When I took our university’s Course Design Institute [which I highly recommend], I learned to think about my teaching in a new way. One of the first questions I was asked was “What do your student need to know to move from novice to expert?” As we reflected on this question, we were supposed to think over what our students needed to know that were content-related and skill-related. I was designing my research methods course at the time, so I reflected on what my students would need to know to successfully conduct research not only from a content standpoint, but also from a skill standpoint. The most important skill that I could think of was writing well. A researcher can be phenomenal, but if she or he cannot clearly explain their research, she or he will not be successful.
Writing is a particularly salient skill for me because when I first started submitting my papers, I regularly received negative feedback on my writing. My pattern of thinking then, which I think is common to many young scientists, was that if I do high-quality, methodologically sophisticated research, reviewers will see the value in my research and will react favorably. Papers from scholars with this mindset tend to have longer result sections and shorter literature reviews. What I quickly learned in submitting my research was that nothing could replace good writing. Reviewers do not like to read poorly written work, even if the data and methods are good. So, I would get comments from reviewers that commented on the poor quality of my writing and typos. I was tired of these comments, and the possibility that my papers were being penalized because of them.
So, early on in my time at OSU, I sought to improve my writing. My first step was to read several books on writing. I read or browsed The Elements of Style, On Writing Well, On Writing, and The Craft of Research among others. These books taught me to have a more critical eye towards my own writing. I sought to say things as simply as I could and to rid my writing of unnecessary clutter (like “research has found that” or “the fact that”). One of the first times I best applied this was with a paper I was working on with a graduate student. We were preparing to submit the paper to the journal, and we spent about 3 to 4 hours reading the entire paper out loud before submitting it. It took forever, but we caught so many typos and awkward phrases, that the end product was much improved. Indeed, each reviewer on that paper complimented our writing. My own writing has improved so much that I can barely stand to read some of my early work now. My students and I now read every paper out loud before we submit it. We might do it in chunks (a series of meetings) or in a marathon session, but each paper is carefully proofread. I have not received any negative comments on my writing in a couple of years after implementing these strategies.
So, as another post in my “how I do it” series, I think this is a critical one. If you can reduce one round of disgruntled reviews because your paper was written very well up front, maybe your paper will make it through reviewer more quickly, helping you in your early career!