Earlier this month, I helped prepare a 5,500 word grant application with 68 scholarly references across multiple fields, a one page summary, a data management plan, and a budget to the National Science Foundation (NSF). This was the small version of a potential future grant application, which would be 50% longer, and include additional postdoctoral mentoring and management and coordination plans. These grant proposals must conform to a program solicitation of over 10,000 words, which spells out how this particular solicitation differs from the baseline Proposal & Award & Policies & Procedures Guide, itself a 192-page PDF. This grant application was coordinated across three academic institutions, five administrators, and seven intellectual collaborators.
After that experience, I picked up efforts (not as first author) to publish a nearly 16,000 word journal article, with over 100 scholarly references, for which my collaboration with the first author began ~3.5 years ago. After the article was finished and submitted over a year ago, it has gone through two reviews by an editor and three external reviewers. In response to the reviewer comments, our team of authors produced two response letters of 12,500 and 7,000 words, respectively. We’ll see whether this most recent round of revisions is sufficient for the article to be published.
My first blog post for this Opening Pathways project was 379 words.
It turns out writing can be fun.
A significant portion of my work is writing, and while I imagine some academics find authoring journal articles and grant proposals fun, I would place those activities squarely in the work, not fun, category. I have authored or co-authored academic journal articles, grant proposals, ballot initiatives, technical reports, whitepapers, conference presentations, scripts for video courses, grading comments, marketing copy, content for PDFs, and somewhere along the way, had forgotten that writing can be fun.
Then, of course, I land in this Opening Pathways work, collaborating with an experienced digital communicator (hi Dana), who invites all of us on the team to write blog posts. And I do. And it is fun. I get to start sentences with “and” if I feel like it, and hyperlink to wikipedia or the popular press, and express myself without meticulous attention to linking every statement to evidentiary support from content that already exists. I can write about culture (twice even!), other people’s blog posts, and how we say hello in the academy.
There is a freedom in short form writing; I can make a point and leave it at that, without needing to hit a word count or fill a page. It’s also a relief to articulate an idea, and put it out on the internet, without having to review a body of scientific literature first (which is customary for academic journal articles). This blog has been a refreshing exercise for me, reminding me that writing can be fun, and helping me consider and develop my voice online. It’s been lightweight, rewarding, and an opportunity I have really appreciated as part of this work.
For academic writing, I have sometimes (often) found myself feeling alone, and/or stuck. Even with co-authors, asynchronous communication has left me mostly to my own devices. I am realizing that part of my writer’s block in these situations could be stylistic, that I am in drafting in a very academic referenced style, and could be losing track of the big ideas, or major plot points within them. I think that this blog has invited me to write differently in those situations when I encounter them in the future. Rather than feel bound to what exists (the literature) and what is defensible (scientifically rigorous ideas), putting on this blogging hat might help me think more freely, and play with ideas, until I find that sweet spot where I can articulate them for my intended audience.
All of this to say, this blog has improved my writing style and practice, and I hope to build more creative expression into my writing going forward. Thus far, I have drafted more microblogs (tweets), rather than just retweeting things, and I want to follow this instinct, maybe seeking out popular press, personal journal, or other writing opportunities that can help my writing for work feel a bit more like writing for fun.
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