Are you writing and revising 2000 words a month?

Do you choke when it comes time to write? Do you write a paragraph, then clean your desk, order supplies, go for a run, or can a hundred pounds of tomatoes? If writing is a part of your daily life, it will be easy. The mechanics of the process will not delay your ability to communicate your glorious results with the world. How can we help our students with this challenge?

A comfortable place to write.

I would prefer that they all write daily, on whatever they like, but I do not find this is something I can mandate. What I have asked for is a monthly 2000 words, delivered to me on the first of the month. Since I view this primarily as a writing exercise, it can be about anything, though scientific topics are the most useful in other ways. They could write news releases on papers they like, or commentaries. They could write a section of a paper for a study that is not complete. They could write blog entries. They could write a grant proposal. Ideally, all of our lab members, from undergraduates to grad students to rotation grad students to postdocs would do this. So far I’ve gotten papers from our permanent graduate students. Both of them wrote sections of papers for publication.

Nicole Gerardo and João Xavier thinking before writing.

Actually, it turned out that both of them wrote very clearly and well. My comments had more to do with enhancing the science than the writing. I think that both of them started interesting scientific conversations that we would not have had without this assignment.

The next part is for them to modify their writing according to my comments. This is a key step to the writing process, changing things in response to comments. I look forward to seeing what they produce. I’m going to talk to the other students about also turning something in. I hope that with this process, the actual proposals and publications will be that much easier to produce.

Something else I like to do is to read about writing. I always learn something. I also feel enthusiastic about sharing this solitary activity. So, take out your computer, jot down some ideas, or an outline, and start writing. Then get some comments on it and revise it. You’ll be on your way to a productive scientific career with this important leg of the research table.

Katie Geist about to share some great writing.

I took a quick look at what is out there on writing, blogging and the like. Here is an interesting post on blogging and self-promotion from Scicurious. Eugenie Scott has a great video on writing on evolution for the public, here. If you want to take a course, I imagine there are a lot out there, both on line, like this one by Wendee Holtcamp, or local ones from your library, or the continuing studies part of your university. The good thing about doing this is it gets you readers and criticizers outside of your lab group. It is probably better for public writing. If you are a microbiologist, I recommend the ASM course. Well, clearly I need to write more about books that have influenced me, and other writing resources. Next time.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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