In Masterclass in writing, Dr. Royce Francis not only weaves together theological reflection and practical suggestions on becoming a skilled writer in general and within one’s field, but also offers exercises to put the ideas in practice. If along the way you have missed some of “the classes,” click here. Questions and conversation are welcome—feel free to use the Comments section to express them, or email them to http://www.intervarsity.org/contact/emerging-scholars-network.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. — Philippians 2:3-4, ESV
This post will be among the shortest to read (and write), but the most difficult to implement. As scientists and engineers, especially, I’ve found that it is exceedingly difficult to put the interests of others first in our professional environments. Everyone has heard the stories of the proposal ideas being stolen, work being scooped after conference presentations, negative peer-reviews written simply because a manuscript didn’t cite a reviewer often enough or because an author pointed out the legitimate flaws of a colleague’s work. All of these things happen often enough that for most scientists and engineers they are not just stories. We generally don’t expect our colleagues to be looking out for our interests.
Yet, as Christians, we are told to look not only to our own interests, but also to the interests of others. Eugene Peterson’s The Message renders it this way: “Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead.”
If we can master the 3 A’s of writing, we can enjoy considerable professional academic success. As writers—in all fields—we have authority with our audiences due to our place or trajectory in the community of practice. We have audience awareness due to our considerable knowledge of the problems and ways of speaking within the community of practice. We know how to use rhetorical choices that will effectively communicate our ideas to our community within the audience’s attention span. Yet we so often fail to get our message across.
Why is failure so common? Because we are selfish.
(And because acceptance rates for everything from high-impact manuscripts to proposals are so low. But that’s a different issue…)
How are we selfish? We misuse the 3 A’s of writing. We can hide behind authority in ways that intentionally limit the transparency of our writing. For example, a researcher may use jargon to hide the fact that their results may be either uninteresting or impossible to replicate. They may then count on their reputation limiting claims of misconduct or triviality. As novice or beginning academics, we may insist on presenting every detail of our experiments or calculations in order to demonstrate our subject matter expertise. This may help us assuage our need for professional recognition, but it is a counter-productive strategy since experienced academics will be able to see through such efforts for what they are: a novice’s attempt to appear to have authority on a subject.
We may fail to pay adequate attention to our audience’s needs and framing. Most often we do this by denigrating the audience’s level of knowledge about our topic. How often do we hear inexperienced or unsuccessful writers claim that the reason their work was not published or supported is because the audience simply doesn’t understand the field? This is just not true. I have met relatively few reviewers, even on multi-disciplinary panels, who cannot understand the proposal or manuscript in front of them. They may not necessarily be able to put the proposed ideas in context with the historical development of a specific field. However, most proposals or manuscripts that I’ve seen accepted could have been judged worthy of support by reasonably knowledgeable researchers who have been convinced by what’s on the page. Successful writing is so effective that anyone can recognize it. When a reviewer says they cannot understand a proposal or manuscript, what they are really saying is that the author is an ineffective communicator who has not convinced the reader their efforts will be repaid.
This leads to the final point. We as writers fail too often to serve our readers by reducing the amount of attention our readers will need to devote to us in order to understand our message. The audience has limited attention they can devote to our writing—especially if you are writing a proposal or manuscript to be considered for publication. These types of high-stakes writing are almost always orders of magnitude more important to the writer than the reader. The writer usually is working on orders of magnitude fewer proposals or manuscripts than the reader is considering. The writer has, more or less, unlimited attention to devote to a proposal or manuscript. The reader has, more or less, infinitesimal time or interest to devote to a proposal or manuscript a priori. The successful writers are able to convince their reader, in a very compact way, that the reader should rearrange their priorities for their writing. We have to serve our readers and make our key points easy to understand in a very short amount of time, say, 30-60 seconds or less.
Yes, I wrote that correctly. The project that you have been crafting for the better part of a year or more will only get 60 seconds of attention from most people in your audience. After 60 seconds of engagement with your work, the reader has most often made a decision about how much effort they will devote to your work. Consider their interests more important than your own, and make every effort to be sure they can understand it in 60 seconds!
Pick your most urgent or important writing project. This week I want you to do these things in order to learn how to serve others through your writing:
- Write for uninterested readers! Take whatever project you are currently working on and find at least 3 uninterested, non-expert readers. It doesn’t matter what they’re currently working on, or how much they know about the topic. In fact, the more they are working on and the less they know about your topic, the better. You will have to be much more clear than you are used to communicating, and the easier it will be for your intended audience to quickly understand.
- Host a dinner party for your actual audience. Ask perhaps 3-5 people to your house for dinner. Tell them there’s a catch, though. You’re going to give them 15 minutes to read and comment on your work. They must give you feedback, or they will not eat. Do this after having non-experts read it. By giving a constrained amount of time, you are simulating the amount of effort your actual reviewers will put into your work. Also, the discussion that will happen over dinner, although much more favorable to you because of food and friendship, will simulate the panel discussion for research proposals in engineering and the sciences. This will be an authentic, yet supportive environment, especially if you keep good company. If you can do this one, you are extremely blessed with a community of colleagues or friends that love you and are interesting enough to spend time with. Treasure them and make sure you cook something good!
After these two tasks, you will see clearly how you are serving your audience well. You will also see clearly what you need to do to improve your communications. When writing, always consider the needs of your audience as more important than your own writing needs. Never insult your audience, whether in thought, word, or deed. Use these three points to guide your thinking as you organize your writing projects and select venues for publication.
Peace and Blessings.
About the author:
Royce is an associate professor of engineering management and systems engineering at the George Washington University. He conducts and teaches under the broad theme “SEED”: Strategic [urban] Ecologies, Engineering, and Decision making. His research and teaching interests include infrastructure sustainability and resilience measurement, risk analysis, and drinking water systems analysis. Royce is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and the Society for Risk Analysis (SRA).