#DevBiolWriteClub on the Node, Post #2:
Posted by John Wallingford, on 18 October 2020
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In my first post a few months back, I talked about the need for working scientists to create new habits of mind by practicing the craft of being a writer. Since then, I took my own advice. I abandoned Twitter, helped folks in the lab to get five papers into the BioRxiv, and finally finished an essay I’ve been working on for two years (with luck, you can read it in Development soon…). Last week, though, I was reading an interview in the New York Times with the newest winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, the poet Louise Glück, and I was inspired.
She said this: “Though I couldn’t always write, I could always read other people’s writing.”
I love this. Here’s a Nobel Laureate acknowledging that she couldn’t always write, acknowledging perhaps as well that she can’t always write. We can all relate. Any writer faces writer’s block, but in science there’s often a far more tangible reason for not being able to write: Not enough data to write a paper! So, what do you do? How do you keep your writing practice moving forward when there’s nothing pressing to write about? Glück gives us the answer: You read.
There’s a catch, though; you have to read like a writer. This is rule #4 of DevBiolWriteClub. Happily, starting to read like a writer is simple and quick. The hard part of course is that it only matters if you keep it up, day after day, for a long, long time. There are no shortcuts.
So, what does it mean to read like a writer? In my view, there are two components. The first one is simple. You just do the work, with intent, every damn day.
Here’s what this looks like for me: I wake up, get eggs and coffee, and settle into the New York Times for at least 30 minutes, often for an hour. I do this, seven days a week. Usually, I read the front section and the columnists. When the news is too ugly, I skip all that and plunge straight into Arts or Food, sometimes Travel. I even sometimes read the Style section; I will read any article about Prince Harry and Meghan in its entirety, so long as it’s written well. Then I’m off to work (just in the next room these days), where of course I read all day. Emails do not count, but papers certainly do. At my mid-afternoon coffee break, if I can’t find someone to talk to me, I usually read a book, science history mostly or popular science. Finally, at the end of the night, I read more. Now it’s purely for fun, but it still counts. Novels, short stories, biography, satire, history. I once read an entire book by Nick Hornby that was just about reading books. There must be 30 books in various states of read or unread stacked next to my bed. My wife hates this mess. Regardless, I read a book in bed before I sleep every single night.
What does your reading schedule look like? How much did you read yesterday?
Ask yourself: How does your time spent reading compare with your time on Twitter or Reddit or TikTok? (Or in my case playing my kids’ Xbox.) It’s probably obvious that we might carve out at least a little extra time for reading. Now, do a more challenging exercise: How did your reading time yesterday compare with your time planning, performing, or interpreting experiments? Would your career benefit from exchanging 25 minutes a day of lab time for reading time? Over the next few months, no. Over the next ten years, though? The answer is certainly yes.
Next, ask yourself, “what did I read today?” In fact, ask yourself this question every single day. It’s a 10 second step that will put you on the right path. It will instill a habit of noticing what you read; this is the second component of reading like a writer.
As this new habit matures, you’ll find yourself noticing what you read when you read it. Eventually, this will grow into not just noticing what you read but also noticing the writing as you read (that was a really well written sentence; that was not, etc.). The key to developing this habit is to avoid the normal scientist’s instinct of simply devouring the content of a paper, squeezing it for every possible insight. Instead, try to carve out a small part of your consciousness and keep it focused on seeing the writing.
This will be an unfamiliar way of reading for many, so some exercises might help develop the practice. I like to underline sentences I think are particularly well written. An exclamation mark in the margin is my shorthand to indicate that a sentence was underlined for the writing, not the content. If you get through a week of papers without ever noticing a great sentence, another exercise may be useful: Make it a habit to simply ask yourself at the end of each paper, “what was my favorite sentence?” then spend a few minutes answering yourself. Even when I read for fun, I do something like this: Dog-eared pages in books in my library indicate that hidden on this page, somewhere, is a sentence I really liked.
Ok, so now we know what we need to do. Read and notice what you’re reading. The next question, then, is what should you read? Scientific papers first and foremost. I tell my PhD students to maintain a steady diet of one paper per day (or seven papers per week). Now, this does not mean you spend over an hour each day deeply reading, analyzing and annotating each paper (i.e. don’t read each one as if you were preparing it for journal club). Just read it, start to finish. Note the parts you like and dislike. Notice the writing independently from the content. That 25 minutes I talked about? Use 22 of them to read the paper and three to think about the writing. Then you’re done. Until tomorrow.
Obviously, this regimen will not sustain you over the long term; you have to have variety. So, find a way to read some non-science writing every single day. This can be books, magazines, or newspapers. The key is to read something that is professionally edited, so there is at least some expectation that the writing is good. (Reddit, Twitter, and internet screeds do not count; good blogs do count.)
A student subscription to the NY Times is $1.88 per week with the LA Times and Washington Post being similar. Scientific American and National Geographic are 20 bucks a year for students. The Economist is a bit more, but most university libraries and even local libraries provide broad newspaper and magazine access. Used bookstores provide incredible value. There’s just no excuse. You have to read widely, and you have to at least try to notice what you’re reading. Do this every day, even if only for a few minutes.
Build this habit now, and in a few years, you’ll be a better writer. Again, I wish I could tell you it’d happen faster, but it won’t. Just do the work.
I’ll end with something I read in another great piece in the New York Times. The Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thahn Nguyen wrote: “… people ask me what it takes to be a writer. The only things you have to do, I tell them, are read constantly; write for thousands of hours; and have the masochistic ability to absorb a great deal of rejection…” That last bit will sound immediately familiar to scientists. We’d all do well to make that first part seem familiar as well.