Blogging, writing practice, and self-discovery

I’ve been writing Scientist Sees Squirrel for almost 6½ years now – something on the order of 450 posts. With blogging being (supposedly) a dying form, and with a non-trivial amount of effort involved, you might wonder why I persist. There are lots of reasons, actually, but today I’m going to mention two: writing practice, and self-discovery.*

First, writing practice. As scientists, we write a shocking amount; in fact, being a writer is as much, maybe more, a part of our jobs as stats or teaching or experimental design. It’s not just papers – I write grant proposals, reports, administrative documents, and as you may have noticed, I’ve also written two books. So it might seem odd that I spend some of my time doing more writing. But it turns out (unsurprisingly, in hindsight) that writing practice makes you a better writer – and regular practice is the best kind. I write faster and more easily than I used to, and I think I write better too, with more of an ear for style. My papers are a little less stiffly formal and a little more readable now. I think that’s a direct result of the kind of experimentation with style you can do on a blog (with successful experiments infused into papers). As an example, I now use common contractions (isn’t, don’t, etc.) in writing papers. When used in moderation, I think they make writing more natural and engaging, and none of the reasons contractions are supposedly inappropriate in scientific writing stand up to scrutiny. But that’s just one example, and it would be fascinating to see a literary analysis of my pre- and post-blogging scientific papers.**

You, too, can reap the benefits of writing practice. You don’t have to blog, of course; regular practice at any writing form will help you master the craft. You might write letters to your elderly aunt and uncle, keep a diary, or write an endless serial piece of erotic Harry Potter fanfiction. Doesn’t matter (I don’t think); almost any way you work a muscle can strengthen it.

The other interesting benefit of blogging is that it sometimes helps me discover what I think about something. That seems backwards, doesn’t it? You’d probably expect me to write a post because I have an opinion I want to share. Sometimes that’s true***, but other times there’s something I’m wondering about, and writing a post is a way to think it through. It doesn’t always work – last week’s post about pre-med students wanting to do research in my ecology lab left me as conflicted after writing as I was before – but often it does. A good example is this post about the discovery of phosphorus, open science, and commercialization. I wrote it while working on a grant for an agency that prioritizes commercial applications of work, and I was struggling with how I thought that could or should happen with the research I was proposing. Writing the post helped me think it through. Could I have done the same thinking without writing? Maybe, but I doubt it. There’s something about the need to write a coherent piece of text that forces you to make arguments explicit, in a way that’s too easy to avoid when operating entirely inside your head.

There’s nothing new about this realization that writing can help you think. Many writers have pointed this out. Flannery O’Connor, for instance, said “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say”.  Helen Sword, in Air & Light & Time & Space, amplifies on a similar famous-writer quote: “Daily writing helps you figure out what you want to say. In the words of playwright Henry Miller, ‘Writing, like life itself, is a voyage of discovery.’ Sometimes we have no idea which way we are headed until the sails have been hoisted and the wind kicks in.”

I’ve been talking about blogging, but it’s true of scientific writing too. In The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, I press hard for the value of planning a paper before writing it, using outlining and related techniques. But it’s important to realize that being too faithful to the outline you’ve drafted sacrifices opportunity. That’s because in a paper, too, writing can help you figure out what you think about your data, or about the field. That’s why I write my Introductions last, and why, in my Scientific Writing course, I teach my students the same practice even though it annoys their supervisors).  I can’t introduce the rest of my paper until I know what it says, and I can’t be sure I know what it says until I’ve written it.  Outline, yes, because it lets you start with a route and a destination in mind; but heed the lessons you can learn about yourself and about your story as you write.

Sometimes, I write because I’d like to find out what I think. Go figure.

© Stephen Heard  June 22, 2021


*^No, not in the new-age sense of sitting naked in a forest hut and nibbling on dried mushrooms, hoping for some kind of psychedelic insight. As a teenager I thought The Teachings of Don Juan: a Yaqui Way of Knowledge was terribly insightful. As a teenage I thought quite a number of dumb things.

**^I mean fascinating for me. Don’t worry, I publish some weird papers these days, but I’m not going to pursue that one.

***^That sounds a little arrogant, I know, but I assure you that I’m well aware that some of my opinions are wrong, and I quite enjoy reading well-considered pushback against them in the Replies. (It’s no accident that I included “well-considered” in that last sentence.)

