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Academic Careers

How You Write Matters

Recently our department received an unusual application for an ophthalmology residency. The applicant seemed impressive, a top student at a prestigious medical school with several publications and strong letters of recommendation. What made the application unusual was that the word “ophthalmology” was consistently misspelled throughout the application. I never had the opportunity to inquire how or why this happened, because the student wasn’t invited for an interview.

I work at my university as a mentor for undergraduates applying to medical schools and medical students applying to internships and residencies. I also review manuscripts submitted by physicians/scientists at the start of their careers to the peer-reviewed journal I edit. In all these areas, accurate spelling, correct grammar, and even proper punctuation greatly influence how seriously I–and doubtless others in similar positions–consider the submitted material. What you write is a proxy for who you are, and careless and sloppy writing reflects strongly on the impression the acceptance committee or reviewers will have of you.

However, correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation are only the first step. Unfortunately, there is often a wide gap between the intelligent, well-trained, thoughtful, caring, and often creative and witty students and young clinicians/scientists I know personally and the dull,
style-less, convoluted prose written for admission essays and scientific publications that these same people frequently present to me for “proofreading.” The convenience of digital communication and social media and the ease by which they allow us to communicate may help us to manage our busy lives and keep in touch with old friends. But the ability to send a quick text or post a comment on Facebook can be habit-forming, working against careful thought and thoughtful prose. The written results often do not signal the intellectual depth needed to engage and influence readers in a more professional setting–and that as often as not is present in the writers, even if it isn’t apparent in
what’s written. Technology has spoiled some of us and made us lazy writers.

But, not to worry, there are a myriad of helpful and effective writing guides available. All offer some version of Strunk and White’s classic advice, as summarized by Sword, in their famous book, The Elements of Style, first published in 1918 and continually revised:

Always use clear, precise language, even when expressing complex ideas; engage your reader’s attention through examples, illustrations, and anecdotes; avoid opaque jargon; vary your vocabulary, sentence length, and frames of reference; favor active verbs and concrete nouns; write with conviction, passion, and verve.

Another option is Helen Sword’s recently published book, Stylish Academic Writing (2012). It is short, highly readable, entertaining, and a great help for those who wish to get rid of bad writing habits and communicate clearly, effectively, and with style.

If these two writing guides are not to your liking, many others are available. The most important step is to pick one guide (or two), read, learn, and write! For as Ray Bradbury once said, “You fail only if you stop writing.” So don’t stop, but do it well.