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.
***^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.)