12 thoughts on “Blogging, writing practice, and self-discovery

  1. Philip Moriarty

    “Sometimes, I write because I’d like to find out what I think. Go figure.”

    Precisely! Another great post.

    I quote Harper Lee in this blog post (whose theme resonates a great deal with yours above): https://muircheartblog.wpcomstaging.com/2020/02/24/yet-it-was-for-me-not-you-that-i-came-to-write-this/

    “Any writer worth his salt writes to please himself…It’s a self-exploratory operation that is endless. An exorcism of not necessarily his demon, but of his divine discontent.”

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  2. Donald ZEPP

    I do believe your last sentence reflects the notion that “if we can’t explain something, we don’t understand it ourselves.” Indeed, I, too, often find myself writing simply to clarify my thinking.

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  3. Ian Kirkland

    Nice post! I do a lot of work where we summarise results in emails or informally. In projects where we do write reports I really learn what I don’t know in the study or to question assumptions that were made.

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  4. Meira Ben-Gad

    I hope you keep writing! I discovered your blog quite by accident … I’m a manuscript editor and I’m always on the lookout for innovative ways to teach my clients how to improve their writing. (Yes, I’m an editor not a teacher, but I like to teach as I go, and I love when my clients say they’ve learned to write more clearly thanks to my comments.) I can’t actually remember what post of yours came up in what Google search of mine, but I’ve been following your blog ever since and enjoy it tremendously. I get to learn things about science from someone who cares about writing! What pleasure!

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  5. Stuart Danker

    Indeed! And this is why I journal, so that I can learn to listen to myself better. Sometimes people wait for inspiration before they write, but I believe that we should write to get the inspiration. Anyway, thanks for this post!

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  6. laanisto

    I´ve been blogging for about 15 years now, and also about science and related stuff, but I don´t feel it has improved my skills in writing scientific manuscripts. One thing might be that I have mostly blogged in Estonian, and not in English, but when I write scientific texts I do it in English from scratch. Blogging certainly has improved my emailing skills, communicating science to laymen, and writing reports and other mainly administrative texts. But in case of actual manuscripts – the effect seems to be contrary. I cannot polish my Introductions and Discussions with the things I enjoy when blogging (or, writing in general) and the aspects of language I feel that I have mastered via blogging. Like puns, absurd and balderdash, and using synonyms that have been forgotten or invent new metaphors. Stuff like that. My coauthors destroy me when I attempt that, and I know that they are just saving me from the editors and reviewers… So, instead of writing first-author papers, I mainly only edit drafts written by other people (this is where I can maintain preciseness and conciseness necessary for a journal paper). To use the muscle comparison, I might have huge writing-biceps, but I need to run a marathon in order to stay in academia. And this extra weight does not seem to help much…

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Interesting, and it makes sense to me that this may be partly a function of the extra challenge you face writing manuscripts in what I assume is your 2nd (or 3rd or 4th?) language. (Personally, I like discovering an absurd pun in a paper, but I do know what you mean about coauthors saving you from reviewers, who often don’t have much patience for that kind of thing…)

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    2. Pavel Dodonov

      I have a friend who maintains a bilingual blog (in Portuguese, which is his native language, and in English) as a way also to practice his writing in English. I think it is working well for him, his English seems to have improved (as has his writing in general).

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  7. Pavel Dodonov

    Cool, I just found out that your blog is more or less the same age as mine 🙂

    I fully agree with what you say about writing practice and about writing to understand what you think about something. Writing practice is one of the reasons I started blogging – in my case, it was specifically to practice writing in Portuguese, as I write papers in English, and it turned up to be quite important for me getting my job at the university: here professors are selected based in part on a written essay on one of several previously defined topics, and I wrote my essay as if I were writing a blog post. It worked.

    Another reason I blog is to create easily accessible material for students – most of the papers and textbooks on ecology and statistics, which I teach, are in English, and it’s rather hard to find good material in Portuguese for biology and ecology students. So I try to use my blog to fill this gap, and also to try and help students to be more productive while maintaining a heathly work-life balance.

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