We’ve previously touched on writer’s block, and the strategies and tips you can use to get over the initial hurdle of the blank piece of paper. This week I’ve been inspired to revisit the topic of writing, in part because of my own return to science writing after a bit of a break. I greatly enjoyed writing in grad school, perhaps in part because I knew that writing before the end would help me finish my dissertation, but found that picking things up and getting in ‘writing’ mode again after almost two years of lab and computer work as a post-doc was a difficult task. Where do you start when you have nothing but a blank page? How do you go from a few figures to a draft of a manuscript?
As we touched on in our previous post, there are a few ‘blocks’ to get around in order to let the creative juices flow. Just as with presentations, there is no such thing as being held back in your writing by being a bad writer in science. You may not be a naturally prolific writer (just like I am not a naturally confident public speaker), but the great thing about writing in science is that if you stick to a plan and have a goal with what you want to write, you can always get there. In science, it’s not about how big your vocabulary is or how similar your writing is to the great novelists of the 21st century: it’s about sharing your story with clarity and enthusiasm, all laid out in a logical and progressive manner. So don’t let being a ‘bad writer’ bring you down or become a common excuse for you to avoid writing.
As with our easy* steps for a perfect** presentation series, we’ll detail a step-by-step guide to writing, focusing on how you can go from a blank piece of paper to a respectable draft. But instead of calling this the ‘Five Easy* steps for a perfect** paper’, this series will focus on the art underlying science writing. Because in reality, art isn’t only about fanning those flames of creativity, it’s also about getting your tools ready, doing some preliminary sketches, and having the technical knowledge to bring your vision to life. You can’t just be a good artist to make good art—you have to put preparation and thought into the works you create in order for them to be impactful.
Step -1: Read!
Just as with our presentation guidelines, there are things you can and should do before you begin writing a manuscript, grant, science blog, or really anything short or long related to science and to your work. Before you can begin to write and become a better writer, you should read and work towards becoming a better reader. Obviously you’ll read a lot of papers that are relevant to your work, but how many times do you actually read a paper versus just looking at a couple of relevant figures or glancing over the methods section?
If you want to see how science writing works, you need to read the results of science writing. See how manuscript authors lay out their story, how they bring together figures and results to a cohesive conclusion, and what works and what doesn’t in terms of style and structure. You’ll likely find more than a few bad or boring papers in the bunch, so when you do find a paper that sticks with you, keep it around: highlight the key points, see how they laid out their figures, and get a sense of how they developed their story. At the same time, learn how to critique a scientific paper. Focus on both the writing itself as well as the underlying logic. Do the findings they present match up with the conclusion they drew? Do the experiments they did line up with their hypothesis or project objectives? Were there any fundamental flaws in how they designed the study that weakens the conclusions they can draw? While you’re learning by seeing how others write, you can also take the time to become an evaluative, critical scientist, which is crucial at any stage of your career.
You don’t just have to turn to the scientific literature for reading inspiration, though. Your job as a writer is essentially to tell a story: a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Just because your story is crafted on data instead of imagination doesn’t mean that the methods used by authors from outside of science aren’t relevant. Take a break and pick up a new novel or read a non-fiction book on a topic you’re interested in. How does the author keep your attention? How do they transition between ideas or paragraphs? What words or phrases do they use that stick with you? We pick up a lot of our vocabulary and our way of phrasing ideas from listening and reading, so by enjoying more good writing you can also become a better writer.
Step 0: Make a story board
Sound familiar? That’s because it’s the same piece of advice we gave in our perfect presentations series. Before you open up that dreaded empty Word document (or the boilerplate ‘.tex’ file for those Latex nerds out there), do some ground work and set yourself up for success by drafting your outline or, to use the analogy from last time, a story board. As with the presentation guidelines, the purpose of the storyboard is to provide some structure for your ideas and to let you be creative while at the same time helping you guide your creativity in a logical manner.
So what exactly do you need to create your story board for science writing?
Figures. These should be in a 90% final form before you begin writing your paper. Maybe you’ll add something else in that was initially lacking, maybe you’ll change the label on some axes or change the color schemes, but overall they should be static the moment you begin writing. The figures should be able to tell a story on their own, the story that you’ll craft into words around these core figures.
