Practice makes perfect in academic writing?

The relative importance of practice versus innate talent is a matter of extensive debate and there is some pretty cool research out there and lots of popular articles to read.  Malcolm Gladwell coined the term the ‘ten thousand hour rule’ in his book the Outliers and developed this further in a piece in the New Yorker.  Basically complex tasks like composing or playing chess at the highest levels require in excess of 10,000 hours of practice so the rule goes.  The question here off course is where does raw talent (genetics) feature?

This debate is explored in relation to new research by Maria Konnikova in another piece in the New Yorker.  On reading her piece I was struck by a number of things.  Firstly, that the average athlete benefits most from practice and training while the margins of gained are much smaller for elite ones. Secondly practice relative to raw talent operates differently in different areas having less impact on education and computer science for example when compared with music or sport.  Finally, if you take a group of highly talented individuals their career performance is ultimately determined amongst many factors by ‘work (practice) ethic’.  Now I believe in the importance of work ethic; the more you invest in yourself and your contribution the better the outcome.  Constructive and directed industry has always been a big indicator of success in my opinion, although it is often mitigated by the power of an extrovert who can tell a good story.  There is off course the irrational pique here of an introvert speaking.

So why am I writing about practice?  Well I run sessions for the Doctoral College here at Bournemouth on academic writing.  As a severely dyslexic individual writing has always been difficult, but over the years I have done a lot of it, and while I would never say that I am particularly good at it, I am continually learning and improving.  I advocate in these sessions the importance of practice, off investing in one’s own development.

Now writing is a skill that is on the decline in most science graduates.  Can I evidence this?  Well not really, but it is apparent every semester in the papers I grade.  The point is that students don’t get the chance to practice in the mercenary academic world in which we live.  In this world only the thing that seems to count to most student’s is work that contributes to a final grade.  Summative assessment is king and we are increasingly limited as tutors by what we can set.  As tutors we do not help this because with the growth in class sizes we usually strive to reduce grading at all costs.  Yet what science students really need is formative assessment and coaching in writing.  As a student I had to write four tutorial essays a semester in addition to coursework, these essays didn’t count for any unit grades but they did in hindsight help me along the way.  Over thirty years later you would not get a modern student doing this unless there was a grade it in.  As I say education has become very mercenary.  So when a student graduates and ends up needing to write academic papers in Graduate School they struggle.  It is why they come to classes on academic writing!

My answer is the same however; you need to practice.  Write something every day, it doesn’t really matter what as along as it is coherent prose.  I advocate the use of blogs, after all they don’t have to be public and there are so many of them these days that most remain obscure even if they available online.  A blog post of 500 to 600 words is an ideal length to practice, and writing prose free of references and academic baggage allows you to focus on the writing itself.  In class I am asked: write about what?  My answer is always, anything that holds your interest.  Who will give us feedback?  No one is the answer, learning to be your own critic is one of the keys to good writing.  How many take this advice?  To be honest I am not sure, but I hope they do, because in the case of writing reading good prose and emulating this through practice and self-critique will always be king in my view.

I have one other tip to pass on.  I once had a management coach when on the academic leadership track and he told me a story which I can’t now remember to whom it was attributed, but basically it went like this.  Instead of sitting down at your computer each morning and writing emails, posting on Facebook or Twitter write a piece of coherent prose for half an hour and you will have a more productive writing day.   Not sure what the evidence for this was or is, but try it because it works for me.

If you are an undergraduate reading this.  Well my message to you is simple, practice and invests in yourself and in a good work ethic and in my experience you will win the day.

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