Writing about thinking about writing…

Today, a coworker of mine told me that I am a bad writer.  I’ve been having a rough time with my manuscripts, and she succinctly identified the cause.

“Well, it’s just that your writing is bad,” she explained simply.

“Thanks,” I replied (a bit wryly, I admit).  The comment did sting, but it made me think.  I have had a lot of rejections from journals.  Usually, the rejections are not based on my science, but on the lack of novelty, or on a conclusion which I draw that the reviewers disagree with.

This particular manuscript, the one sample of my writing which my coworker has read, and the one which prompted her comment, has suffered under the weight of its own complexity.  The data are complex, the models which I build around them are complex, the results are complex…in other words, it is very difficult to explain my questions and answers simply.

And the editor of the journal from which it was not quite rejected*, agrees with her.  His comment is that the writing is “long-winded, wordy, and circuitous.”  (Oof.)

I have had to remind myself that my writing is not universally agreed to be bad.  One of my other manuscripts has at times received glowing remarks (though it has yet to be accepted for publication, ha), and my old advisor used to think my writing was good (or so she claimed).  But today, I was annoyed that my committee would let me leave with a PhD while being such a terrible writer!

Another friend argues that bad writing can be overcome with time and effort, but I counter that with the fact that I have been working on this manuscript for 8 months.  This is not a first draft…it has been submitted to three different journals, meaning my four coauthors (successful scientists in their own right) approved of it enough to let me try.

I have written six manuscripts as first author, and a 252 page thesis!  If I am not a decent writer by now, will I ever be?

So the question on my brain is: Is being a bad writer a death knell for a scientist?

I posed the question to my blunt friend, and she replied, “Well, you’ll never publish anything easily.”

Should I give up now, throw in the towel, and get a job at a coffee shop?  Maybe I should take this as a sign from the universe, but knowing me, I’m stubborn as a mule and I’m not likely to give up until I am forcibly removed.

*”Continued revision may not alleviate these concerns, yet outright rejection seems too harsh of a response.”

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12 thoughts on “Writing about thinking about writing…

  1. Is there psychology at play here? I can’t say I’ve had sight of your academic prose, but your blogging style always seems perfectly readable to me. Maybe you approach the two genre with different mindsets.

    • That is so kind of you to say! I was worried about whether my blog posts were incoherent after that comment she made. I do have a much more relaxed attitude toward blogging, but I feel that the topics are simpler.

  2. “I have written six manuscripts as first author, and a 252 page thesis! If I am not a decent writer by now, will I ever be?”

    That’s not a huge amount, in the grand scheme of things, and every writer’s abilities evolve the more they write. Keep at it; it gets (a bit) easier and you’ll get a lot better. The blogging will help 😉

    A great definition I heard of a good writer is: “Someone who finds it more difficult than most people to write”. On the surface that doesn’t make sense, but what it means is that all good writers have to work hard to get in right: few produce perfect prose immediately.

    One bit of advice courtesy of George Orwell: If you write a sentence and then go back and can take out any words without changing the meaning of the sentence, you should do so. In your case, sure, the data, models and results are complex, but that doesn’t mean the writing should be. Try going back to basics and explain it as if your audience was not a specialist one, that may help.

    • Well, it seems like a huge amount to be a *terrible* writer still! I don’t expect to be fantastic, but to be atrocious after all that time is frightening. I do try to practice writing about related topics on my blog. 🙂

      Haha by that definition, I am a good writer after all! I will practice George Orwell’s advice (and your own) before I submit my next revision. *sigh*

  3. William of Occam! It may not apply in the particular field out in which you are standing (to be pedantic) but Mrs RH often detects the need for Occam’s Razor in stuff that I write. She’s invariably right, of course. We call the effect “Occam’s Shaving Foam”, and it is best removed! That said, it’s not an effect I’ve noticed in your enjoyable blog! Good luck. RH

  4. I think it is rarely easy to explain a complex issue simply. I love your blogs that inspire you to explain something you find interesting. Then – boom, it interests me too. I have no hints on being inspirational about explaining something without the “boom” factor. That does not mean it is not important. It is like trying to get a negative result published. It could be a very important result – but no “wow” factor.

  5. My 2 bits: we should all take the advice of dear Mr. Dickens, and discipline ourselves to write daily. He felt that you had to write daily in the way you work out…it may not amount to anything but a lot of heat and sweat, but it kept the machinery oiled and ready for those times inspiration guides the pen. Worked for him! As for non-fiction, I have found that experts in their field find it very difficult to step outside their heads and write for their audience (ostensibly non-expert). In short, YOU may know what you are trying to communicate, but your reader must be led to it. Find someone who can edit your work effectively, and trust them. Finally, read. Read good writing and it will be reflected in your own. The Master and Commander series by Patrick O’Brian is a marvelous immersion, as is the Lord of the Rings series by Tolkien, the Father Tim books by Jan Karon, anything by Dick Francis, and the luminous writings of biologist Sue Hubbell.

    • That is very good advice! I especially love the reading recommendations. I’m an avid reader and always looking for new books! I have been trying to solicit advice and editing from non experts but it is a large time commitment to ask of friends and family. Nonetheless I do try to accumulate as many friendly reviews as possible. 🙂

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