You may think that the place to start with a manuscript is the introduction, but in reality you should focus on your figures before thinking of any other part of the paper. If you are a pen-and-paper type of person like me, print off each figure as its own separate sheet of paper. Around the sides, make notes about the figure. What do the bars show, on a very basic level (e.g. ‘Number of eggs per brood’)? Is everything labeled appropriately? Someone should be able to look at the figure, even without the caption, and have a basic understanding of what’s going on (such as ‘ok, there’s an increase in the number of eggs based on the dose of the treatment’).
Once you’ve had a thorough evaluation of the figures themselves, draft a caption for each one. Start with bullet points of the take-home messages for each figure. What does the figure show, on a more advanced level (e.g. ‘Differences in nutrient uptake in treated versus control animals’)? What should someone understand about this figure that they can’t figure out just by looking at the image itself (such as how many replicates are in each measurement)? Take these bullets as the starting point for your figure caption, and when back on your computer go ahead and write a full paragraph for each figure based on these bullet points. So now you’ve now got your figures and figure captions, which in reality what most people will turn to first in your paper-so you’re off to a good start!
Experimental protocols. Once you know the basics of what you’re going to show with your figures, start working on an outline for your experimental methods. This is generally the easiest (and also most boring) part of a paper, but from a scientific perspective is the most crucial. As you put together all of your relevant figures, dig out your lab notebooks and protocols to get all the details of your experiments. Make note of any steps of an experiment that fall outside the scope of a more standard operating procedure, or if a group of samples from one analysis was processed in a different way that the others.
Have your lab notes and protocols on hand and give them another read-through before you start writing. You can also look at methods sections from other manuscripts (even ones from your own lab) to get a feel for what information is important and what is superfluous. But be careful not to just copy-paste the methods section from another group’s manuscript, or even your own group (or your own previous manuscript). Even without any malintentions, simply reusing a section may be plagiarism or self-plagiarism. Rewriting the methods section ensures it is current, and it may end up being more clear or concise.
A pile of papers that have already been read. This is again a spot that can trip people up in the writing process. Once you’ve got your figures and protocol in place, the next step is to think about how to craft the story around them. You used the protocols to generate the data that you’ll present in your figures. But what’s the contribution to the existing body of knowledge? What’s the context of why that work was done, and how does it fit into what other data is out there already? How does this help your field understand a problem/scientific question?
As with step -1, it’s hard to be a good writer if you don’t read. And while you may have a basic understanding of what’s going on in your field or within this topic, you need to take a closer look at the literature before you start writing in order to craft your story and lay out the logic in the most appropriate way. So before you start writing, read in detail any of the manuscripts that you’ll most likely cite: the papers with the experiments that inspired your work, the papers that did similar types of experiments but with perhaps different systems or questions, and the papers that challenge your result at some level. Even if you’re read them already, read them again and make notes on the important findings or concepts that you’ll need to construct your paper.
Once the literature review is done, you can use this pile of knowledge to construct your storyboard. Think of your introduction and conclusion not as two separate components, but instead as a continuation of one to the other. The introduction is the beginning of the story, the methods/results is the middle, and the discussion is the end.
In your introduction, you set up the coming tale. As with our presentation guidelines, you can use the following format: your paper, just like your presentation, isn’t a series of facts, but is instead a means of presenting a specific problem, its overall importance, and your approach to solving it. You can consistently keep this to anywhere from 4-5 paragraphs by using the following layout:
- Paragraph 1: What is the problem and why should the reader worry/care about it?
- Paragraph 2 (- 3): What’s been done to address/know more about the problem so far
- Paragraph 3/4: Knowledge or tools that can be used to further address the problem
- Paragraph 4/5: Aim of paper, experimental objectives, and also list any specific hypotheses
The methods and results section are pretty cut and dry, and don’t need much of an outline apart from what’s in your experimental protocols and the bullets you jotted down while working on your figures. Keep any specific or detailed interpretations of figures (such as ‘the decrease in egg production is related to an increase in temperature’) for the discussion. The results section should be very cut and dry, with one paragraph of results per figure. Focus on the basics of what each figure is telling you and save the juicy, exciting bits about what it all means for the discussion.
