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!