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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Learning on the job: The art of academic writing

Most academics don’t have formal training in writing but do it every day. The farther up the career ladder one goes, the more writing becomes a central activity. Most academic writing skills are learned ‘on the job’, especially by working with more experienced co-authors. Grants, papers, and even books are written to the best of the author’s ability and on the weight of the content.

This is changing though, as more universities are offering and often requiring academic writing courses. This can help significantly jump-start the process, but it is in writing up one’s own research that such skills are truly developed.

Many find the act of writing a first paper difficult, but it’s a task that gets easier with practice. How to prepare for this? The key to any solid paper in any field is solid research. There must be a story to tell; then it’s a matter of piecing together the ‘Big Picture’ with the details to build a narrative that fits venue and audience.

We continue to evolve as writers from childhood until our last words. From the start of your career to the end, these are the types of good habits that help make the writing process as ‘easy’ as possible:

  1. Read, read, read, read and read as many publications on topics in your field as you can, as well as those that fall outside your area of expertise.
  2. Seek out and work with experienced colleagues.
  3. Talk to others about their paper writing and publication experiences – writing is only the beginning; you also have to navigate the publication landscape.
  4. Ask questions and more questions – this is what science is about.
  5. See if you can get practice reviewing papers (like for senior colleagues) – this is one of the best hands-on way to learn what makes a great paper and what doesn’t.
  6. Look at and become familiar with the formats of different journals and understand why you’d want to publish in different venues.
  7. Read yet more.

When it comes to writing up that first paper, the ease of the task will be proportional to the strength of the research. The importance lies not so much in whether it is aimed for a top tier or a more specialist journal, but whether it’s a ‘unit’ of research with a clear beginning and end and firm interpretation and conclusions. The best way to derail a paper writing attempt is to have too many conclusions that cloud the contents of the paper. That your work leads to many great follow-on questions is a strength.

Finally, regardless of whether you’re starting your first or your fifth paper, you can read about the art of writing. There are an increasing number of publications on writing good papers. One of the first I ever saw was by Phil Bourne. Now looking online brings up a larger variety of guides, for example on the principles of publication, tips to structuring papers from journal editors, and personal accounts of first-time experiences.

Whether or not you enjoy writing papers, it’s something that must be done in academia, and ideally as efficiently and effectively as possible. In the end, you want solid research that builds your ‘paper chain’ such that you become a known authority in your field. In the longer-term what counts is how that paper stands the test of time and how more research can be built on top of its findings.

Featured Image Credit: “Writing Write Person Paperwork Paper Notebook” by Free-Photos. CC0 via Pixabay.

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