My thoughts on the most important skill for the academic.

For the Love of Writing

By Niklas Elmqvist, University of Maryland, College Park

I love writing.

This means I am one of the lucky ones, because writing is such a central part of the life of an academic. So yes, of course this means that I love writing academic articles, which is helpful when so much of my daily activities revolve around scientific output. But it also means that I love writing blog posts (such as this one), internal memos and documents, and—yes—even email.

Yes, you read that right: even writing email can be enjoyable. And I think this an important part of being successful and liking your job as an academic. I am not saying that you can’t be successful if you don’t like writing—I know you can—but I am saying that your life will be a lot easier if you don’t actively dislike one of the most common duties of the modern scholar: stringing together words on paper.

What do I love about writing? Basically, all of it. I love organizing paragraphs to tell a compelling story. I adore breaking down complex issues into manageable sentences. I enjoy composing clear and straightforward sentences that communicate information with no ambiguity. I get a rush from optimizing text, erasing extraneous words, or rewriting passages into a tighter and clearer version. I even love the shape of the words, their easy meandering across the page, the organic contour the text forms. All of it.

Why do I love it? Well, that’s harder to quantify, but I think it comes down to the feeling that when I am writing, I am creating something in the best way I know how. Where other people play music, paint, make pottery, knit, or do woodwork, I use writing as my creative expression. To that end, I also devour books on writing, such as Stephen King’s On Writing and the late Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft (both highly recommended, even if they deal more about fiction than academic writing). I’ve even observed that I get a kick out of reading about fictional characters who are writing, like when Michael Blomkvist writes the story of the Vanger family at the end of the book Män som hatar kvinnor (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in English). There is just something about the process of writing, whatever form it takes, that attracts me.

When my students ask me how to become better writers, I tell them that it helps if you like it. Actually, I’ve stopped saying that, because you can’t really conjecture this kind of love for writing out of thin air. Telling them is unfair and adds to the stigma of writing for beginner academics, and more stigma is the last they need. Basically, this amounts to saying: “Not only do you need to write a lot, but you also need to smile all the time when you’re doing it.”

Yeah, that’s not very helpful, I know. So let me talk about a few concrete ways to destigmatize writing that I tell my students.

Part of the reason for writing being a stumbling block for many students probably stems back to bad experiences from school. In my experience, good writing doesn’t naturally arise from high-pressure situations. It has to grow from more relaxed conditions. You should be writing because you have something to say, not because others are telling you that you should. What’s more, writing in school is typically formulaic and is not conducive to developing your own style and voice. There are only so many ways you can write a “what I did last summer” essays before the entire genre goes stale.

Another reason, I think, is that society has this perception of the writer as the long-suffering, tortured artist. To be writing well, you need to be miserable, is the general sentiment. This easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I know one of my collaborators—who shall remain unnamed—who becomes a picture of misery whenever he has to write something for one of his papers (let me also add that this is a very productive academic). I once interrupted him in mid-writing, and when he looked up, his face was all contorted with effort and his eyes were glazed over. I could barely get a coherent word out of him until he told me he was in the middle of writing the related work section of a paper we were working on, and that he preferred not to be interrupted. I quickly acquiesced.

I suppose writing is that way for some people, but it shouldn’t have to be, and, indeed, it doesn’t have to be. I think a big reason for the tortured writer meme is the quest for perfection: that you have to get it right the first time. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth; professional writers know that you just have to get something on paper the first time, and to use the subsequent editing passes to make it perfect. I’ll talk more about this some other time.

I have two simple tips for how to learn to love writing: first of all, read a lot, and second, write a lot. Basically, just like you can’t be a good cook without knowing what good food tastes like, you need to have seen a lot of good writing in order to be able to produce good writing of your own. In my opinion, this should not be restricted to academic writing alone, but should also include good fiction as well as non-fiction writing outside your own area. Second, writing is just like any skill: you have to practice to get better. The only way to practice writing is to write. If you read a lot and write a lot, eventually, I think, you will begin to appreciate it and, I hope, love it.