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The Urban Scientist

The Urban Scientist

A hip hop maven blogs on urban ecology, evolutionary biology & diversity in the sciences

Science Writing - Academically & Creatively

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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

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

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