It started with a tip. Not an anonymous, cloak-and-dagger tip, but a tip nonetheless. The tipster told me that my writing was dull and that I should seek to improve it.
The tipster: my wife—and she was right.
It was early 2014. And in the midst of my fourth year working as a tenure track assistant professor, I was attending a major academic conference. While there, I thought to myself: It can’t be this way. Surely the authors of some of these articles could make an effort to improve their writing and make the papers more readable. I work in this area, am genuinely interested in the subject matter, and almost never have any desire to read beyond the abstract.
Over the phone, I passed this thought on to my wife. I said something to the effect of: “The conference is good, but a number of the papers being presented are dreadfully written.”
“Well,” she said, “so are yours.”
“I read most of your papers before you submit them,” she said. “I know the topics are important to you, but you don’t write well for readers other than yourself. It’s a chore to read your articles. You sometimes end sentences with prepositions, too.”
A poorly written academic article on an already-esoteric topic is destined to have zero impact.
The last comment particularly stung. She caused me to look inward.
A month later, after reading Nicholas Kristof’s attention-grabbing “Professors, We Need You” New York Times op-ed, Joshua Rothman’s follow-up piece in the New Yorker, and Michael Billig’s clever Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences, I decided to fail in the social sciences. I wanted to learn how to write well.
In searching for writing workshops, I didn’t have to look far. The English department at my home institution, Florida State University, offered a variety of courses. Primarily targeted to doctoral candidates, MFA students, and accomplished undergrads, the courses were also open to members of the Tallahassee community at large. I enrolled, thus exposing myself to a wide variety of work under creative non-fiction’s umbrella. From Cheryl Strayed’s “The Love of My Life” to John McPhee’s “The Search for Marvin Gardens” and to Tony Earley’s “Somehow Form a Family,” we discussed a plethora of different essays.
The real value, however, lie in the small group workshops. In Dr. Ned Stuckey-French’s “Advanced Article and Essay Workshop,” I received weekly feedback about our twice-a-week writing assignments from my fellow group members. Our workshop contained several gifted writers who have worked incredibly hard honing their craft; this much was obvious no later than the second week. Their writing flowed. Their prose simultaneously entertained and informed. They were able to transform deeply personal experiences into resonating narratives.
In contrast, my writing was described as “sterile,” “overly formal,” and “didactic.” I had a creeping suspicion that the latter wasn’t to be taken as a compliment. Nevertheless, all of the adjectives were spot on.
THREE MONTHS LATER, I'M the proud graduate of two writing workshops. Am I a better writer now? I like to think so. Do I have a better appreciation for the work that goes into precise, clear writing? You bet. I also came away from the classes with a couple of ideas about how other academics could try to do the same.
First, tenure-track assistant professors in the sciences and professional programs should be actively encouraged to take at last one creative non-fiction writing workshop during their pre-tenure period. Regardless of discipline, learning how to write effectively (and creatively) is an important skill. If professors are to have any chance of being anything even close to a quasi-public intellectual, this should be mandatory. A poorly written academic article on an already-esoteric topic is destined to have zero impact.
Second, such seminars should be infused into the curriculum for all graduate students. During law school, I took one writing course. During my Ph.D. program, I didn’t take any. The dearth of writing practice results in another generation of scholars unable to translate their research for a broader audience. My doctoral advisees are required to take at least one writing seminar as part of their coursework. While only a sample size of one, the early returns appear favorable.
BEFORE SENDING THIS ESSAY off to my editor, I showed it to my wife.
Her thoughts: It’s a “marked improvement.”
I hope she’s right.