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Is being a poor writer a serious impediment as a researcher? I mean if you're particularly bad at writing reports and always get bad feedback as a student for your reports, does that mean my research career would never take off?

The question asks whether researchers working in teams are all required to contribute to composing the reports or can you get away with it if you compensate with other skills?

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  • 3
    Related: Does writing matter a lot in research?
    – Ian
    May 23, 2021 at 22:40
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    Not as much as it should be, unfortunately.
    – spacetyper
    May 24, 2021 at 6:28
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    +1 For recognizing that you aren't currently an effective writer, and not simply subjecting others to your lack of skills in that particular area. As Buffy mentions below, writing skills can be learned, so don't give up hope. Instead, you can start learning how to become a better writer! :) May 24, 2021 at 11:03
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    I'd argue that if you feel you're "bad at writing", maybe the real problem is that your level of understanding of whatever you're trying to convey isn't quite what it should be. Writing is a merciless process that exposes every little weakness you might have at the subject.
    – MaxD
    May 24, 2021 at 12:51
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    Poor communication is a serious impediment in every career, not just academic research.
    – Neal
    May 24, 2021 at 13:57

9 Answers 9

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Yes, you need to be able to write to be successful in academia, as in many things.

But it is a skill that can be learned. You can take courses and you can practice. And, as with most learning, practice with feedback is the path. It isn't a short path, necessarily, but it is one that you can follow.

Actually, there are courses in both creative writing and technical writing.

You need to write with both precision and clarity and sometimes those are in opposition. But practice (with feedback) helps.

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    You've really captured the essence of the primary points in a friendly way. Excellent example of effective writing! May 24, 2021 at 11:04
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    +100: "it is a skill that can be learned. You can take courses and you can practice" - yes, you will not become a brilliant writer, but you will become an effective one with training and discipline. May 24, 2021 at 16:04
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If one truly cannot write coherently, yes, that is a serious impediment.

Yes, when/if you get negative feedback on your reports, it means that you need to improve the quality of your writing in those reports.

That's it.

But/and one's writing ability is not an immovable object. One can improve, with effort. Effort.

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    It's not this bad. I can write reasonably well and coherently and am getting better still. The problem is when there is a report with must follow strict rules and improvisation and creativity is frowned upon. I don't approve because that makes some publications extremely dull. May 23, 2021 at 23:00
  • The good news is that in academia there are many fewer of these kinds of contexts ("strict rules ... improvisation and creativity is frowned upon"). That sounds more like a corporate or government environment ...
    – Ben Bolker
    May 23, 2021 at 23:04
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    @Peter If you are writing a grant proposal, a job application cover letter, or suchlike, the point is that the reader is looking for specific information and usually will be working under time pressure. Therefore, if the required information is not easy to find it may not be found at all, and if the document contains a lot of irrelevant content the reader may decide simply to reject it rather than spend an excessive amount of time attempting to process it. Use your "improvisation and creativity" for how you carry out the research, not for how you write it up!
    – alephzero
    May 24, 2021 at 11:53
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No, poor writing as a student is not necessarily an impediment to becoming a good researcher. You will just need to work hard to improve and find a good advisor or fellow researcher to critique your writing.

I think that good writing is linked with good thinking. I have spent a lot of time reading work by non-native English speakers. Sometimes, even if the grammar and word usage is wrong, I can easily tell what the writer is trying to say because their writing is logical and well-organized. I have a colleague whose mother tongue doesn't have articles. He will probably miss some necessary "a"s and put "the"s where they are not needed for the rest of his life, but this is quite easy for any native speaker to clean up since his arguments are always very clear. Writing style is less important than logic and organization and, for students early in their career, this is often the biggest problem. This sometimes has nothing to do with writing style and everything to do with the fact that they don't really have a broad understanding of the research field they are writing about: they include many small irrelevant details and do not make the necessary big picture arguments. Also, they often put no thought into organization and just spill out the ideas in a random order with no links between them.

Of the several graduate students and postdocs I've mentored (~15), almost all started out as what I would call poor writers. They all improved through writing their own papers and going through many drafts with me. I suggest that you find an advisor who you consider to be a reasonably good writer and is willing to go through your papers with you, making specific comments on how you can improve. If your advisor won't help you, see if you can find another researcher willing to help. Talk to other students in the group and find out if they are good at mentoring their students through writing.

Writing is absolutely essential for an academic research career, and after becoming relatively senior you will spend most of your time writing.

