It is a prerequisite to good research
We often hear and read stories on the poor state of academic research in Bangladesh, a major factor behind the bottom ranking of our universities on the global table. To me, a major factor for the lack of research, especially in social science, is the ability to write freely.
And to write well, one must read well. This is where the true problem lies.
There is no clear-cut rule as to how many papers and books must be read before embarking on a new research topic. But it is quite clear that we are not reading enough, and even if some of us do read, we don’t often go very deep. Reading requires a lot of time, without any immediate benefits. And most of our precious time in university is occupied with classes, preparation, student consultation, and meetings.
Yet, being a full-time teacher, I can manage a considerable time for reading. It ultimately comes to a point whether to use the free time for reading for research, or to use it for social media or simply watching movies.
Writing is a slow process, especially for non-English natives. So one needs to be trained on a continuous basis to develop the pace and style of writing. I personally follow The Economist magazine and writings of a few economists to nurture my own writing style.
I do not have to agree with the content of what these economists and the magazine have written -- I only follow their superior English styles.
It takes me quite a long time to be satisfied with my own writing. And when I cannot improve further, I make sure to use the help of a professional proof-reader to improve the clarity of my writing.
For every paper since 2010 that I have been a part of, unless co-authored with a native English author, I did use an external proof-reader’s help to improve my writing. And this involved monetary investment, often covered by research funds.
Writing can be very frustrating for non-English natives like us. And our brain dislikes effort. So one needs to be sufficiently self-motivated to keep the wheel of writing moving. Reading novels in my school days, even though they were in Bangla, helped me confront writing a bit more comfortably.
When my students share their statement of purpose, a requirement for graduate admission abroad, I can roughly tell who has read novels in their school days. Some students take the wrong step of reading samples online, and then can’t get out of that framework. Writing creatively involves understanding one’s own self.
When we become a faculty member, it is taken for granted that we are versatile in teaching and research. And hardly any university teachers get training in writing. There are occasional training courses like research methodology in social science, intended to motivate young researchers. They are not very effective because they hardly address the main problem, which is the capability of writing with ease.
Writing freely and writing well requires the same effort as raising children. The main input is the time invested in it. Reading across disciplines and reading a lot really helps develop one’s own style and pace of writing. I haven’t found any shortcuts to writing comfortably.
There is a misconception regarding gifted writers, who compose sentences quite easily. The comparative advantage these so-called gifted writers actually have is the ability to think clearly, which itself is a result of unbounded reading and the creative imagination of one’s mind.
Knowing the writing routines of famous writers is a joy. Famous economics blogger and writer Tyler Cowen writes every single day. Partha Dasgupta, a distinguished economist and prolific author, can write comfortably sitting at the dining table with small children running around. Fiction writer Stephen King takes all necessary steps to write his daily quota of 2,000 adverb-less words.
Victor Hugo put himself under house arrest and took the most peculiar anti-escape techniques (he threw away his clothes to avoid the temptation of going outside) when he set out to write The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
There is also a correlation between sleep habits and writing productivity of great authors. Most authors tend to write during early morning when there are fewer distractions. Authors like Sylvia Plath, Benjamin Franklin, Toni Morrison, and Immanuel Kant would start writing at 5am. However, writing, especially in the morning, doesn’t guarantee success -- what matters more is having a routine and the persistence to write every single day.
We can give a researcher a well-equipped office and an extraordinarily detailed outline of a paper. But when the writing habit is absent, it is difficult to make a great paper. In the parlance of technology, writing is a “process knowledge” or the “know-how” that is hard to come by without dedication. Good writing is not easy, but the craft of writing well can be learned through continuous practice.
Syed Basher is Professor of Economics, East West University. He can be reached at [email protected]