There is nothing more physically debilitating and emotionally demoralising to the budding writer than being confronted with an ominous void of a laptop screen. One can almost tangibly feel the will to live seeping slowly away at the prospect of filling the screen with informed, meaningful, coherent and succinct text. It is the literary equivalent of hitting ‘the wall’ – but from the outset rather than after 20 miles!
This challenge equally applies to graduate agricultural students. In an era of constrained global funding opportunities, graduates must be capable of developing well written grant proposals if they are to have a chance of being successful.
But the academic credibility and reputation necessary to underpin those applications must be informed by a track record of completed research projects and their successful write-up and dissemination, ideally in respected peer-reviewed journals where established, critical peers have decided it merits publication.
In some countries, where higher education funding from central government is in part premised on academic publishing records, this imperative to see work in print is the ‘publish or perish’ syndrome. Historically, however, as was noted in a workshop entitled ‘Enhancing publication and oral presentation skills of graduate students’, and facilitated in part by Dr John S. Tenywa at the 4th RUFORUM Biennial Conference, African universities have neglected this imperative.
The workshop sought to start to address this weakness in a series of presentations and interactive work primarily directed towards the young scientists in the audience. Some of the advice is simple in nature, at least for those who have experience of writing for publication:
- Use simple language
- Use clear and complete statements
- Use narrative text and not bullet points
- Be concise
- Avoid vagueness
- Maintain the reader in mind.
Underpinning such and comparable advice from the speakers is the recognition by Dr Tenywa, Editor-in-Chief of the African Crop Science Journal, that not only are good writers good readers – increasing the extent and depth of their vocabulary and exposing them to differing writing styles and ways of information presentation – but “I have never known a person who perfects writing my merely talking about it”.
Guidance exists on how papers and proposals can be written; but ultimately, the writer has to take that first step and press their laptop keyboard to make progress. Will the resulting text be perfect from the outset? No; it never is, to be honest, even among the most experienced of writers and scientists. The critical aspect is producing a draft that can be subsequently edited, and re-edited interminably as needed, and then subjected to informal critical review among peers, before it reaches the standard needed for a formal submission to a journal or a funding agency. As Dr Tenywa observed, if that process is not initiated, then “results not published are like research not done”. It is effectively the same as no-one sees the work undertaken and the potentially crucial findings it generates.
Going forward, and whilst awaiting the effective inclusion of courses on writings skills in academic curricula on the continent, there may be an opportunity for freely available resources to be put online (e.g., e-publications, webinars, and short courses).
It is only by such educational interventions that those young, aspiring scientists in the agricultural higher education community who run the writing marathon can be aided to make it to the finish line.
by Richard Powell