In the discussion, you continue the story started in the instruction, but now you have a new factor to accommodate for: the data you generated in the manuscript. How does your new data fit in with what was known already? Does anyone have data that disagrees with yours? Frame the discussion as a way of addressing the questions you presented in your introduction, how your results fit in with your hypothesis, and what the limitations/future directions of your work are.
As you make your outline, put as many ideas, relevant citations, and things to mention in the paper in your storyboard as you can think of. You likely won’t use half of them, but laying out any potentially relevant findings can help provide context for what you should discuss and how you should frame your writing. One way to do this is to break down each paper into a series of bullet points. List out relevant methods, rationale, hypotheses, findings, and if you think results were interpreted correctly. Another alternative is to have bullets ranked by topic, and then list papers and relevant results under that topic, and see where the similarities/differences lie. I’ve tended to use a mixture of both, and then while writing used color-coded notations to help me keep track of what sections were written where.
For my own dissertation, before I began writing the introduction and conclusion sections, I first laid out the literature and the key points I wanted to address in a very long outline. While in the end I only used about half of what I put into the outline, when I was ready to begin writing I was able to jump into it quickly, without having to go back and forth between reading and writing and disrupting the flow of my ideas and thoughts. Being ready to write means being more efficient at writing, because you can let your ideas come to life without having to jump back and forth between different tasks, thoughts, or distractions.
It may seem like a lot of work before you even start writing more than just a few bullet points. But think about it this way: How much preparation work do you put into a big experiment? How much time does it take you to code something that’s never been done before? How much washing, chopping, and reading recipes do you need to do before you cook a nice dinner? A lot of the things we do, both in lab and in life, take a lot of pre-work in order to come out at a high quality and to be done efficiently. The work you put in before you start writing will allow your work to take off once you are ready to get started-and will make the task less tedious and tiresome, since at that point all you’ll have to do is to tell the story.
Next week we’ll go more into detail of how to take the outline and figures and construct a story around them. Until then, happy storyboarding!
With stores full of last-minute shoppers and with lab attendance progressively dwindling over the past week, the time for Christmas break is close at hand and with one last blog post to finish things off. Taking a look back at the most used words on the blog since its inception on the 29th of July, we’ve talked about a lot of topics, not surprisingly with ‘science’ at the forefront of the posts. The word ‘work’ also makes a strong appearance, in the context of working on asking good questions, figuring out your working style, and the importance of interpersonal skills in the work place. Discussions of ‘time’ are also prevalent, especially in terms of taking time to unwind effectively, using time strategically when setting up talks and communicating research ideas, and how to make the most of your time with networking. [We also learned that I seem to use ‘like’ and ‘just’ as frequent filler words, and in an ironic turn of events do a lot of writing about ‘talk’ing]
I’ve greatly enjoyed working on this blog for the past six months and am looking forward to bringing more ideas and discussions to life in 2016. Looking ahead, my goal is to talk more about the ‘Style’ side of the concept of ‘Science with Style’, and the importance of bringing yourself into what you do. It’s not about wearing heels and fancy clothes to do lab work, but rather in knowing yourself and your strengths, and in letting your passions and enthusiasm shine through what you do every day. I’d also like to bring in regular guest posters to talk about their unique science outreach activities and to do highlight posts on researchers who truly embody the concept of being a scientist with style: reserachers who ask good questions, who bring their passions to life through their work, and who make their work open and understandable to more people than just their own lab members.
For the time being, 2016 is still a week and a half away, and I am looking forward to my own much-needed break from writing, working, and alarm clocks. Wishing you all a relaxing end to 2015 and see you in the new year for a 2016 full of science and style!
Every week when I think about what to write for Science with Style, inspiration seems to come at the very last moment, and so far most of my blog posts have been inspired by my own recent experiences (and frustrations) in academia. Today’s topic is no exception, as I’ve been thinking about both my own blog procrastination and the selection of manuscripts I’ve left untouched. While I enjoy writing both in my personal and professional life, I still find myself having writer’s block on more than one occasion. Manuscripts which came back rejected that I never got around to working on, grant proposals and reports that I just can’t figure out how to start, and an ever-growing list in the back of my mind of emails I need to send or reply to. What is it about putting our thoughts and ideas into the written word that’s just so damn hard sometimes, even for those of us that enjoy writing?
