My plodding journey to better writing (guest post)

This is a guest post by Rob Johns, an entomologist and Research Scientist with the Canadian Forest Service.  Rob and I collaborate, and together try to help our coadvised students navigate their own journeys to writing.

Science at its root is about story-telling and Steve and I have often exchanged stories of our “writer’s journeys” – A.K.A., our paths to becoming better scientific writers. We ‘seasoned’ writers should tell our stories more often and without fear of sharing the gory details. Pondering past struggles and hard lessons can be cathartic and baring these stories openly may offer hope to newer writers facing their own struggles. My own story (or perhaps my mea culpa) follows a classic story arc: it begins hopeful, looks bleak in the middle, and ends in catharsis, with a few lessons mixed in here and there. This is roughly the story I tell my own grad students when they struggle with the grind of writing.

I began writing early in life thanks to an elementary school teacher who, recognizing my youthful obsession with books, encouraged me to write my own stories. I wrote short stories about summer adventures and beloved pets, then moved on to more epic stories about dinosaur battles, crime-fighting Kung-Fu ninjas, and superhero mutant frogs (often with sequels and illustrations). For reasons I can’t recall I also wrote and acted out with friends several plays that invoked themes from the big movies of the day (e.g., usually involving an Indiana Jones or Luke Skywalker-like character…yes, I am indeed that old and nerdy). In high school I penned a rather ambitious fantasy novelette (at least for a teenager) at over 100 typed pages*.

As a young writer I was probably more indulged than challenged and so developed a high but rather unjustified opinion of my writing skills. In retrospect I’m not really certain what nourished this conviction on through undergrad: I did little writing in university other than for coursework and none of it was noteworthy. Regardless, graduate school quickly deflated whatever conceit I still harbored.

My writing challenges in grad school were many. Some difficulties owed to my inexperience with the style and rigor of scientific writing. I understood how to tell a story of fiction (or so I thought) but had no idea how to tell a story of science. I didn’t really know the literature of my field and so always felt out of my depth when writing about it. My earliest manuscripts might be fairly described as series of ragged paragraphs built from jumbled thoughts wedged into awkward sentences. The crucible of critical review caught me unawares and left me dismayed.

A repeating pattern was to emerge. Writing would frustrate me and I would wait for “The Mood” to write. “The Mood” rarely came so I rarely wrote and my writing barely improved. Occasionally a deadline would loom and I would grind out a grim mess of a draft. My supervisor would be justly unimpressed. I would continue to be frustrated and, so, the cycle continued. This cycle is probably fairly common for grad students and for me it crippled my writing confidence.

So where did writing turn around for me? As is often the case, things eventually came together but the process was gradual and grueling. After too many years of graduate school I had improved my writing enough to have several decent, if unremarkable, chapters. After graduation I was fortunate enough to secure a two-year postdoc in Japan and it was during that time abroad that things finally clicked for me.

Living in Japan I no longer had the crutch of my supervisor to guide my writing when I was floundering. It was the ‘sink or swim’ stage of my career and if I wanted a productive future as an independent scientist I was going to have to figure it out. In truth, I also just wanted to be a better writer and recapture some of what initially drew me to writing. Improving meant developing better habits: writing almost every day whether I felt like it or not, learning how better to structure my papers for clarity, developing strategies to maintain forward progress, and giving more careful thought to article layout and logical structure before the actual writing began**. I read more articles and sought out authors whose writing style I admired, sometimes mimicking their sentence and paragraph structure as a starting point until my own writing voice emerged. I also had to accept that the elusive Zen-like state known as “The Mood” didn’t exist, and that waiting for it was mostly a convenient excuse to avoid writing.

Living in a foreign country certainly helped the process along, taking me away from the routine and distractions of home. I was also learning Japanese and was thus forced to revisit the basic components of languages and how they work together to convey ideas. This was reinforced when I went out with Japanese friends to practice conversation. We used simple sentences to communicate with one another. I learned to be concise. Ironically, studying a second language probably did as much to improve my English writing as anything.

And what was the end result? I guess I was ultimately able to recapture some of what made me want to write as a kid. Writing became a contemplative time for me and I came to savor the process, while also worrying less about producing the ‘perfect’ manuscript. Each day of writing was a small step onward towards being a better writer. With some renewed confidence I completely rewrote all of my three PhD chapters and returned to Canada with a few decent publications and several rough but serviceable manuscripts. The resulting articles were a large part of what got me hired as a research scientist at the Canadian Forest Service upon returning to Canada.

After nearly a decade since my first article was published I can look back and see my gradual but steady progress as a writer (although admittedly there’s still room for improvement). The path forward, fortunately, seems more hopeful to me now than it did when I was a struggling grad student.

© Rob Johns (here’s Rob on Twitter) January 12, 2017

Related post: How should grad students learn to write?

Do you have a story like Rob’s – but also, no doubt, different? Would you tell it here?  I’d like to make this an occasional series, so drop me a line (Steve, not Rob; sheard@unb.ca)


*^I still have several of my stories, including the novelette – which is so cringe-worthy I can’t bring myself to read it all the way through. And no, I won’t let you read it, either!

**^Most writers have a favorite writing book. My go-to book is still one that I bought in Japan, entitled “The Craft of Research, 3rd Ed.” by Booth et al. (2008). It’s not even on science writing specifically but it had a profound influence on how I approach writing.

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3 thoughts on “My plodding journey to better writing (guest post)

  1. Elizabeth Moon

    Fiction writers go through the same fundamental process from youthful enthusiasm to disillusionment when they learn that “The Mood” neither ensures great writing nor comes at call when wanted. The amount of sheer work needed to become a competent writer seems daunting. Some give up. Scientists have an advantage–being driven by curiosity as well as creativity, they know they must write to communicate with others, not merely to express themselves. I am forever grateful to two of my English teachers–Mrs. Doty in junior high, and Mrs. Robinson in high school–who firmly pruned the exuberant buds of my own writing talent. They combined encouragement (agreeing I had talent) with necessary discipline (“–but not like that!”) They both favored clarity over self-expressive “freedom” in writing for class assignments, but encouraged me to write freely out of that venue. (And yes, my juvenilia was as cringe-worthy as anyone’s. Certainly worse than some.)

    But the yard this morning is full of birds and one ambitious squirrel still gathering acorns the deer missed. Robins, blue jays, a phoebe, mockingbirds, cardinals, white-winged and Inca doves, all competing for bathing rights to the artificial stream. Time to watch for the Cooper’s hawk that might show up to ambush breakfast (or lunch.) At least until I remember that “The Mood” will not show up to finish the current book by its deadline.

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  2. Pingback: From the trenches: How I’m learning to write (guest post) | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  3. Pingback: (Continued) From the trenches: How I’m learning to write (guest post) | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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