MANY of us sign up for jobs with more or less a clear picture of what the job entails. I started out as a molecular biologist in academia, a career path I had chosen because I found that working in the laboratory solving problems and carrying out all sorts of experiments was rather exciting and fulfilling. I know, working in a lab is not what many people would quite say as exciting, but it certainly was for me.
I enjoyed planning the experiments and executing them; from the experimental results, I could then make observations that led to little discoveries that in turn led to other questions. Those new questions needed more experiments leading to more little discoveries. It was all rather intellectually stimulating. Once I had a bunch of results from the experiments, I needed to make sense of them and tell the others about what I had found out. That was perhaps when the realisation set in that I had not only signed up to be a molecular biologist, but I had also unwittingly signed up to be a writer.
In the universities, especially those designated as research universities, the academic staff spend a large portion of their time carrying out research. Writing takes up a big chunk of the time dedicated for research. The writing aspect covers the preparation of proposals, journal articles, books as well as numerous reports and other papers.
To carry out the research, the individual first has to propose what intends to be done — the problems to solve, importance of the problems and how the research can perhaps attempt to find the solutions. The quality of the writing will determine how well the message gets across and thus it becomes an important factor towards getting grants.
Once the research has been done, the findings and other outcomes need to be reported. These are usually written up as journal articles, technical reports and books. High quality writing is also needed to best communicate the importance and significance of the research findings.
Good research needs to be followed up with good writing. If the research is not well written up and not well-communicated, then it will not be accepted for publication. The process of academic publication is usually done by peer review — an article or book intended for publication is usually reviewed by at least two other specialists in the same field and has to be accepted by these reviewers before they are published.
Non-specialist audiences will also need to be engaged and these require distilling abstract scientific concepts and cutting-edge discoveries into simpler non-technical language — yet more writing. At times, specific target consumers must also be addressed via white papers and/or advisories — and still more writing.
Additionally, most university staff will be doing lots of writing as part of their teaching. One could probably argue that university academics obviously have to write as part and parcel of their job description and most other people do not do research and probably not need to do all that writing.
This is perhaps where many fail to realise the importance of good writing skills in making an impact and ensuring the capacity to progress in our chosen careers. What many of us do not realise is that many occupations require the individual to take up a sort of secondary profession that is perhaps not obvious within the profession itself. Unfortunately, it is sometimes this job within a job that can be a defining and deciding factor as to how successful we are in our chosen lines of work. If it is not obvious yet as to where I’m going with this, the second job I am referring to is that as a writer.
Take for example a doctor; even those who are not in the medical profession will probably have a clear idea what a doctor does and hence why I am using it as an easy example. In general, doctors diagnose and treat patients. In order to make a diagnosis they will talk to, physically examine or have the patients undergo some sort of test. In order to treat patients, doctors will have to prescribe drugs or carry out certain procedures such as surgery. That’s perhaps the extent of what many think as covering the job scope of a doctor.
In reality, a doctor also usually spends a lot of time writing reports — case histories and case reports — including the reports used for insurance claims as well as those that are published in order for experiential medical knowledge or research outcomes about diseases and treatments to be shared in the medical community.
Many doctors may have even entered the profession not knowing that they also need to be writers in addition to the obvious tasks that they have to undertake. Writing is such an important skill in the medical profession, it is perhaps unsurprising that many acclaimed authors are or were medical doctors. Michael Crichton, who wrote, among others, The Great Train Robbery, Jurassic Park and the 90s television series ER, was a Harvard medical school graduate, although he never practised medicine.
In the bestsellers list, you probably see many doctor authors — Oliver Sacks, Paul Kalanithi, Henry Marsh and James Doty to name a few. Closer to home, we of course have none other than our Prime Minister Tun Mahathir Mohamad, himself the author of several books. One can still argue that doctors are very academic too and thus they should also be good writers.
So let’s take a look at a different profession — those who work in the field of intelligence - in other words, your run of the mill everyday spy. The version of a spy or intelligence officer we have been fed with by Hollywood is that of a dashing very physical individual — dodging bullets and defusing bombs despite having taken a brutal physical beating at the hands of their evil tormentors — James Bond and Jason Bourne come to mind. What we may not realise is that the job of the intelligence officer involves a lot of writing.
Many of the institutions tasked with collecting intelligence train their officers extensively in this particular skill. It is from well-written intelligence reports and analyses that allow for action to be taken by the powers that be. In fact, many retired intelligence officers went on to become very successful and famous authors, among them — Ian Fleming, John Le Carre, Roald Dahl, Graham Greene and Stella Rimington.
There are many types of writers. Journalists and authors are the obvious ones. But there are also those who edit and copywrite. These perhaps form the bulk of those who write full time for a living. But there are also many, perhaps even you, who may have unintentionally signed up to be a writer. Many jobs may be silent on the fact that to achieve success, you also need to be a good writer.
Think about the last assignment or task you had completed. How much writing did that require? Are you able to communicate well via the written word that will in turn provide you an edge and allow your career to progress? Writing takes practice. It requires a conscious effort to improve. Take the time to reflect on how much writing you may have been doing or should be doing in your chosen career path. Have you chosen the path of the unintentional writer? If you have, then the time is ripe to work on and improve your writing skills.
The writer is a bioinformatician and molecular biologist with the Faculty of Science and Technology and a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Systems Biology, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. Email him at [email protected]