Getting the Writing Right

As one moves through life, there are many different types of writing one needs to master. Schooling may produce a standardised kind of essay which is of only limited use when it comes to writing one’s thesis. Many universities will run courses/online tutorials to advise students how to proceed, but as often as not one learns by example. There are so many little things to pick up along the way and it is easy to miss some of them; sometimes I fear the writer may be suffering from a case of not seeing the wood for the trees. If you are struggling with the actual content, the presentation may suffer without notice. Topics that can go astray on a first pass, in my experience, include omission of page numbers, appropriate use of sections plus accompanying sub-headings and a consistent style of citing references.

I am particularly baffled by the number of students who fail to master the art of writing a figure caption.   Some fail to write one at all, not even assigning a number to each figure; some simply copy chunks out of the text without real reference to the figure itself thereby not describing what it is, merely identifying the features they want to highlight; some do the exact opposite and have a splendid figure and caption which in turn is never mentioned anywhere in the chapter. When stuck in the middle of trying to get the text down, figures may in some senses be the last thing on one’s mind. Nevertheless, for thesis and for paper writing there is a lot to be said for using the figures as the skeleton around which the text, analysis and arguments are presented. Once you know you have the complete set of figures you may, after all, have confidence the thesis is coming together and a submission date becomes imaginable for the first time.

But of course, life doesn’t end with the thesis (although sometimes it may feel like that) and as you move up through the hierarchy (in academia or outside) new challenges of writing arise. One of the first letters of reference I ever wrote – back in the days predating word processors so I had written something and passed it on to the group secretary – was sent back to me by the secretary who at the time had infinitely more experience than me as to the right way to write a reference. This won’t do, she told me, they’ll never get the job if you say that, it’s far too rude! I had not at that time mastered, as I hope I have now, that less is often more. I had made the mistake of saying outright that the person concerned was completely unsuitable for the position under consideration without spelling out their strengths and weaknesses.

I read a lot of references these days, for all kinds of different situations. It is interesting to see what people are and aren’t prepared to say and to compare cultural differences. From the US it is not uncommon to see long, meticulously detailed descriptions of the minutiae of the work some individual has done followed (for instance in the case of a lectureship candidate) by a statement to the effect that the person has the potential to win a Nobel Prize, be as good as some eminent figure in the field or some such similar accolade.  The problems arise when the same referee writes references for more than one candidate and uses the exact same hyperbole. It weakens the case more than somewhat but I have seen it occur two or three times. Foolish and unhelpful.

Some references are amusing to read by the vitriol expressed, but these are few and far between. Others tell you more about the writer than the candidate under consideration, to the extent of an actual attachment of a full CV of the referee in rare cases, to show how important they are and therefore how much value should be placed on their words. Others are bland to the point of worthlessness. And, thinking of worth, there is no more lethal word in a reference than ‘worthy’.  If someone (or their work) is ‘worthy’ they tend to be dead in the water, being killed by faint praise. What one is looking for are stellar words, albeit appropriate to the stage of the candidate. One wouldn’t expect a postdoc applicant to be described as ‘internationally leading’ but for a prospective professor you might well need to have such a phrase attached if appointment is likely to ensue.

Letters of reference have their own quirks and at times the writer’s predelictions come through. You won’t be surprised to know I have a particular eye for gendered statements (see this and this for a more general discussion of the problems that seem too often to be inherent in what is written about women). If a woman is described has having 15 out of a set of 20 papers entwined with a collaborator’s, and you then discover said collaborator is their husband, it is relevant to wonder if anyone would ever write the same statement in reverse. Too easily it is assumed that the male’s voice is the dominant one. Maybe it was in this case, maybe it wasn’t. And even if they’re a pair of collaborators who are not married similar assumptions about who is the lead may apply.

When it comes to refereeing papers again too often it is the character of the writer that comes through, with their personal prejudices, rather than an analysis of the actual paper. It is always tempting to remark on the absence of references to one’s own work, but often that is more vanity than a genuine criticism. Referee’s reports that attempt to discuss how the writer would have tackled the problem in some totally different way are also not usually helpful: what matters is what light the research casts on the field rather than whether there are other experiments that might also be interesting waiting to be done. And criticisms of the sort that as usual X has missed the point or is working in the wrong field can only be seen as vindictive rather than helpful.

So whatever stage one is at, it is important to try to work out what is wanted by the reader. Writing a stream-of-consciousness thesis is unlikely to lead to a good outcome.  Using a piece of prose to blow one’s own trumpet, albeit dressed up as a critique of someone else’s life or work, is self-deluding and unhelpful. There is never a time in life when one shouldn’t be trying harder to make sure that what one writes both answers the (implicit) question and communicates the intended message.


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2 Responses to Getting the Writing Right

  1. ah says:

    useful post. I found writing letters of reference very hard (I still do) because when I first had to do it, I had no guidance or examples to look at. For a scientific paper or thesis, you can read others and see what works. But when at an early career stage, I had not received any letters of reference, it was total guesswork to know what to put in.

  2. Mark Field says:

    I also agree that writing letter of reference is very hard due to the lack of any examples and the large number of possible ways of approaching the issue.

    The US habit of including phrases indicating the potential to win a Nobel prize was usually reserved for letters supporting tenure decisions at some of the top US universities, particularly Ivy League colleges, where this kind of accolade is almost expected and part of the check list. Its use has now escaped into the wider world as part of an arms race in hiring candidates for university positions. When it turns up outside the US it probably looks very out of place.