The importance of writing it down -or- the magic recipe for becoming a better writer!
When we think of science writing or research in science, “we” (meaning myself of course but perhaps a general collective) think of publishing results, data, hard and fast truth. What many people don’t realize is that science also involves some highly creative, original writing. In fact, what I didn’t realize when I started my doctoral research was just how much writing I would be doing!
This is normal they assured me, it will be helpful for your thesis, it will produce manuscripts!
I didn’t realize that the writing would become such an integral part of the process throughout the rest of my research efforts.
The difference in science however is that in order to have something to write about, you have to first do something with your data, you have to literally: “do some science!” in order to have something to write about. The struggle these days is where every scientist and graduate student probably finds themselves at one point or another…balancing the time required to write clearly and productively with the time required to conduct data analysis and produce results you can write about. For those of you reading this blog who aren’t as familiar with the “research process” let’s just say that usually it is done in a step wise fashion. When you’re a student, it seems that you are doing everything all at once. It is not as well organized because you are learning the process and how to structure your research time effectively.
I’ve spoken with others (scientists, researchers, graduate students, etc.) about this phenomenon and what I can extract from their shared experiences is that everyone has a unique set of strategies to handle the combined research and writing process so that they are efficient and produce results without losing their sanity and at the same time, meeting (personal or professional) deadlines! What works for me may not necessarily work for another, a certain time of day may be better for producing focused writing or working with large data sets, but other times of day may be more conducive for sleeping in or just reading published literature. It depends on your style, your daily workflow and self-discipline. If you haven’t done research before in science, there are no other terms that could possibly describe the amount of patience and fortitude required to push through your ideas than the previous words in bold. It’s completely true, there is nobody else who can help you write better, you can read all the books you want and write all the reports and articles you want, but all the classes in the world will not make you a better scientist, a better researcher, or a better writer, it is up to you to put in the time and effort to improve your own skills as a scientific researcher.
So, how does one become a better writer? One way is to solicit the input from others that are brave enough to provide honest, objective criticism. The reciprocal of this is to be the type of writer that is receptive to this type of feedback! I am still reading this book by author Richard Rhodes which is on loan from a gracious colleague last summer.
I am again convinced that you are not magically transformed through courses, studying or trying to learn from others. Just as in the scientific process of accumulating knowledge and experience over time, writing skills are developed from a library of reading, examples and painfully tedious revisions! In my earlier college days, I wrote consistently and frequently at a high level. I was always enrolled in upper level honors writing and literature courses from high school all through college. When I transferred from my liberal arts education and training mid-way through my college studies to a science based approach (I switched my focus from liberal arts double major in music composition and theory with biological science to a pure marine biology curriculum) I was scrambling to keep up with the pace of reading and writing assignments. I struggled through the literature but not because I didn’t understand the concepts, but rather that the style of scientific writing was so verbose and complicated that it prevented the reader from obtaining the gist or the “real point” of the research objectives. I still find this today, especially in some specialized fields within science. The terminology, overuse of acronyms and technical jargon simply serves to obfuscate the meaning. Raise your hand if you’ve read a molecular biology paper where you spent half the time referring back to the tiny subscripts just to figure out what PUA, PCR or Co-A are….!
Whenever I find myself overwhelmed by the sheer volume of acronyms used in certain papers, I take a moment to remember another piece of collegial advice that I received…. “pick the low hanging fruit”. This of course was in reference to selecting a research topic, but it could be applied to writing. Stick to the basics, keep it straightforward and clear. Do not dumb down your writing, consider that your audience still consists of scientific peers, however if your writing is reflective of clear concepts and not cluttered by jargon, it will be easier to assimilate the information.
Now that I’ve rambled sufficiently about this topic, I will conclude that there is no magic recipe for becoming a better writer, but that the following ingredients may strongly apply.
Magic Recipe for better writing
1 part persistence
3 parts inspiration
combine slowly over a cup of hot tea with
1 part readings from your field
a strong reference library
with a well organized topic structure
simmer, write for a while and let rest
Resume the writing after several hours of reflection and editing until you are satisfied.
Prepare the manuscript for editing and submit.
Expect results after 1-6 months.