contact PR desk for more details’. However, I had learned something about clarity and simplicity. When I was doing my secondary reading for my Ph.D, I enjoyed the books that were written with flair, but which made their information and ideas easy to find and follow. I enjoyed logically-structured chapters, minimal diversions, interesting but clear vocabulary. Reasonably long paragraphs. Reasonably  long sentences. Clarity. Punchiness. Straightforwardness. Elegant simplicity. Things I did not enjoy can be summarised in one acronym: ‘TLDR’ (Too Long: Didn’t Read). This applies to words, sentences, paragraphs, articles… and blog posts…

When I think about what I like to read, it is very similar to what was demanded of me as a PR assistant. Just because a piece of work is ‘academic’, it does not have to be dry, wordy, monotonous, or overly-complicated. I must confess to not always following this principle myself. In fact, when I look back at my work, I am sometimes embarrassed by clunky sentences and long paragraphs that could have benefitted from some serious cosmetic surgery. However, my first postdoctoral year has given me space from my postgraduate work to develop my ‘brand’, my style, and my academic personality. I am really only just beginning to tighten up the screws in my writing style and to write pieces that I’d like to read.

I’m currently discussing an opportunity to write a piece for an intelligent, predominantly non-academic, audience. I think that a focus on the principals of elegant simplicity will be the key to success in this project. So, maybe that year spent in PR was a good academic career move after all!

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One comment

  1. Hey Debs! Loved this — I didn’t know you’d worked in marketing/PR. Seems like a common thing for medievalists to do, I worked in marketing for a while before going back to books and becoming a librarian — I always joke I chose it because “marketing” was next to “medieval studies” in the course catalogue. 😉 Hope life’s treating you well!

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