I’ve asked several friends and colleagues recently what they think about writing and why they do or don’t like it. Some of the responses I’ve collected include It’s DULL, I’m not good at it, It takes up so much time, I feel like I’m just repeating what’s already been said, and the list goes on and on. While it seems there are a lot of reasons to dislike writing, the complaints about writing which lead to our procrastination can also arise in other parts of being a scientist: putting off the ever-growing pile of papers to read or the endless hours of pipetting required to load PCR plates. There are a lot of things that feel tedious, that we think we’re just not good at, or that we feel are a waste of our time, so what makes writing stand out in the crowd of things that scientists just don’t like to do?
Writer’s block isn’t just about a lack of motivation to write, it usually arises from something that goes deeper than a simple inability to put words onto paper. Maybe the data you need to write that manuscript about wasn’t quite as ground breaking as you thought it would be when you set out on the experiment. Maybe you realized as you’re writing up a project report that you need to dig through the raw data again and run another statistical test before you send it to the grant agency. Maybe you’re having trouble explaining your results, or aren’t sure about presenting findings that go against what someone else published already. These moments will come frequently in science, as there will be an answer to a question that goes against what we (or other scientists) thought would happen, or moments when we realize that what we analyzed needs a bit more work than we wanted to put in.
Wherever the block in our writing comes from, the fact is that as scientists-in-training and as future leaders of the scientific community, we need to write. We need to write in order to share our work with our peers, we need to write proposals in order to get grants to fund our labs, we need to write emails for collaborators and students and technicians in order to get things done. This is again in contrast to the expected image of a stereotypical scientist, and likely wasn’t what many of us imagined spending our days doing when we became fascinated with the natural world at a young age. That being said, it’s crucial for scientists to take a different approach to writing in order to make our work and our research more impactful using this communication tool. As scientists, we need to work frequently on transforming our thoughts and ideas into the written word. To do this effectively, we have to learn 1) how to get motivated to write and 2) how to write. Writing in science and about science is so important that it will likely be the theme of multiple blog posts from here on out, but for now let’s start by getting inspired to put pen onto paper (or to be more accurate in this day and age, opening one of those much-dreaded empty Word documents):
- Get inspired by great writing. Great writers are also avid readers. We absorb a lot of the ways we speak, think, and write from the world around us, so if you want to become a good writer and become more inspired to write, then reading more will help. Outside of your work, read what you enjoy and read to broaden your perspective, whether its history, psychology, classic literature, or scifi novels. Take time in your week to let yourself be entranced by the written word, since reading the works of great authors can help you become inspired to make some great works of your own. While fictions books are great and these stories can help us unwind after long days in the lab, you’ll generally want to keep the way you talk about your research separate from the realm of fiction novels. Finding a favorite non-fiction author, authors who focus on facts, citations, and logical progressions through events, can help your writing become more inspiring while still being fact and logic driven. My personal favorites include David Grann and Neil Oliver, but there are certainly many other great non-fiction authors out there that focus on topics other than South American explorers and Celts, depending on your own nerdy interests.
In addition to always having a book in hand (or in your Kindle queue), find scientific authors you enjoy reading and keep up with their work, even if it’s not 100% relevant to your specific research project. Many of the papers you will have to read will be rather dull, because a lot of those papers are written in an uninspired way (yet another reason for you to get inspired and make better ones!). That being said, there are also some fantastic scientists who produce clear, understandable, and well-crafted papers that can encaptivate you as much as a good novel. Stay on the look-out for these research groups; read what they produce, see how they set up their manuscripts, and try to incorporate their outline and transitions into your own scientific writing style.
- Envision writing as an opportunity. It’s easy to think about writing as a dull task that we have to do in order to get grants, enough manuscripts to graduate/get a tenure track position, etc. That’s also an easy way to make writing a more difficult task than it actually is. This is especially true for PhD students, as many of us (myself included, flashing back to 2 years ago me) think that writing a thesis is a pointless task because in the end ‘no one will read it.’ That’s, unfortunately, probably true, but there is a purpose to the task, and it’s to help you become a better scientific writer and to put into written words all of the assays and analyses you’ve done over the past 3-5 (or 8+ for some) years. As you likely already know how crucially important writing is for a successful career in science, then it’s evident that writing an 80-100 (or 200+) page dissertation/thesis is just a small part of what you’ll be doing the rest of your career. And as they say, practice makes perfect!
