This is a guest post by JC Cahill, of the Department of Biology at the University of Alberta.
Steve is an old friend from grad school, and just yesterday [as I write] he gave a well-received lecture on writing, here at the University of Alberta. The enthusiasm and interest expressed by our early career scientists seemed genuine, and even as an old prof myself I can’t help but believe Steve is having some success in humanizing science writing. But, also as an old prof I can’t help but feel a bit disheartened by the seemingly endless cycle of writing challenges, delays, and strategic failures I see in a nearly daily way. Choosing optimism rather hopelessness, I wish to tell my writing story with the intent of encouragement.
When I was a graduate student, I was a bad writer. I say this with neither pride nor embarrassment, but as a statement of inarguable fact. I hated the process, I hated the product, and I simply didn’t view it as important in science. Oops. My ostrichian approach to writing came to a (buried) head while defending my thesis proposal (year 2 of grad school). During the discussion a senior researcher on the examining committee simply stated “Your writing is so bad, you likely need a permanent coauthor.” Just what every early career scientist wants to hear, in room full of senior professors discussing your future. After much work, many tears by all involved, and time, I got better. I have not emerged as a great writer today, but I am an effective one. I regularly publish, I supervise students who regularly publish, our work gets cited, and I am even first author on most of my most heavily cited papers – these are not horrible measures of success in academic writing. How did I go from there to here? I made the active decision to change and I worked to improve.
What this stripping down forced me to do is recognize a simple truth – I did not know how to write. I am increasingly of the belief the same is true for most early career scientists, even those who fly through school with a 4.0 and are anointed by granting agencies, professors, and parents. I believe it takes most of us time to learn that writing and scientific writing are not the same; instead, they are different languages. Sure, Anglophones are fortunate to grow up learning many of the components of the dominant language of science (e.g. vocabulary, sentence structure, etc.), and many of us use these tools to effectively communicate in daily life. Unfortunately, many of us are slow to realize that science writing is an additional language. We are misled to believe that our abilities to elegantly communicate in common English are transferable. We are often poorly trained as students to believe high school and university ‘lab reports’ have some resemblance any actual form of discourse used by practicing scientists. We become frustrated by thinking that simply writing more will let us learn to write better, when the core problem is we do not understand the rules of the language.
Following this logic is liberating. No one expects to be a master at any craft the first time they pick up the tools. Just because you understand the equipment used in painting you shouldn’t expect to create artwork, at the level of an international standard of performance, on your first try! Instead, we accept that to learn the craft of painting, we need training, we need humility, and we need patience. We recognize becoming effective in visual communication and expression requires highly unique skills, developed through study and with feedback and advice. And so too does science writing. We should not expect to be good, or even okay, just because we have written before in other contexts. We should not feel depressed when our early drafts cause steam to emerge from the ears of our coauthors, or when we learn our work caused a local shortage in red ink supplies. Instead, we should accept this as part of the process. Learning is hard, but learning can happen.
What really is the alternative to learning? Do we wish to choose to remain frustrated because we cannot achieve mastery without effort? Do we seek out and secure the very patient and mythical permanent coauthor? As one trying to support the training of early career scientists, I prefer the path of learning. As a lab, we march through Steve’s book chapter by chapter talking about writing. The point isn’t that that Steve’s words are gospel, but instead Steve’s words have opened discussion. Writing for science is a craft, and a craft worth learning.
© JC Cahill (firstname.lastname@example.org) November 19, 2018
This is the third in an occasional series in which scientific writers share their paths and progress. You’ll find previous contributions from Joe Drake here, and from Rob Johns here). Do you have a story like JC’s – but also, no doubt, different? Would you tell it here? Drop me a line (Steve, not JC; email@example.com).