Elena Bennett

Professor, Natural Resource Sciences

Q: What advice do you have for students about developing their academic writing skills?

A: The key to great academic writing is practice, practice, and more practice. While I now consider myself a pretty experienced academic writer, my advisor took one look at the first paper I wrote for my MSc thesis, grimaced, and said, “How about if we just start with the methods section”?  Now, I can write fairly coherently and pretty quickly, which means that anyone can learn. That means that if you want to be a better writer, you need to practice.

Practice can take many forms. A lot of it should be writing, academic and otherwise, but a healthy dose of reading is also very beneficial. I don’t mean only reading academic papers or even science writing. Reading broadly – great fiction, literature, magazine articles, popular science, and peer-reviewed literature – is all great for learning to write. Reading good literature will help you absorb good structure at the sentence, paragraph, and story level.

When actually writing, I find there are a few key places we all could use to improve our skills. These are:

1. Write with the reader in mind
2. Say what you mean to say
3. Pay careful attention to structure all levels.

1. ‘Write with the reader in mind’ means always thinking about how your assumptions are affecting your thinking and writing, and what assumptions your reader might bring to reading your work. If you can’t bridge these two – usually by making explicit your own assumptions and how they affect your logic – your chances at clearly explaining yourself decline dramatically.

2. ‘Say what you mean to say’ means use plain English to the greatest extent possible. Think about how you would explain what you’re trying to write to your roommate or your partner. Be aware of when you are using jargon or other terminology that allows you to avoid saying what you really mean. Try saying it out loud. If it doesn’t sound right, it probably isn’t.

3. Follow good conventions (see advice re: reading, above) for structure at the level of the paper, the paragraph, and the sentence. There are plenty of sources of advice on this, so I’ll stick to one that I think a lot of us have trouble with – writing a good paragraph. The first sentence of your paragraph is the thesis sentence and it should tell the reader the topic of the paragraph. Any sentences that don’t fit the topic outlined in the first sentence don’t belong in that paragraph. A really good topic sentence can telegraph to the reader the structure they can expect from the paragraph, too.

To learn more about these conventions, there are plenty of books on writing. Two I recommend in particular are Josh Schimel’s book, “Writing Science: How to write papers that get cited and proposals that get funded,” and Steven Pinker’s excellent lecture on “Communicating Science and Technology in the 21st Century” given at MIT on September 12, 2012 (http://video.mit.edu/watch/communicating-science-and-technology-in-the-21st-century-steven-pinker-12644/).