Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Good Writing

I'm no expert on academic writing.  I'm even less of an expert on medical stuff, but in the last month I've been spending the time I'm not playing with my kids, to help develop on-line writing resources for students at University of Birmingham Med school to encourage academic writing.

My experience of academic writing began with Sigmund Freud.  While I was working at Brooklands Hospital, I'd spend my lunch break reading paper after paper - it's good stuff, and as he covers issues as diverse as  creativitymedicinal use of cocaine and, of course, family relationships.  It's good mainly because it's readable.  You don't need to be a doctor to understand it - Freud is amusing, playful, conversational and maybe a little mischievous.  He knew how to write a story, isn't afraid to be opinionated, or indeed 'subjective', and most importantly knows how to construct a good argument around his findings.  This does not fit into Gillet, Aveyard et al, Levin, and many University guidelines on what 'academic writing' should be, but the influence of Freud, the audience he has reached cannot be denied, and must be, in large part, to his writing -  he lectured extensively, and also wrote letters documenting at least part of dialogues with Jung and others, but his published material reached a much wider audience.  

Over one hundred years ago publishing was very different, and the options to promote your scientific findings far more limited.  Academic journals, the monograph, and monographic series were an important means of reaching an audience, and a valuable means to find out about quite specialist subjects.  They represented a 'who's who' of important people within a discipline.  

In the last ten years we have witnessed an explosion of writers using the internet to publish, while at the same time more traditional peer review academic journals, on-line  and paper, have declined.  More and more people are writing, just not for the same academic journals and monographs that previously were so important.  Doug BelshawStanley Chodorow and Gideon Burton are three of the many 'education technologists' and others who go further, suggesting 'we are gathered here around the comatose body' of this form of academic writing.

Wikis, including wikipedia, blogs, discussion forums of all kinds, are all promoting writing from a wider number of people, some of which is every bit as 'good' as any academic journal.  You don't have to wait months to see if you will be published.  You won't be beholden to experts within your field, who may have considerable vested interests in either delaying or promoting your essay.  You will get valuable feedback from people who read your stuff.  As a research tool you will be contributing to a far more significant shared knowledge than any journal, and as your reputation (hopefully) grows, so will your readership.

You don't have to be an expert to write.  The more you write, the more feedback from your readers, the better your writing.  Peer review academic journals may not always be the best for this, but if that's what you want, writing in other media will make it more likely you'll get the invitations to write for peer review journals anyhow!

Useful links:

Other academic writing aids:

And (in case you were wondering) my own limited contribution to published writing