Common Myths about "Good" Writing

  1. There are good writers and bad writers.

    It's probably more accurate to say that there are writers who understand the expectations of a given writing situation and writers who do not understand the expectations of a given writing situation. As we move through the educational system, expectations will change.

  2. "Good Writing" is subjective. Every reader wants something different.

    That is not entirely true. Yes, different readers may have different expectations (and pet peeves); however, each discipline has certain conventions/ expectations specific to that discipline. For instance, epidemiological writing is extremely concise, HBHE writing less so. Thus, it is the writer's responsibility to glean some of those expectations. There also exists some science behind good scientific writing.

  3. "Good Writing" is mostly about using standard grammar, a incorporating disciplinary vocabulary, and mastering mechanics.

    Standard grammar (such as subject-verb agreement), careful vocabulary (narrowing the possible interpretations for particular words and phrases), and standard mechanics (punctuation, paragraphing, fonts, sub-headings, etc.) are important tools that support good academic and good scientific writing. However, by themselves, these do not constitute good writing; organization and structure are also important. In fact, even the "standard" expectations for each of these can vary depending on a writers' audience. (Though in academic writing, these variations are sometimes subtle.)

Debunking the Myths

  1. There are good writers and bad writers.

    Why the distinction matters:

    Understanding this distinction between writers who understand expectations and those that don't can decrease frustration by helping writers (particularly graduate students) to understand that criticism of their writing is not personal and to identify avenues for adapting to their new situation.

    As Keys (1999) notes, the dominant paradigm for writing instruction in the US focused for a long while on "expressive" writing, which encouraged students to explore their thoughts and feelings, to develop rich description, and to narrate experiences. Length and lyricism were among highly valued characteristics. However, good scientific writing is generally direct, clear, and concise. Students who learned to write expressively in secondary school and college may need to adapt some of their beliefs about "good writing" to meet the expectations of writing in the sciences and in graduate school.

    Moreover, students who are writing in their second, third, or even fourth language sometimes internalize the notion that they are "bad writers," when, in fact, they simply haven't had enough exposure to the written language of their discipline to feel confident interpreting writing the expectations. In addition, some of the expectations for "good writing" vary across cultures, making the interpretation and response to writing feedback particularly vulnerable to misinterpretation and frustration. Reframing the conversation around known and unknown expectations can help students to identify areas for adaptation and growth.

  2. "Good Writing" is subjective. Every reader wants something different.

    Why the distinction matters:

    Generally, we lack a set of agreed-upon discourse to talk about writing. The result can be that it feels like every professor and every editor wants something different. In fact, empirical research done on reader preferences in the sciences suggests a great deal of agreement exists among readers. However, readers may express their feedback to writers in very distinct ways.

    By understanding some of these observed expectations of readers in the sciences, students and junior scholars can better de-code feedback from their various readers, identify similarities in feedback sets, and begin to identify their own strengths and weaknesses as writers. Understanding some of these essential expectations can also help to build a language across the disciplines about writing expectations and the approaches to revision.

    Here are some of the principles Gopen and Swan (1990) emphasized in their seminal article "The Science of Scientific Writing," linked above:
    1. Follow a grammatical subject as soon as possible with its verb.
    2. Place "new information" that you want the reader to emphasize at the end of the sentence.
    3. Place the person or thing whose "story" a sentence is telling at the beginning of the sentence (in the topic position).
    4. Place appropriate "old information" (material already stated in the discourse) in the topic position for linkage backward and contextualization forward.
      (Steps 2, 3, and 4 are sometimes referred to as "theme/new" or "known/new" development of content. This is often what readers mean when they talk about "flow.")
    5. Articulate the action of every clause or sentence in its verb.
    6. In general, provide context for your reader before asking that reader to consider anything new.

      Here is a blog that also looks at some aspects of good scientific writing, with examples from an article (Lander, et. al., 2001) in Nature.

  3. "Good Writing" is only about grammar, vocabulary, and mechanics.

    Why the distinction matters.

    A writer can spend a great deal of time "correcting" or "editing" a text without actually improving it. It is true that non-standard grammar, foreign vocabulary, and non-standard mechanics can certainly obstruct readers' understanding and interfere with their experience with a text. However, it is sometimes better to ignore rules about standardness while getting ideas on the page and later to go back and edit these issues AFTER you have worked through some of the larger issues of structure, organization, etc. The attention the writer gives to grammar, vocabulary, and mechanics can either shut readers out or keep them engaged, but this is only secondary to the writer understanding the story he or she wants to tell and the best order to go about telling it.

    A focus on genre is one way to reframe this conversation. A good scientific article will begin by looking like other scientific articles in the discipline, including having expected section components (such as an abstract, a methods section, visuals when appropriate, etc.), meeting expected length requirements, and introducing content in the order the readers expect. Good scientific writing uses discipline-specific terms, such as content vocabulary, and follows "typical" language patterns used in a discipline or field (such as familiar reporting verbs, transitions, etc.). Writing theorists group sets of writing that share multiple characteristics and expectations genre. Some genres you may write include grant proposals, in-class essays, term papers, and articles. When writers do not understand the expectations of the genre, they cannot anticipate the needs of writers. This leads readers to have a very difficult reading experience.