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Assessing Your Writing Skills

A list member writes:

This morning while working on a proposal with some super collaborators I found myself thinking that my writing skills could use some work. I know they always can, for everyone, but then I wondered:

How can I assess my writing skills to highlight current strengths and weaknesses without going back to college? Both for super technical (e.g., peer reviewed papers and proposals) and for more lay type audiences. Are there services, tools, tutorials, etc. for this purpose?

Once assessed, are there specific tutorials, books or other tools that would help me to address my weaknesses?

I know practice makes perfect, and that getting feedback from trusted sources can be effective, but short of constant collaboration what can one do?

The bad news, dear List Member: it is hard to obtain the knowledge you seek in the way you want to learn it.

You want improvement to be a process you can undertake privately. But writing is like public speaking: it’s transactional, and your ability to execute the transaction more effectively improves with frequency. People who want to improve at public speaking…speak in public a lot, and are always asking their audiences afterwards: Did that work for you? And making the necessary adjustments. It feels slightly narcissistic and very uncomfortable to be so naked and so needy, but you’ll get over it. Tell them: I’m learning!

Another way to say this: you might well have “strengths and weaknesses,” but those don’t exist outside individual instances of writing, and that writing first has to get a job done for which there are numerous tools and pathways. Instead of worrying about your weaknesses, the first question you need always to ask is “what’s going to be an effective way to communicate what I want to say to this audience?” That’s the bottom line of writing. I might not be able to skate a quad lutz + triple toe combination, but if I can skate across the rink without falling down, that’s probably plenty good. You might never be a great storyteller; that doesn’t mean you can’t get a point across memorably. Writing is painful enough without making people feel competitive or bad about what they don’t do well. Asking “what do they need from me and what are the ways in which I might deliver that to them?” is the healthier (and less time-consuming) approach.

So: “assessment” and “improvement” of your writing aren’t discrete processes. They should form a continuous feedback loop. You write; you and your audience assess the impact; you write again to build on what you did well and explore ways to improve; you and your audience assess whether it’s really an improvement; and so on. Within that dynamic, no stand-alone evaluative tool makes sense. You need relationships.

For individuals, the most direct way to “assess your writing” (technical or non-technical) is to pay a professional writing coach to give you a manuscript evaluation. The evaluation will be confined to the manuscript, but you can ask for general impressions. I’m happy to make recommendations to anyone interested.

You might also organize a two- or three-day writing workshop for a group of researchers all working on manuscripts, where everyone reads everyone else’s drafts and gives candid but supportive feedback. I ran these many times in my life before consulting, and almost all the authors make amazing strides in a short period of time. I like both these approaches because they’re not about strengths and weaknesses but about what works and what doesn’t. If you want to generalize from those about your skillset or your character, you may.

Another direct way to get rolling assessments of your non-technical writing is to just put it out there and get market feedback. Post something once a week on your organization’s internal communications channel, or sign up for Medium or WordPress or Squarespace and start writing once a week or more frequently and putting the links on Facebook or Twitter and soliciting comments. Once you have feedback, you also have the platform to respond and experiment with different approaches.

OK, so there are plenty of online courses, and I think you could also assess yourself informally as you take one of the innumerable online courses to improve your writing — everything from this short interactive BBC course on academic writing to EDX courses on academic writing made easy, persuasive writing and writing for social media. I am not big on rules, but I am big on expanding your toolbox. None of these courses is more than $50. But you need to move from the battleplan to the fog of war ASAP.

Which is why I think most books on writing are useless; they give advice that’s banal, insufferably general or both. The best one I’ve read (by a wide margin) is still Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird,” because it’s about the difficulty of the process and how to prepare yourself for that. In that vein, I would also read and re-read James Clear’s “Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones,” since so much of writing is about not procrastinating doing something else.

I hope at least some of the above has been was helpful, dear List Member, and I’d bet this isn’t the last time I’ll write on this topic. In fact: next week, I’ll write about what organizations can do to help their researchers improve their writing.