If you are a non-native English speaker, you may think you are a poor writer because people correct mistakes in your grammar or word usage. I wouldn't worry too much about this because these things can be superficial. Focus on a logical argument and good organization, and you can probably find a coworker (or pay someone) to fix your English.

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    On a slightly unrelated note: what gave me away that I am not a native speaker? Specifically I mean, I'm curious what made you reach this conclusion? May 24, 2021 at 16:45
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    @Peter Nothing in your question gave me this idea! The grammar in the question at least seems perfect. It was just a guess based on statistics (probably most people doing science are not native speakers). Even in my department, which is based in a majority English-speaking country, graduate students who are native English speakers in the minority. May 24, 2021 at 16:55
  • Great if he can move this aspect from his seemingly unsympathetic supervisor to some external advisor. But maybe he'll have to fight a bit for this . . .
    – Trunk
    May 24, 2021 at 18:54
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It depends what kind of a research team you're on. It will be hard to succeed in an academic (tenure-track) research professorship if you write poorly, because you would always have to find collaborators to help you with grant proposals and research papers; and, there is an expectation that you will be an independent researcher, which will be harder to establish if you always have to co-author grants and papers (for example, the main source of funding for many Canadian STEM researchers is the Discovery Grant program, which is a solo rather than a group submission).

There may be some niches in industry or governmental labs/research groups where you could successfully delegate the writing to someone else. You could also aim for a permanent technical position in a large academic lab, but these positions are (1) rare; (2) often based on "soft money" (i.e. you or your supervisor would have to keep writing successful grants for you to keep your job); (3) less well paid/less prestigious than typical solo-research-professor positions.

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It is a serious impediment, but I personally know people who, despite being successful researchers, have immense problems with writing a paragraph of clear text in a grammatically correct english. There are not that many of them though.

Regarding how to deal with that, apart from the obvious solution proposed (improve with effort), another possibility is to find and join a team where you'll be responsible for something you're good at, another person would be responsible for writing, and you'll publish together. This is very situational and does not happen too often, but it exists.

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    In my personal experience, being unable to write clearly is often a sign of being unable to think clearly, and the muddled thinking may be a more serious issue than the muddled writing.
    – alephzero
    May 24, 2021 at 11:56
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    +1, there are some researchers that are so brilliant in other ways (creativity, technical skill, etc.) that they can be successful by collaborating with others who will do most if not all of the writing. But this cannot solve all issues (especially for documents you must write on your own, e.g., theses, applications, etc.). Also, there are also researchers which are brilliant and great writers, so do not take this as an excuse for writing poorly. :)
    – a3nm
    May 25, 2021 at 21:19
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It's hard to properly answer this without having samples of your writing or of the edits made by your critics.

One of the saddest - and stupidest - things in academic work is academese. Months and even years of work and thought on a topic should result in conclusions that are clearly communicable both orally and in writing. Yet so few papers can be easily read. It may well be that you are the type who can speak clearly about something but have been repeatedly discouraged in writing about it with the same simple style: it's not professionally sophisticated, not the done way, etc. If this is the problem, then you may well be better off than those of us who adopted the orthodox way of (mis)communicating things in reports, reviews and papers - you can teach yourself how to do it right without having to unlearn the habit of writing pompous nonsense.

You need to do two things, I think.

  1. As Buffy said, attend a professional writing course for people in your general field.

  2. Ignore criticism of your writing that seems to be based on lack of orthodoxy to existing academic writing styles.

For real feedback look at what your own peers are writing and how it's expressed. Select the best ones in your own assessment and try to get their genuine views on your writing. The older generation tend to become more traditional and orthodox. And try to get opinion from peers who are not native users of the language. It's a good sign if they can get it on first reading.

One sure way to improve your writing in English is to translate your own papers (or at least the abstracts) into some other language. The simpler your phrasing for an idea is, the easier it is to translate it. There follows the great conclusion - why didn't I write it as simply as this in English from the start ?

