Science, Academic Writing, and Fun (By Bárbara Spessato, Ph.D., P.O.W.E.R. Alumna)

Science, Academic Writing, and Fun

By: Bárbara Spessato, Ph.D., P.O.W.E.R. Alumna

Postdoctoral fellow at the Universidade Catolica de Pelotas, Brazil

Academic writers. Our ability to make complex concepts, research, and ideas even more complex and difficult to understand always puzzles me. It is usually possible to grasp content and ideas of most manuscripts but oftentimes with frequent side effects to the reader. Some papers (mine included) should come with a warning:

“This manuscript might cause yawning, excessive caffeine consumption, repetitive reading (of the same paragraphs, I might add) and mind wandering (usually about important topics such as wall color). In case the symptoms persist, please contact the author.”

In fact, academic writing can be dangerous to health, especially when done poorly. I’ve seen students at the library fall asleep in extremely challenging positions that are definitely not recommended to maintain physical health. In fact, I still want to find the manual that states that academic writing has to be hard to read to be any good. Yet, it often seems that we follow some unwritten rule that allows us very little room for creativity and writing style improvement. I believe this is mostly due to academic tradition.

After all considerations and ponderings, I realized not so long ago that I want to communicate my research and ideas with minimal casualties. Academic writing often does not make a pleasant reading even when we enjoy the subject, and if we make it harder for the reader, it is very likely that all our hard work won't be read at all. I realized, with help from POWER, that I do not want only to communicate my research but to attempt to make it as interesting to the readers as it is to myself. Not an easy task. I must say I have been working on it as much as I can. I hope if you have read this far, that I have been somewhat successful. Here are some tools I have been using to help me write in more interesting ways:

1) Write the same idea in at least 3 different ways. I do not mean rewrite; I mean truly write it differently and creatively. Sometimes it ends up in a way that could not be published in an article, but it exercises creativity and usually leads to great laughs and to a better understanding of the content and way you think.

2) Reading and writing scientific articles for lay readers (great tip from Dr. Goodson writing class). This helps to keep the topic simple and clear. It allows us to rethink what we previously thought was obvious due to how close we are to our subject.  

3) My favorite strategy is to laugh about my own writing and about myself. Laugh about your style, about how repetitive you might be, about all your mistakes, about your vocabulary (or the lack of it). Most importantly, laugh about how it will take time to make reading your work pleasurable and delightful. Sometimes I count how many drafts it took me to make one great example of bad writing. Well, writing poorly takes time, writing something you will truly enjoy it might take a lifetime. Nevertheless during the process the readers will enjoy what you write a little more every time and so will you. Keep in mind that you will have to enjoy the journey and that it is not a short one. Taking pleasure in the process helps a lot. In fact, I laugh at my earlier papers a lot. This week I’ve reread the first paper I have ever published. It was soooo bad it was awesome. I was amazed by the reviewer’s bravery reading all 28 pages. On second thought, maybe they did not and that is why it got published. Honestly earlier work can tell a lot about our journey and help us appreciate every small improvement.  Focus on humor but write seriously. I try not to take myself too seriously in my writing attempts. I try to do my best with the crooked smile of someone who knows that even with my best efforts I wont get there just yet, so I might as well enjoy the ride.  

I think the most important thing I learned while trying to improve my writing is that if I keep it light and pleasurable (to myself), in time, I will convince the readers that research is not only important, but it is also a lot of fun!