As scientists, we should envision writing as a chance to teach peers in your field something new, to tell a story about a piece of the world you’ve figured out with your research, and to show the scientific community that your time spent in the lab and chugging through spreadsheets was done for a purpose. What helps inspire me in my writing is to look back at the big picture of the problem(s) in my field, the specific questions I’m asking in my work, and think about how things fit or don’t fit together. With this mindset and frame work I find that I enjoy writing more, when I don’t just look at it as Oh I need to write such-and-such paper but instead as I have a chance to take a step back, look at my field, and ask and answer a question that’s relevant for it. As scientists our job is to interpret the world and to explain new pieces of information that we get from it, and writing is an excellent chance to help frame our minds around these new ideas and concepts.
- Choose your audience when possible. Don’t just think about what story you want to write but also what types of people will read your story. We spend a lot of time selecting journals based on impact factor, reviewer turnaround time, accessibility, etc. What’s equally important however, and oftentimes forgotten by both students and professors, is that part of your choice should also be focused on who is going to read your paper. Do you want to reach the wider scientific community and talk about the broader scope of your research or stay within a smaller group of scientists? Does your work have more of an impact on a basic research level or is it more focused on application? Do you want a journal with a focus on open access publication or do you just care about scientists whose affiliations cover any publication access costs? These are the types of questions that should go into the decision making process of where to send a paper. Your PI and co-authors will likely have some thoughts on this topic, but remember that this is your story and you should have a voice in who you tell it to.
Selecting your journal and audience before starting out will also help you organize your paper. Just as knowing who your audience is in a talk will help you frame your slides, knowing who will read your paper will help you determine what you put in the introduction/discussion and what you make as a take-home message. This exercise of thinking about your audience is also a great way to become better at writing non-scientific papers, such as for community outreach projects, blogs, or making a layman’s interpretation of your project. Thinking about framing your writing for your audience, even when you know the audience quite well, can help you become a better writer when all of a sudden you have a new audience to talk to. In the end, avoid trudging through all the details and instead focus on enhancing the clarity of your work and its impact, which will always make your writing better, no matter who it’s for.
- Ask for help and get a second opinion/perspective. As with many aspects of grad school/academic life/science in general, sometimes we really need a helping hand. Talk to friends and fellow grad students about your writer’s block, tell them your ideas and thoughts and see what they say about potential gaps, issues, and ways to move forward. Talk through your frustrations, either about your specific project or with a paper itself, and get another’s opinion on how to tackle them. Oftentimes we are held captive by our own goals of perfection or our concern on the lack of agreement between our initial hypothesis and the results we obtained. Talking to another person about our road blocks can help us see what is holding us back and can tell us whether we are making too big a deal out of something small. A second pair of eyes is also good at spotting issues we might not catch and provides another perspective on our project and the problems we are looking at.
While there’s certainly no definitive cure for writer’s block, finding ways to become inspired can ameliorate the symptoms and help you make progress towards sharing your story. Draw inspiration from others by picking out a new book or blog to read or finding well-written papers in your massive pile of literature for review. More importantly, become re-inspired by your own work and your own careers by answering these questions:
1) What’s inspiring for my career in science?
2) What’s motivating for my day-to-day work life?
3) What’s boring and makes me feel like quitting science?
Writing may be the quick answer to the third question for a lot of us, but if you focus on the answers to the first two then you’ll likely see a place for writing in your career as a scientist. Many of us are inspired by unanswered questions, by problems left unsolved, or by a desire to make the world a better place. It may be a bit of a stretch, but writing can help you get there. Writing puts your ideas in a place for others to see and understand. It’s an opportunity take a step back from a problem and think about it in a new way from introduction to conclusion, by allowing you to take your months (or years of) hard work from the obscurity of raw data into clear words and figures that stand for themselves. I can’t make writing easier, but you can make it more relevant in your life by approaching it with a new mindset and by seeing how impactful the written word can be not just in our own h-index but in our identity as scientists.
And now with this week’s blog post complete (again at the very last minute on this Wednesday night), it’s time for a much-needed break to build on thoughts of next week’s post, and to gain some of my own inspiration for finishing off that unfinished manuscript. So until next week, happy writing!