Getting to Grips with Writing

How did you feel when your supervisor first asked you to draft a piece of writing, whether it was a journal article or perhaps your thesis itself? Excited or terrified? Was it any different the next time and the next? Do you still feel anxious or is it all a piece of cake now? Writing is so integral to the scientific process, yet is also often treated as incidental. Communication skills courses are as likely to offer advice about giving presentations and how to prepare your CV as how to write an actual paper, yet ultimately your future job prospects are as likely to hinge on the (acceptance of a) journal article as any of the other components in your application.

I don’t remember ever formally receiving advice about how to write a paper at the outset of my career, and such soft skills certainly weren’t part of my PhD training. I would like to think I have at least explicitly provided good advice and criticism to the students who have passed through my group. They may not always have appreciated my wielding of a red pen, but I have been pleased by those who, in the standard thesis acknowledgements section, have indicated they appreciated my comments, such as an emphasis on precision in communication.

But how should one learn and what is it exactly one is learning when getting loose with (metaphorical these days) pen and paper? I clearly learned by what one might term the ‘immersion’ method, i.e. just by reading other papers and getting on with it. Scientific writing, and scientific writers, have not been much studied if a recent book is to be believed. The Forgotten Tribe: Scientists as Writers by New Zealander Lisa Emerson relies on a series of interviews with scientists at different career stages and who regard writing in rather different lights. She contrasts those she terms ‘adaptive writers’, who by and large enjoyed the task, with those she refers to as ‘reluctant’, who appeared sometimes to be doing it through gritted teeth. Ultimately she decides that at least some of the difference between these two types lies in how they reacted to writing in their school years and what sort of encouragement they received. However, that has to be too simple an analysis: one of her interviewees spells out how, having started off as a confident writer, the attitude of her supervisor knocked all that confidence out of her. Stuff happens, and we all know that interacting with the wrong kind of person can shred confidence in many different spheres.

I do wonder how much the advent of the word processor/laptop has changed how we approach writing. I taught myself to touch type – on a typewriter – around the time of completing my PhD, but my thesis was handwritten and typed up by the wife of one of the group technicians (this was clearly a little money spinner for her on the side as all the students used her services). Corrections involved Tippex in general (as did corrections to the thesis itself). During my postdoc positions, cut and paste meant literally that: one took a typed up version of the paper and, if sections – or merely sentences – were to be moved around, the secretary got out the scissors and sellotape. Perhaps this meant one thought harder about the writing in the first place, but I suspect I actually gave my professor hand-written manuscripts to read before they got passed on to be typed, although I have forgotten that detail.

What I do know is that, at the end of my second – and extremely productive – postdoc, I was required to write six papers in six weeks. That was a real endurance test. My husband had by that point left the USA, so I could write all day and all night if I wanted before I too flew home, but it was still a very tall order. With six papers on similar territory, it was impossible to make the experimental methods section other than pretty repetitive (and probably self-plagiaristic into the bargain). I ended up mentally thinking to myself how ‘allergic’ I had become to my own writing, simply bored by stylistic tics that I had no time to consider how to eradicate. Luckily, as I then changed the sorts of systems I was working on, I had to reconsider what I was writing and how to describe the experiments so I could at least start afresh in some senses during the next fellowship.

But I have had other bad experiences with writing, which perhaps takes me back closer to the themes of Emerson’s book. I had one (senior) co-author who used to go through every paper, line by line, with those who were named authors from the group. This was an immensely tedious, frustrating and ultimately pointless way of doing things. I think in part it was because he didn’t find/make time to read the paper at any other time, so this was his way of editing simultaneously with reading the draft. I do not think I learned anything from the process. Much later, indeed when a professor, I co-authored a paper with another professor (there were  several other co-authors too) who clearly felt there was a pecking order in authorship. Not in the order of names on the paper – although that too no doubt, although I have mercifully forgotten – but in who got to put the last touches of red ink on the paper. Again, an immensely frustrating process: he would take a perfectly adequate sentence and shift the word order around to satisfy his own sense of self-importance, or that’s what it felt like.

Clarity matters, logical thought and clear arguments to lead the reader through from start to finish, all these matter. But some stylistic issues are simply a question of personal taste and, for a scientific paper, there is a limit to how many changes of this sort are warranted if, by requiring such changes, the paper is held up for months because said red-pen-fanatic professor won’t allow the paper to be submitted until it has been through his personal control. Interestingly, at some level he must have known this was a bad habit as he remarked to me how an eminent scientific knight had refused to co-author any further papers with him after his own writing had been given a rough going over.

I found Emerson’s book – available freely online– an interesting and thought-provoking read. She conducted 106 interviews, of which she presented 19 in detail simply as the straight narrative they had given her during the interviews. What intrigued me was the many different ways the interviewees had thought about their writing, ranging from ‘this is just what I do’ through expressions of frustration and feeling blocked to not having thought much about it at all. Some writers clearly felt that writing was a painful necessity, but not something they ever felt comfortable with. Others saw it as a natural expression of their thoughts, a way of communicating using different styles as appropriate for different audiences. So, if you want to be stimulated to consider how you tackle your writing, whether or not you have been formally taught or usefully informed by a senior author, it is well worth a read. Reading about different people with their different strategies is always going to be illuminating.

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