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Science Writing – Academic & Creatively

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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It’s time to step my game up.  I mean that seriously.  I look at my CV or when I have a very honest and conversation with my old lab mate: we always come to the sobering conclusion

The writing is on the wall.

I have a demon.  Writing has always been my nemesis.  I know, this might sound like the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever heard. I’m a science blogger for goodness sake.  But I have overwhelming insecurity about my writing; (sometimes it’s even paralyzing).  Interestingly, blogging helped me defeat that demon once before.  Blogging actually helped me improve my writing.  One of committee members remarked at how polished drafts of my chapters were, better than he had ever read from a student before.  I was flattered. Practice does make perfect — that and some great lab mates who read and critiqued my drafts many times before sharing them with the committee.  The truth is, I really miss my old university.  It was a very supportive and encouraging environment.  It wasn’t perfect (I didn’t publish my works), but I didn’t feel like the mess I am right now.  My old nemesis has set up shop in my mind again – Science Writing. I mean writing up my science research. Writing up experiments to submit to journals.

I’m a postdoc, dammit. I’m at the precipice of my career.  I’m at no-turning-back-now point in my career. Writing about science and research and science communication is great, but when they say publish or perish, they don’t mean online publishing.  They mean the meat and potatoes of science and academia.

The first step is admit you have a problem and ask for help. I reached out and I was led to Paul Silvia’s How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing.  The foundation of his advice is to write routinely. Schedule a time. Guard it jealously; and write. Write your thesis. Write articles. Write book chapters. Write grants. And do all those things that are needed write, such as read necessary papers, revise drafts, confirm references.  You’re even allowed to write creatively on other projects.  The goal is write, whether you feel like it or not. Whether you feel inspired or not. Write.  Measure what you’ve done – word count, page count, chapters completed, revisions submitted, whatever.  Metrics matter.

I’m still at the setting a viable schedule phase, but I realize the last time I needed to stay accountable for writing I stated my goals and daily progress online for the whole world to see.  It worked before, so here I am again.  I’m putting myself out there for all you to judge and/or encourage me.  But the courage to do all of this came when I met Dr. Joan Slonczewski, scientist and science fiction writer, yesterday.  She was the department seminar speaker yesterday.  In addition to her talk – “Bridging Biology and the Arts and Humanities: Acid-stressed bacteria in science fiction”, I had a chance to speak with her several times was truly inspired to tackle this demon once ad for all.  I took her presence and her words to me during our conversations as Divine Providence.

First, on Academic Writing:

After your defense, don’t delay the write up. It only gets harder.

She wasn’t necessarily talking to me, but she was.  I was in a room with graduate students discussing the pros and cons of teaching/researching at a smaller college.  Her words were like jab in the side.  I know I am over due for writing up and submitting my dissertation chapters for journal publication.  But for some completely flaky and/or specious reason, I just haven’t done it.  And what it completely sad (and simultaneously infuriating) is that it is done.  No extra stats to do. My committee was so damn fantastic that they advised and critiqued my papers the way journal editors would do.

So, objective #1 – Schedule a writing time. Monday – Friday mornings (for starters) writing from 9:00 am – noon. No checking email. No twitter, no phone calls. No meetings.  Silvia says to carve out at least 4 hours a week writing. I need to narrow down and figure when is my best time to write and effectively eliminate distractions.  This should be a good ‘pilot study’.

Goal #1 – Write up and submit my dissertation chapters.  I’ll need to set up a major board or system for writing down my ultimate and intermediate goals and deadlines.  I also need to come up with a metric system for keeping track of my progress (and sharing with you all); but this (writing it out for the blog) is how I’m getting started. I probably need to set up something akin to an editorial calendar where I can write up my writing assignments – both academic and for blog in one place, very conspicuous to me.

However, I realize I also need some carrots, too. Dr. Slonczewski also shared her entree into science fiction writing.  Science inspires her imagination, and as a result she begins to see things, the world through new hypothetical lens.

My Sketchnotes of J Slonczewski's talk about Acid Stress bacteria in Science & Fiction

All of her scifi narrative are imaginary takes on real biological phenomena of the microbes she studies. She also shared that she wrote her very first scifi book before starting graduate school.  It was a lark, but she realized she loved it and continued writing throughout grad school. In fact, the writing proved beneficial. She was able to write up her thesis quickly because she was already in the practice of writing routinely. (A nod to the advice offered by Silvia and affirmation that discipline matters.)  I’ve been saying that this postdoc experience has been a hoot.  I swear, weekly lab meetings alone give me enough fodder to write plausible fiction, that I could become the next Michael Crichton.  I even shared on twitter that I think I’d like to write short stories inspired by my science experiences. So I’m going to indulge my creative writing side, too. Plus, this offers me some positive rewards.

So, I’m introducing Short-story Saturdays.  Each Saturday I’ll post a story that I’ve been ruminating on.  I don’t promise that it will be great or even complete; but I will post it.  It’s that accountability thing.  I’m also hoping for some feedback so I can refine my skill, voice, etc.  Deep down inside I’m hoping I can catch the attention of a publisher/benefactor who might be willing to pay me a little moolah so I can generate some revenue to get the Department of Ed off of my back.

It’ll be interesting and productive ride, no matter the outcome.  Thanks for joining me.


DNLee About the Author: DNLee is a biologist and she studies animal behavior, mammalogy, and ecology . She uses social media, informal experiential science experiences, and draws from hip hop culture to share science with general audiences, particularly under-served groups. Follow on Twitter @DNLee5.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. IncredibleMouse 8:55 pm 04/14/2012

    I get the gist of what you wanted to say here, but I can’t figure out how you intended to say it; “One of committee members remarked at how polished drafts of my chapters were, better than he had ever read from a student before.” :)

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  2. 2. IncredibleMouse 9:20 pm 04/14/2012

    “And what it completely sad ..” is* – You asked for feedback. :) I would like to make a suggestion. It seems to help me. After I write something I give it to one or two others to read, specifically looking for weird word usage, spelling, and clarity issues. My problem is that when I’m reading my own writing, my head is going through it visually at the same time, and the two never drive at the same speed. I’ll read right over my mistakes, feeling certain it was written correctly, because I visualized my thought process instead of reading the words I actually wrote. You should also read each word, slowly and out loud. Saying the words out loud forces you to read what you actually wrote, not what you ‘thought’ you wrote. Best of luck.

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  3. 3. Ultraphyte 10:54 pm 04/14/2012

    Thanks for a great article! It was fun meeting you and hearing about the clever pouched rats. Good luck in Tanzania.

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  4. 4. Stargazer 11:02 pm 04/14/2012

    Great article, great insights! I’ve been through this “inner realizing that discipline really matters”, and really, I make all your words mine and would almost be able to write the same thing if it hadn’t been written already. But this is the business we’re here for!

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  5. 5. missbehavior 5:14 pm 04/15/2012

    I can totally relate! After graduating, I had a whirlwind postdoc which abruptly transitioned into another… Between grant-writing, teaching, working on a chapter, research, academic applications, and now a blog, who has time to actually write-up the research studies I completed years ago? But you’re right, academic publications are the currency of scientific fields.

    Deep breath… find balance… schedule time to write… and stick to it.

    Thanks for the kick in the pants! I can’t wait to read your short stories and new academic papers. You are a fantastic writer.

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  6. 6. Simon Richards Medical Writer 1:59 pm 12/11/2012

    I sympathise with your predicament. I work as a Medical Writer and now find scientific writing second nature. However, I’m very interested in writing creatively for fun and am not sure how to start and where best to turn to for advice.

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