Friday, April 27, 2012

Prof. Mike Malusis on the four Cs of high-quality technical writing and the painful but necessary process of writing

Mike Malusis, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Director of Bucknell’s Writing Across the Curriculum Program (2012-15)

What writing project(s) are you working on right now?
I am working on several writing projects that are at various stages of completion, including three journal papers (one in press, one in review, and one in preparation) and two papers (in preparation) for upcoming conferences in Paris (2013) and Melbourne (2014).  I also have begun work on my first book project, a textbook on ground improvement (i.e., principles and practices for improving the engineering properties of poor or problematic soils), in collaboration with my Bucknell colleague, Professor Jeff Evans.  We are hoping to complete the book in two years, but we shall see.

What do you love about it?
The most rewarding aspect of writing, from my perspective, is the learning that accompanies the writing process.  I love to learn, and there is no better way to enhance my knowledge or crystallize my understanding of a particular subject than to write about it. 

What about it (if anything) is driving you nuts?
Just about everything, but in the interest of brevity, I’ll list my top three frustrations: (1) writer’s block (which happens far too often for my liking); (2) the seemingly endless process of revision; and (3) finding errors in my published papers (if you find one, please, do not tell me about it). 

How would you describe your writing process?
An oft-followed adage in engineering is, “plan the work, work the plan.”  This is exactly the way I approach all of my writing projects.  The planning stage is particularly important, as this is the stage in which I answer the key questions that ultimately guide (and constrain) the design of the writing piece.  For example: Who is my audience?  Why am I writing?  What are my objectives?  What are the requirements (e.g., length, format, etc.)?  What information must I include?  How do I organize and present that information?  Typically, my planning effort culminates in a detailed outline that includes a draft title, the basic structure of the piece (i.e., all sections and subsections, organized hierarchically), bulleted lists of key information to be included in each section/subsection (including illustrations such as figures, tables, and drawings), and a draft list of references that I anticipate citing in the work. 

After my outline is prepared, I begin “working the plan.”   I create the illustrations first, since much of what I convey in the text will be my interpretation of these illustrations.  Then I compose the text, starting with the sections that are easiest to write.  I try to articulate my ideas as best I can while fighting back an instinctual urge to create a masterpiece in the first draft.   Unfortunately, I am not always successful at preventing my perfectionist nature from getting in the way of progress (and writer’s block ensues).  In any case, once I have flesh on the bones, I embark on the revision process.   Revision is no small task and goes well beyond proofreading.  I critically evaluate the entire piece --- every section, every sentence, every word --- with focus on organization, economy, clarity, completeness, precision, and accuracy.  This process, for me, often requires several iterations.  Painful, but necessary.

What kind of feedback on your writing do you find most helpful?
While I appreciate feedback of all kinds, the most helpful feedback generally relates to one of the four C’s of high-quality technical writing: Clear; Concise; Complete; Correct.  Clarity problems, in particular, are difficult for me to detect in my own work.  My explanations always make sense to me!    

What would you like your students to know about you as a writer?
Good writing does not just happen for me.  I usually spend at least twice as much time revising a paper as I spend creating the initial draft.

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