It is difficult to explain to students—at any level—the importance of being able to write. There are many aspects to writing well, and it is hard to master them all.
Connected. Good writing does not leave the reader guessing from one point to the next.
Clear. Good writing is direct, and avoids jargon.
Concise. Good writing is brief.
I rarely achieve all of these in my own writing, because it is hard work to achieve these things. What do I mean by hard work?
I recently submitted a paper to an academic venue. It was limited to 6 pages (11pt, standard MS Word formatting), including figures and references. This is tiny, as far as I’m concerned. I spent roughly 18 hours on this paper, total. The last four hours of work were divided between increasing clarity (growing the paper from 6.5 to 9 pages), and increasing concision (shrinking the paper back down to 6 pages).
I am also working on my fourth-year self evaluation. This is a document that critically reflects on my teaching, research, mentorship, and service to my institution and community. It is pushing 20 pages, with some assorted appendices thrown in. I have invested roughly 48 hours in this document, possibly more. I started it months ago, and have been writing and revising, as time allows, throughout the semester.
Today, I started revising my curriculum vitae, or CV, which is an academic resume. Translated from the Latin, curriculum vitae means “course of life.” It grows throughout an academic’s life, and reflects everything they have done professionally. Publications, grants, reviewing, presentations, committees… it all goes in.
I spent two hours today just poking at the CV. I probably have another 4-8 hours of work to bring it up to date, as well as transform it from a “generic” CV to an “institutional CV.” This means that it will reflect more detail about my life as a member of the Berea community than I would include if I was (say) applying for jobs at other institutions. This transformation takes care and attention to detail, and will likely require several rounds of revision with senior colleagues.
I also write webpages, produce videos, informational diagrams… I produce all kinds of media to support my students’ learning in and out of the classroom. I enjoy that kind of media production. But none of that matters, really. It isn’t my ability to make videos that helped me get the job I have now, nor will it help me keep my job as I go into my pre-tenure and tenure evaluations.
My ability to write clear, concise, connected prose is really all that matters.
If you’re considering a career in academia, then I recommend that you start writing, and keep writing, and revise, and talk with people about your writing, and revise, and talk some more, and throw away what you wrote, then start again, and just keep writing. Reading lots of papers—and reading papers about reading papers—will help you learn how to structure your writing (if you’re paying attention and reflecting on what you read, structurally), but ultimately, you’re just going to have to write.
If that sounds awful, you should not consider pursuing an academic career. All we do is write.