As an aspiring writer in middle school, I took a writing course one summer. (Yes, middle school. Yes, summer. I was a nerd. I’m still a nerd. It’s served me well.) Use imagery, my brilliant instructor said, but be sure not to mix metaphors. Use adjectives sparingly, and make them count. Eschew adverbs altogether. Keep the cadence interesting by mixing long and short sentences. And on and on and on.
I’d like to think my writing got better over that summer. But it wasn’t until I hit college that those lessons truly sank in. No, it wasn’t the skilled professors or the dozens of research papers. It was the fact that I was hired as a writing tutor. Having to read other student’s work – and groan through their myriad bad practices, or fly through the occasional well written piece – was what made all those lessons sink in. Seeing what sabotaged other people’s writing, or what made it work, allowed me to be a better appraiser of my own output. To wit, if you want to become better at something, get yourself in a position to evaluate it.
I’ve always considered myself to be descent at job applications and interviews, but when I had the opportunity to be the one making hiring decisions, I gained a whole new level of understanding and appreciation for the process. (Yes, we really do only glance at your resume and cover letter; and yes, we do somehow manage to notice your gross errors in those few seconds). In reviewing articles, I gained a better sense of what works for scholarly submissions. I’ve never had a chance to evaluate grants, but those who have tell me it’s a game-changing opportunity.
A certain level of competence is usually required to be allowed access to the evaluating sphere. But you don’t have to be a pro or an expert. You just have to be willing to seize the opportunities that come by. So say yes to that offer to be part of the accreditation panel, or the budget review committee, or the program evaluation team. Sign up to be a discussant at conferences. Wiggle your way into the hiring or promotion committee. If you want to improve, evaluate your options – then start evaluating.