Professionalism in writing: for National Stationery Week (II)
The week beginning 25 April is, in the UK at least, National Stationery Week (#natstatweek). Wednesday is World Stationery Day (#WorldStationeryDay). This post is designed as the second in a mini-series for the occasion.
A doctoral researcher in the department where I work most often as a writing mentor — the Department of Engineering in the University of Cambridge (UK) — comes to see me. She is clutching a miscellaneous collection of loose-leaf paper, mainly A4.
Each sheet of paper is printed on one side — she has taken the scrap from one of the department’s printers. On the other side of each piece is untidy scrawl — large, poorly aligned, handwritten text, mostly in cheap biro ink.
She has been told by one of her colleagues that she ‘must’ come to me — the way that people suspected of having serious illness are told they really must go to their doctors. The reason? Her method of working is, apparently, ‘completely unprofessional’.
I look at the unattractive scrawl — all of it reporting engineering research — and ask her who it is written for. ‘Oh, just for me, at this stage,’ she says: ‘I wouldn’t expect anyone else to read this’.
The text is full of revisions and amendments. Some words are crossed out; others have been inserted between lines; notes have been added; various lines and arrows link one piece of text to another. Visually, it’s a mess.
I ask her to talk me through the various edits. As she does so, it becomes clear that she has been shaping and refining her thinking, and the story she is telling, very considerably. It strikes me as all highly intelligent.
I particularly like the moment when she points to something she’s crossed out. ‘I crossed it out because I don’t want it in any more, but I do still want to be able to see what I’ve crossed out, so I’ve used only a single line’.
Then comes the moment when I have to respond, like a doctor making a diagnosis and then writing a prescription.
‘What a very good method!’ I say. ‘My only recommendation is not to change a thing. And if the numbskull who told you that this is unprofessional would like to come and talk to me, I’d be delighted to explain to him why he’s wrong.’
Not that he ever did.