By Bridget Deemer
With summer fieldwork and a semester packed full of classes, there were lots of excuses to avoid writing during the beginning of my graduate work. Writing about your science can often feel like something to leave for the end. Waiting until you know the punchline may make some sense from a framing perspective, but you can always tweak things later. Writing at least parts of your paper from the same perspective that your readers will have, the perspective where you don’t yet know your results, can be a powerful stance. It can also be motivating and can help you take advantage of the days when you feel your writing juices are flowing, regardless of where you are with your various scientific projects. This is the sound advice of Paul J. Silvia in his book How to Write a Lot. Silvia suggests allocating at least 10 minutes each day towards writing. If the words are flowing, then keep on with it. If the words feel stuck somewhere in the deep recesses of your brain, then move on to another project.
I recently began my term as a Raelyn Cole Fellow with ASLO. I am thrilled to have this opportunity in part because I want to be a writing resource and supporter, especially for graduate students and early-career scientists who are learning their way through the writing and publishing space.
During graduate school, learning to write a lot and learning to improve my writing became one of the deep joys of my academic program. Transitioning from writing out of necessity to writing more regularly did not happen overnight. It started while lamenting writing progress with a fellow graduate student who is still my good friend. Our graduate program encouraged progress towards our degree in many forms. Course projects could be directly related to our graduate research, lab meetings encouraged reporting of method developments and research progress, and scientific conferences encouraged us to think about how to tell the story of our research. Still, there was no formal structure that encouraged the actual writing process. Together, my friend and I spread the word—we would be forming a peer support group all about writing. At the time, we thought this might be a semester-long effort, but the group blossomed and continued beyond my time at the University.
I think the key to our writing group was that it was peer-led. We started relatively small and grew to about 8 regular members. We were all graduate students in the sciences, but our research areas were varied, and we were all at different stages in our program. As is often the case, diversity worked to our advantage. We could read and critique each other’s work as scientists, but not as specialists. The jargon that was common vocabulary in my field would invariably raise eyebrows in our group meetings. We could also help cheer each other along, with those further through the program providing experience and understanding to the newer members. One of our most important rules for the group: you must only listen (and not defend or reply to specific advice) when the group is critiquing your writing. Only after everyone had provided their critique could the author join the discussion. This simple rule became an important exercise in learning how to receive criticism. When you are trying to defend your work, you are not as open to hearing and understanding your readers.
In addition to taking turns with peer-review and critique, our group delved deep into Joshua Schimel’s book Writing Science: How to write papers that get cited and proposals that get funded. The book has excellent (and sometimes humorous and self-deprecating) advice. In addition to critiquing examples from other papers, the author also looks back and critiques his own earlier work. The book forces you to think about your scientific endeavors in different ways and to be intentional with how you present the work. The book is structured so that a class or writing group can easily work through it in digestible chunks. It was an excellent starting point for our group that created some common terminology and language to work around. From there, we explored other books (like the one I referenced above) and even self-funded a writing retreat.
In the age of the dreaded “second reviewer”, aka the reviewer that can’t find anything constructive to say, I think everyone can benefit from face-to-face constructive peer review. In graduate school, our peer writing group motivated me to integrate writing into my regular routine. Post-graduate-school, I still enjoy seeking and giving friendly peer reviews. It provides a different perspective than what you can get from the journal peer-review process. Oftentimes it is a perspective that helps you tell your scientific stories so that they are more likely to be remembered.
Schimel, J. 2012. Writing Science: How to Write Papers that Get Cited and Proposals that Get funded, Oxford University Press.
Silvia, P. J. 2007. How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing, American Psychological Association.