Do Stephen King and I have the same job, or different jobs?
This is, in one sense, a silly question with an obvious answer. Stephen King is a popular-fiction writer, and I’m a scientist. Stephen King’s job is to generate novels about the world as it isn’t, while my job is to generate understanding of the natural world as it is. Clearly, Stephen King and I have different jobs.
At least, that’s how I would have answered my silly question early in my career. If you had asked grad-student me to describe my scientific enterprise, I’d have talked about designing experiments, and executing them, and analyzing data. I’d have talked about reading the literature and (for some studies) extracting data from it*. But I would never have mentioned writing. I knew of course, that I’d be writing up my thesis work, and even before that task arrived on my desk I was writing up a side project (that became, completely by accident, my most influential paper ever). And I knew, too, that it really isn’t science you’ve done until it’s written up (and published) – because the point is to add to human understanding of the world, not just your own. So I knew writing mattered. But I thought of it as an essentially mechanical step that would take care of itself once the data were in – a task no more worthy of mention than data entry or my daily acquisition of lunch.
You can probably imagine my puzzlement when, in the last year or so of grad school, I discovered that I was spending more time writing than doing anything else. I thought, at the time, that this was happening because I was an unusually bad and unusually slow writer, but I’ve come to understand that this wasn’t really true at all. Instead, I’m just not a writing genius. Probably, neither are you, and that’s OK.
So my understanding of my job as a scientist has changed a lot. I now realize that writing is as central to my job as statistics, experimental design, teaching, or anything else, and it needs just as much attention. If you asked me now, I’d answer my silly question the other way: Stephen King and I have, to a considerable extent, the same job. We craft (or we aspire to) clear, persuasive text that tells interesting stories; and in order to have successful careers, we do this at a substantial and sustained pace. Crucially, this is not something that just happens by itself. It’s something that happens, instead, because we approach writing as professionals: with deliberate and conscious attention to what we’re doing as we write, and how we can modify our behaviour to write better and more quickly. Stephen King addresses this professionalism in his book of advice and autobiography, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft; and it’s also a major theme (not to say “obsession”) of my own book, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing. Here’s King:
It’s writing, damn it, not washing the car or putting on eyeliner. If you can take it seriously, we can do business. If you can’t or won’t, it’s time for you to close the book and do something else.
I learned – I was forced to learn – to take writing seriously. Maybe the attitude readjustment I went through seems trivial to you. Maybe that’s because you’ve already gone through it, or maybe it’s because you were a wiser grad student than I was and never trivialized the writing to start with. But for me, that attitude readjustment it made a huge difference, and I’d wish I’d gone through it earlier and faster. I’m a scientist; but a really big part of that is being a writer. Stephen King and I have the same job, and realizing that has helped.
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) March 2, 2017
*^I was doing meta-analysis, but I didn’t know that, because meta-analysis wasn’t cool yet. Like Glen Campbell (metaphorically at least), I knew Jesus before he was a superstar.