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Hello! Recently, I’ve been tweeting writer’s advice from @jbwallingford using the hashtag: #DevBiolWriteClub. I’m psyched that The Node is now letting me add a little depth to this venture. In this first post, I’ll start by managing some expectations.
If you’ve followed #DevBiolWriteClub on Twitter, you might recall that one of my earliest tweets said: “For now, I will focus on how to be a better writer. This is different from how to write better.” Personally, I like that sentence. I think it’s clever, and it conveys some crucial information. That said, one could also make the argument that it sucks. After all, it’s kind of confusing, and by forcing the reader to think hard about just a few words, it risks failing to convey any information at all.
Regardless, the details of well-written and poorly written passages is NOT the point of #DevBiolWriteClub. Rather, I want to use this forum to address one of the most common and intractable misconceptions in writing, especially among busy scientists. The issue is this: If you are serious about better writing, DO NOT start by thinking harder about sentence structure and grammar. Instead, start right now by focusing on your practice of being a writer.
Writing is like a sport. You only get good at it if you practice, with intent, every day. When I’m not doing science, I’m a rock climber, and one of my favorite coaches is Steve Bechtel (Climbstrong.com.), and he once lamented that he always wanted to write an article titled “500 weeks to stronger fingers,” but that no one would read it. I fear the same for these blog posts, because he’s exactly right. No one likes to hear that there are no shortcuts.
The difference, of course, is that most scientists relate to sports (or art, or baking) as a hobby, as this other thing we do sometimes, and we hope to get better at. Ultimately, though, if we don’t get better, it’s not that big a deal. The problem is that many scientists take the same view of writing. But not improving as a writer is a big deal in science. It’s a very big deal, actually. If you are a scientist and you want to succeed, you must become a writer. And the only way to do that is to practice, day in and day out. For years.
So, that’s the bad news. The good news is that the process for becoming a writer is pretty simple, and you can start today. There are only five rules:
- Do the work.
- Do the work.
- Revise and edit. Again, and again, and again.
- Read with intent.
- You can’t do it alone.
Now, it’s essential that you understand these rules, especially #1 and #2:
Of course, writers need to write, but what I mean by “do the work” is broader. I want you to create a new habit of mind. Take time out of every workday to practice the craft of being a writer by following any one of the five rules. What you do in each session is less important than doing something each workday.
Maybe you will actually write new words in a session, but if you don’t, that’s OK! Some days are stacked with experiments, so maybe you can only find a few minutes to revise something you’re working on (#3). Or maybe all you can manage is to spell-check something you wrote yesterday (also #3). Or maybe you just read (#4). Or maybe today’s the day you have the courage to show what you’ve written to a friend and get their feedback (#5). All of these examples can fall under Rules #1 and #2. But here’s the thing: You need to approach every session intent. Set aside time to do it; try hard; and when you’re done, reflect on your performance. This is the work. Let’s get to it.
In the coming posts, I’ll write more about each of these rules and I’ll provide advice on how to follow them.