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  • You have a point here, but one should be careful. Some aspects of field-specific academese really may have good reasons. Written language does need to be more precise than spoken, because the audience can't just ask questions after the talk to ensure they've understood it right. May 25, 2021 at 14:39
  • Yet so few papers can be easily read. - really? I have an opposite impression. In my field (mathematics) people write in simple and clear English. A non-native speaker, I started to read research papers as an undergrad, and I never had any problems - it was so much easier than reading fiction or newspapers. Similar for adjacent domains - I've read papers in physics, biology, CS, economics, statistics, sociology, and never seen any academese. If I ever have trouble understanding a paper, it's because of genuine difficulty of the material, not language.
    – Kostya_I
    May 26, 2021 at 7:38
  • I've read papers in physics, biology, CS, economics, statistics, sociology, and never seen any academese. That is simply untrue and you know it.
    – Trunk
    May 26, 2021 at 8:02
  • @Trunk, care to give an example of a landmark paper in any of these disciplines written with unnecessary use of academese? For sociology, let's restrict to quantitative/experimental one, I don't count the French school nonsense.
    – Kostya_I
    May 26, 2021 at 12:27
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In order to be successful in academia, one has to be performant in teaching, research, applications for grants and administrative tasks. If being a poor writer is not a so huge problem if you have to fill a form, this can be a problem:

  • in teaching, as it will be harder for the students to understand your notes;
  • in research. One can have the best idea in the world, but it might not be appreciated or even publish if one is not able to present it in an understandable way.
  • In application for grant (but more generally in any application), as it is difficult to be convincing by writing poorly.

This being said, the good new is that there is always the possibility to improve. Sometimes it is difficult to have criticism on what we wrote ourselves, like the phenomenon where you mentally correct some typos. It can be a good way to read what you wrote as if it was written by your worst enemy and you would like to criticize it as much as possible.

Also, take profit of the feedback you got on your writing.

To answer the last question, contribution of the authors is usually very dependent on the field you work. An understatement is that everybody would prefer to work with a good writer than a bad one.

To conclude, one can have in mind the 5C-rule for writing:

  • correctness
  • concision
  • completeness of the information
  • clarity
  • coherence

and each text/report you write should satisfy this.

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  • 5C rules in mind when writing ? Not gonna work. Has to be learned elaborately. Take an actual paper and rework it. What do I want to say overall ? How should I structure it so it's rational to an interested reader ? Where should I elaborate, where be brief ? Do I need to highlight any points, exceptions or unexplored areas ? Are the conclusions clear but low-key ? Did I acknowledge other people's prior work or assistance/discussions properly ?
    – Trunk
    May 24, 2021 at 16:11
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    Why these questions would work better than the 5C rule? May 25, 2021 at 8:40
  • Any 5C type set of rules goes in one ear & out the other till it's exercised on a real paper/report written by the person in question. In reviewing his/her own paper, the author needs to follow as concrete a procedure as possible because at this stage abstractions, concisions and elegances are just a distraction and source of ambiguity or doubt. Correctness ... of what? Correctness of the paper's data? Of how to express it all in writing ? Of between-the-lines manner ? Concision has to be balanced with clarity, completeness with coherence. 5C is a validation process, not a drafting process.
    – Trunk
    May 25, 2021 at 20:14
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This is from a non-native-speaker, STEM perspective.

  • It is common for undergraduate/graduate students to be bad at writing at the beginning.
  • In countries like Russia and China, an undergraduate or a graduate student often obtains their first good results while they still lack English skill to write them up. Old-generation Russian professors used to write up the results of their students (without being listed as co-authors).
  • Most of the accomplished researchers have decent writing skills. It might be, of course, selection, but I suspect they just learn. If you are able to make progress in modern science, then you are smart and hence you can learn to write (of course, barring certain medical conditions).
  • In STEM fields, minimal sufficient level is rather low. It's OK to use simple language and a toolbox of standard expressions, follow a standard template (e. g. "Definition - Example - Lemma - Proof - Theorem - Proof"). The outcome may be dry and not "beautifully written", but if the result is interesting enough, this will not prevent people from reading.
  • While it is true that there are courses that teach writing (and it's good to take them!), I suspect that, just like generally with languages, most learning happens through osmosis, exposure and practice. As you read many research papers, you will start picking up from them. Also, you will inevitably practice writing up you own results.
  • No, not all team members have to participate in writing. It suffices that one member of a team of co-authors writes the text. If someone takes up this task and the result is not satisfactory, the co-authors who are more qualified will edit.
  • Don't shy away from writing tasks in a team if your writing skills are poor, use this opportunity to practice and learn.
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The following assumes that "poor writer" means that you have profound problems in explaining yourself in written manner. If this is the case it is a serious impediment.

Presenting results is almost as important as obtaining them. Especially when trying to get funding or get published in high impact factor journals. I've seen drafts that were almost incomprehensible and required massive editing to carve out the obfuscated but substantial results. Writing up results is a large aspect of academia and I don't think that someone who lacks the ability to present their results in an intelligible manner will prevail on their own. Most of the time, you can find help in some form, so not all is lost, but it is certainly a hurdle that one needs to take.

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