A three thousand word day

My graduate students, post-docs, and technicians are four days away from a thousand word deadline. The undergrads are an equal number of days away from a five hundred word deadline. This should be no surprise to them, because the due date comes once a month, on the 15th, all year long. My hope is that it will help them find this crucial part of the academic life easier. I hope that they become fluid and clear writers who think about what they have to say and how they say it.

I do my part by offering them comments. On the advice of my writing teacher colleagues, I do not do a lot of line editing on these essays. Instead, I try to write something general and helpful at the end, or in an email. The idea is that the greatest improvement comes from writing repeatedly, until they find their voice and can communicate clearly. My view is that effective scientific writing tells a story, with evidence. Paragraphs should flow in ways that mean the reader expects to hear about a topic almost before the writer has brought it up.

So I try to make my comments on student writing follow this advice. I tell them what I liked and what I thought could use more work. I let them know how I see the story line. That way, if they have lost me, they will know.

I never let them forget that this is science, not literature, so even though a story line is crucial to hold interest, evidence supporting the story line is also essential. What do you think happened? Why do you think it happened? Show me the evidence, just as you tell me the story. You can also tell me about the problems, for science is not perfect. We do not know the whole plot. We only know some of the pieces. The more clearly you tell me about exactly what you did and did not do, the more likely we may both discover some other tack that might reveal even more.

I vacillate between thinking science is the easiest thing in the world and the hardest thing under the sun. It is easy because it is clear when experiments are designed well. But it is hard since there are always caveats. There are always things you think of that you might have controlled for.

One thing is always true though. I cannot imagine having more fun than being an active scientist guiding others along this path. So, if I can ask my budding scientists to write a thousand thoughtful words in a month, I should be able to write three times that in a day, shouldn’t I?

I will write a lot on this misty day, cooled off more than 50 degrees from yesterday. I awoke to a hummingbird hunting tiny insects against the window screen. At first I wondered if she, for it was a female, had come to demand that I fill the feeders, but they were full. I guess the open windows had brought insects against the screen in the night before we turned out the lights.

When I leave the hummingbird, I will write about the place. I will write about birds, hoping to slow the fast birders. I will write about a veil of ignorance that can favor cooperation. And I will write about the elusive art some call science.

What did I actually do on that day of writing promise? The day is over now, just past 10pm. I walked for a couple of hours. I took a nap and ate the usual meals. I read. If we assume that between 9:34 when I began and now, I worked 8 hours, then I wrote at the pace of just over 8 words per minute. Does it seem like a lot? I divided it among six topics, one on scientific truth, this one, one on longhorns, another on writing retreats, one on spotted sandpipers, and finally on a sense of place. I wrote freely and without counting words until the end. The lengths of these short pieces were surprisingly uniform 703, 804, 414, 662, 580, and 686. Most will need revising, but that is work for another day.

Tomorrow will be writing and polishing with the goal of fewer words than we began to fit the strictures of the journal. Today and tomorrow I will also have time for thinking about writing, why I do it, what it achieves, and what is important. Writing days are good for this.

written from the Double Helix Ranch Writer’s Retreat.

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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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One Response to A three thousand word day

  1. Pingback: How do you help people write? | jeff smith

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