Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘effective writing’

Frustrations of writing: don’t be too smart or too clear…

TypingSo, you are writing a proposal, huh? Yeah, you are. Maybe you just submitted your CAREER proposal, or maybe you are writing to Uncle Howie for that big whopper of a carrot on a string. Either way, you are trying to convince someone that the thing you do is the bees knees. Here is one on proposal writing. Just some thoughts. I’d love to hear what you have to say – post or comment here.

I was recently having drinks with a couple WomenOfScience. We were discussing writing – mostly grant proposal writing – as it is the life blood of the academic research scientist. We were discussing how, when you write a proposal, you need to skirt the line between writing for a general audience and being technical enough to prove that you can do what you say. The women I was talking with often fall onto the “too technical” side. Oppositely, I often fall on the “too colloquial” side in my writing. Unfortunately, both of these can be deadly to a proposal.

Too Technical: It can be insulting – you make others feel stupid because they cannot understand what you are saying. It can be frustrating to a reviewer. Reviewers are all smart people with PhDs or MDs. Further, many reviewers have egos. Egos need to be stroked, and making them feel stupid is the opposite of what you want to do. Reviewers might think you are trying to make yourself seem smart by putting others down. Also, it can look like you are hiding behind jargon. People can and do assume you don’t really know what you are talking about because you are using technical terms instead of explaining it simply.  This can be difficult to control, especially is you are naturally detail oriented and really do think about your subject in this technical way.

My suggestion: Spend a lot of time on the first couple pages trying to tone it down. If you capture your audience’s attention and get them on your side, you can ramp up the technical speak over the course of the proposal. This way, the technical stuff can sneak up on them, or even seem gradual. You should always spend a lot of time at the beginning, but if you are a technophile, you got to write it for your granny. I am assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that most people’s grannies are not PhDs directly in your subfield of science.

Too Colloquial: When I write a proposal, a paper, or give a talk, I automatically go into pedagogical/educational mode. Oddly, writing too colloquially can have similar issues as writing too technically: it can be insulting. You look like you think others are stupid, and that is why you are dumbing everything down. Another issue with writing or speaking too colloquially is that you can make what you are doing sound simple or easy. I am doubtful that any science being proposed is “easy” or else you wouldn’t need the bureaucracy of the university behind you.  Yet, writing in an easily accessible way can make what you do seem unimportant, easy, or obvious.

My suggestion: Sell up the innovation, importance, and significance. If you discuss significance in a clear way, people love it. Use your gift for laymen’s terms to explain the significance of your work and really sell it. Later in the proposal, you might want to explain the experimental or theoretical methods, which are bound to be technical. Thus, you will give your work a technical expertise that will ground it.

Unfortunately, I think both of these offenses are less acceptable if you are a woman. Let me explain.

If you are too technical, you might be incompetent. You are hiding behind jargon you don’t really understand. Or, you are a bitch who is purposely making others feel stupid with your fancy words.

If you are too colloquial, you are probably stupid and don’t know the technical terms.

So, either way, you are incompetent. This is the typical issue for women in the academy – you have to be more competent than the men. People assume you are less competent if you don’t perform perfectly. So, you must walk the line – strike that perfect balance. You are won’t succeed overtime. But, you know what? That’s OK, as long as you practice, and try and try again, and listen to your reviewers. At some point, you will figure out how you are screwing up, and probably go to far the other way. If you practice enough, you should be able to strike the right tone eventually.

So, anything to add? Comment or post here! Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.

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