When I wrote the #DevBiolWriteClub rules, I made Rule #2 simply restate Rule #1. This, of course, was a cheap ploy by the author to make the reader compare him favorably to Brad Pitt. But there is a serious intent behind it.
Becoming a better writer takes dedication and it takes hard work, but mainly it takes patience. Let’s imagine you read my first post on the Node last Spring, or that you’ve been allowing me to hector you on Twitter. By now, you’ve put a year of effort into developing your craft as a writer. Seen any impact yet? Perhaps you’ve got more words down on the page, or maybe you’re a bit more pleased with your writing. Maybe, but it’s more likely that any progress you’ve made is pretty much intangible at this point. That’s the nature of writing, and it’s a major part of why it is such a frustrating endeavor.
But trust me, simply practicing is by far the best thing you can do for your writing. If you have an active project, try to write at least a little every day. If you are between writing projects, read more and take the time to notice the writing while you read it. That said, there’s no question that we all hit a wall sometimes. Learning to get some outside help is critical.
Thus, we finally come to Rule #5: You can’t do it alone.
Now, getting help can take two forms. The simpler way is to read books about writing. Notice that I said “books,” plural. I wrote about this in my last post, so I won’t repeat it here, except to say there are LOTS of great books about writing. Go read them. But also know that no book will ever do for you what an engaged reader can do, so let’s talk about the real meat of Rule #5. Show your work to others and get their feedback.
Many years ago, Frank Conlon sent me a great essay in The New Yorker by Atul Gawande. The essay pointed out that essentially all professional athletes will be coached throughout their entire careers, as will most opera singers. But surgeons aren’t. Scientists aren’t, either. So, you need to nurture your own stable of informal coaches.
It turns out that I am both lazy and ambitious. It’s an odd combination but it has made me very good at asking for help. In terms of writing, getting help started early. One of my first “coaches” was Mr. Mike Cullinan, an English teacher loved and feared by generations of students at my high school in Houston. He once gave me a 10 on a paper. Out of 100, yes. You see, he graded content and writing separately and averaged the scores. Various transgressions of grammar or diction had fixed point values (25 points for each run-on sentence). So, despite a high score for content, I had scored a negative 75 for writing. I had to re-write it. I had to re-write most things I wrote for him. And you know what? The writing always got better. Every single time.
By the time I became a PI, I had become religious about seeking advice on anything I write. I actually got the first R01 grant I applied for as a PI. (It was fun to briefly boast of my 100% NIH success rate, but the euphoria was short-lived; I didn’t get the second one.) What’s important to understand, though, is that I spent an entire year writing that grant. Of course, I also had to order equipment, hire people, and go to new faculty orientation. But I worked on the grant, bit by bit, most days. For a year. I revised and revised and revised. Along the way, that one grant application took in the serious feedback of five faculty members, three developmental biologists (Richard Harland, Paul, Krieg, David Parichy) and two cell biologists (Terry O’Halloran, Arturo De Lozzane). It was an awesome learning experience and it generated one of the tightest pieces of grant writing I’ve ever produced.
As I have aged, I find myself more lazy than ambitious, and I sometimes submit writing that no one else has read. It almost always goes badly. Luckily, however, old habits die hard, and I still usually seek input from an outside reader. I wrote an essay in Developmental Cell in 2019. that is probably my favorite piece of writing. But let me tell you, it started poorly. I sent an early draft to Lila Solnica-Krezel, and her response was something like, “Oh, you can’t possibly think of publishing this! It’s awful!” She was absolutely correct. You see, I knew what I wanted to say. It was clear in my head. But the points were wholly lost on my reader. Clearly, I was not yet able to say what I wanted to say. I went back to work, started almost entirely from scratch. It was over a year before I completed the essay and sent it off. Then, I was lucky enough to have Marie Bao handle the essay as Editor at Dev. Cell. She liked the idea and found it important, but the essay needed work. Entire sections had to be cut, other shad to be focused, still others expanded. We went back and forth through several rounds of revision. When the piece was finally published, I was proud of it and I was even more delighted that it was well-received. But honestly, it was a team effort.
I tell this story because it illustrates perhaps the most important and most challenging part of getting feedback on your writing. You have to do it early. The key mistake I see writers make is to wait until the very final stages to get feedback. They want to give their reader a “polished draft,” usually because they are concerned about what the reader will think of their rough work. This presents a host of problems:
First, by the time you’re in the final stages, there is often very little time to make serious revisions. Edits of spelling and grammar, sure; but real change? If you read a friend’s grant that is due in 48 hours and your thought is that all of Aim 1 sucks, what do you do? You correct the typos and perhaps utter a small prayer. You certainly don’t say “replace all of Aim 1.” But what if you had seen that grant three weeks before it was due? Now, it’s true that papers do not come with deadlines, but let’s be honest: Every piece of writing has an expiration date, as the author’s patience with the project inevitably wanes.
Second, by the time you have gotten to what you consider is a polished draft, you obviously like it! And, simply because of the cumulative effect of effort, the more work you put into a piece of writing, the more invested you become. This creates a fatal problem: the longer you wait for feedback, the less you will be willing to change, the less likely you will be to really listen to feedback.
Finally, a more subtle point. If you wait until the end of the process, you will get editorial feedback, but you’ll learn nothing about your craft as a writer. This is especially important for trainees showing their work to mentors. Given the greater experience, your mentor is very likely the better writer. Thus, by sharing your very rough work early in the process, you can get feedback not just on what you’ve written, but also on your writing process. And remember, like it or not, you are a writer, and you need to be serious about getting better at your craft.
So that’s it. Toughen up and show your writing, however rough or embarrassing, to other people and get their feedback. It’s uncomfortable, but it really, really works.