I started my academic career as a lousy writer. More specifically, as a lousy academic writer. But I was motivated to improve. I consulted people whose writing I admired and generally received the same suggestion: if you want to write better, you should (a) write a lot and (b) read good writing. Unfortunately, this advice always seemed a bit self-evident and frankly, unsatisfying. I had already tried both. Eventually, however, I realized that the key was less about what one read than how one read. The important thing was to think about how an academic argument is constructed. What nobody had told me is that the best way to do that is to read other people’s drafts.
My biggest improvement as an academic writer came from co-organizing a graduate workshop. In the workshop, students from a variety of fields pre-circulated drafts that we discussed in a group of roughly six to twelve. While it was almost always successful, the main reason I learned so much is that as an organizer, I was so worried about the contributor receiving poor feedback that I always thought hard about their paper and how it could be improved.
Reading drafts from people in your field is good, but reading drafts from unrelated fields is even better. When you’re reading about a topic with which you’re unfamiliar, you’re more attuned to the writing. You don’t worry so much about the specific contribution or intervention, but focus on how to improve or clarify it. I know little about medieval history, so when I read a paper on twelfth-century guilds, I can think carefully about the use of archival material, the overall structure, or the clarity of the scholarly intervention. It’s even better when you find the topic boring. Thinking about how to put the best spin on a topic you find uninteresting will hone skills that apply to your own work. Ultimately, other people’s drafts pose you with writing challenges you may never have faced or never known existed, and that leads to good things.
Talk to the person about their piece after you read it. Explaining suggestions not only improves the draft, but it helps you think consciously about what is and isn’t working. When I read an article I don’t like, I tend to move on without thinking about why. Actually having to explain why something isn’t working requires a better appreciation of the author’s challenges as well as the nature of the problem. The conversation also provides insight into the author’s perspective, which can change how you think about writing more broadly.
Finally, it’s always easier to spot bad habits in other people’s writing. This will lead to realizations about your own. For a period of about two years, I used the word “however’ in nearly every sentence I wrote. However, I wasn’t aware of that fact until I was reading a draft in which someone had the exact same habit. Problem solved. Of course this is only productive if you approach your own writing with humility. Drafts are rarely good and never perfect. Be charitable to the author and you’ll be more aware of your own limitations.
I spend more time offering to read drafts than actually reading them, because many people assume it’s not a genuine offer. It is, and hopefully this post has clarified why. If you want to be a better scholar, read other people’s drafts. Oh yeah, and if you read someone else’s drafts, they’ll read yours.