Thursday, March 17, 2011

The importance of writing

Why is it that no one ever clearly articulates to young scientists that being able to write clearly and quickly is a key skill? I spend probably half of my time now writing (sometimes more!) and I have never been more grateful for a liberal arts background that included lots of writing (scientific and otherwise).

Of course, like anything else, you only get better with practice. My own first drafts tend to be full of long, difficult to parse sentences that need to be shortened and simplified in subsequent revisions. After years of experience, I know this about myself and can set up my workflow to accomodate. I am trying to get my students to write more so they can figure out their own writing habits BEFORE they have major time pressure on their writing. I am surprised by how much resistance there is to simply getting words on the page. All of them would much, much rather set up Powerpoint summaries than write things up more formally, and don't see why they should change this.


Miss MSE said...

I think many people told me THAT writing was a key skill. However, no one ever really talked about WHAT makes writing clear versus incomprehensible You can write 100 lab reports, and if your writing is never critiqued, it won't really improve. I also think learning by example is important, and there aren't always readily available examples of clear scientific writing.

Bashir said...

In my own experience the only thing that works is putting writing requirements in place and forcing students to practice from the get go. Even though I hated them at the time, I am very glad I had pretty decent writing requirements from undergrad on. Though it can be a slow and difficult process.

Anonymous said...

I'm finishing (or not finishing) my Master's Thesis now, I have co-authored and published multiple times, but serious writing and being able to do it well is still very difficult for me. I think you're probably right that simply doing it more will help. I just wish I was better at it.

GMP said...

I think the attitude one has towards writing makes a big difference. If you like writing, for whatever reason (have talent, took many L&S classes, wrote for the school newspaper), you will have less of barrier to start and get stuff done, which makes you feel good about yourself and it's easier to get going the next time... Unfortunately, many people have an insurmountably high barrier to writing (I know some who could never finish their dissertation).

A key skill is to separate writing from editing. Fluid writing comes from writing large chunks of text at a time, just letting it pour out of you almost like it would when you talk, and not obsessing about every single sentence. Once a story has emerged, you go back and polish, polish, polish. Many students sweat over every sentence when in fact they are staring at a blank screen and have no framework onto which to hang their word, so it's no wonder writing seems terrifying.

Insomniac Lab Rat said...

At the math and science center I went to in high school, we had writing requirements in every class, every semester. In undergrad, I didn't have to write as much, and then in grad school, I've only really had to write for my qualifying exam (and a few paragraphs here and there on exams)

I don't think I recognized how important writing was until recently. I actually thought last week "They should really emphasize to science students earlier how important it is to be able to write clearly". What brought this on was reviewing (with the supervision of a postdoc) a paper that was sent to my PI. There were a few sections that were unclear, and they really jumped out at me-and then made me think that I need to make sure I know how to write better than that so that I have an easier time writing in the future-and even writing the review was difficult. Definitely something to keep practicing!

prodigal academic said...

Thanks for the comments!

MissMSE, I tell my students they should pull aside papers they really like the style of to use as writing models. I agree that more examples of good technical writing would be useful, but publications are a good start.

Bashir, thanks for the comment--I've been thinking I should start having my students write quarterly reports for the writing practice, but haven't implemented it yet.

Anon, I think practice helps with almost everything, including writing. I am already faster at it than I was when I started at Prodigal U.

GMP, I agree with you, I just hadn't thought of it in that way. I know my students want their drafts to flow perfectly from moment one, but real writing doesn't happen like that. I've been showing my students earlier and earlier drafts of my proposals, so I hope they can see that as long as the ideas are on the paper, the polish can come later.

Insomniac, I was the same way. I just didn't notice how crucial writing was until I was a postdoc. I was just lucky to be in a liberal arts undergrad where I was required to do lots of writing for my courses.

Brett Collins said...

I found this article recently, and think it's a great primer for scientific writing.

The art of writing science
Plaxco KW
Protein Science
Volume 19, Issue 12, pages 2261–2266