Like virtually all scientists, I write a lot. Over the last decade, I’ve written two books (and for one of them, a second edition), a proposal for a third book, about two dozen papers,* a dozen grant proposals, over 500 posts here on Scientist Sees Squirrel, and a basketful of miscellaneous reports, lay articles, and administrative documents. I figured out quite a while ago that it’s quite normal for a scientist to spend more time writing that they do anything else – even if writing isn’t why most of us chose science as a career. What’s surprising about this really isn’t my volume of writing (I write more than some, less than others). It’s that until recently, I really didn’t enjoy doing it.
To be clear, I’ve always enjoyed having written. I think I’ve written some interesting things, and a few important ones. But the process: like the poor wretch in Leonid Pasternak’s painting The Throes of Creation, I found writing in the present tense agonizing. When I write, I stop and start, delete and undelete and delete again; I stare blankly at the screen and the ceiling and my not-currently-typing fingers. And only rarely, until quite recently, was it any fun.
I realized quite recently that things had changed. The other week, I had an email asking me to write a chapter for an edited volume**. I’m used to new writing projects bringing a feeling of dread, and as a result a long, long indulgence in procrastination; but I find that I’m itching to write this one. Part of that is the subject (I’ll tell you about it some time) – but not all, because I realized that my enthusiasm for writing isn’t brand new – it’s happened to me some time in the last few years, without my even noticing. Yes, I still struggle sometimes; and yes, I still stare at my share of blank screens; no, I’m still not Barbara Cartland. But on the whole, now, I find writing fun.
It’s a nice change, especially given that as I move into retirement I plan to write at least two more books. But in a weird way, I’m almost glad that it’s a recent change. I know, that sounds improbable, and I don’t expect you to believe that I enjoyed not enjoying writing. But here’s the thing: my writing book, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, has (by all reports) helped some people. And to the extent that it’s a useful resource for writers who struggle I think it’s because its author struggled too. After all, if you want to learn to shred an electric guitar, you don’t ask Prince, or Eddie van Halen, or Yngwie Malmsteen. They’re (or were) geniuses. You ask someone who found guitar difficult, and was forced to find ways to make it less so. That’s me – only for writing.
Why have I started to enjoy writing? I think there are two main reasons: one boring, and one interesting.
The boring reason is that I’ve gotten better at it. It would be pretty surprising if I hadn’t, really – sooner or later, practice is bound to pay off, and I’ve sure had a lot of practice. If you find writing difficult, too, you might be tempted to avoid it; but you should do the opposite. Seize chances to write. Volunteer to write first drafts of papers. Blog. Tweet. Write letters to the editor of your local paper, or science outreach pieces for a local NGO’s newsletter. Write long emails to your grandmother. Any of these things (best, all of them together) will polish your skill and stock your writing toolbox. And, of course, as you get better at writing, you’ll enjoy it more.
The more interesting reason? I’ve loosened up. There’s a powerful force operating on scientific writers, one that arises when we see a turgid and tedious literature and think we need to write prose that fits in. One of the discoveries I made in writing The Scientist’s Guide to Writing was that allowing myself to slip into a more engaging, less technical style made the writing process much more fun. It’s a trend I let continue here on Scientist Sees Squirrel and in Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider. But it’s changed my writing in scientific papers, too. No, my papers aren’t nonstop fun from title to reference list; but I’m easing up. Now I’m not afraid to use contractions, to insert a metaphor or even a joke. I’m trying to write sentences that I’d enjoy reading – without, of course, sacrificing the precision and clarity that are so important in technical writing.
Now, this post might seem rather self-indulgent, patting myself on the back while dreamily navel-gazing. But here’s the thing: you can do the same things I’ve done. You can practice and improve; and you can push gently against the constraints of what’s considered “normal” (and dull) scientific writing. And with the benefit of my experience, perhaps you can do those two things more mindfully than I did, and come to enjoy your writing a little more, a little sooner.
© Stephen Heard July 12, 2022
Image: Some of my recent writing © Stephen Heard CC BY 4.0
**^Something I rarely do, because readership of edited volumes is typically very low, and chapters in edited volumes are difficult to find in online searches. My few chapters in edited books are poorly cited and I’m not sure they were worth the trouble.