All writers know the awful feeling: stuck, stonewalled, stymied, stumped. You just can’t find that next sentence, you have a terrible suspicion that your last one sucked, and you’ve a sense of existential dread that you’ll never again write coherent text. “Writer’s block,” we call it.
I put “writer’s block” in scare quotes, because the key to getting past it is realizing that it’s terribly misnamed. Continue reading
OK, not that sort of introduction.
Last week I was drafting the Introduction to a new paper*, and I was struggling. People often assume that because I’ve written a book about scientific writing, I must be a gifted writer to whom the task comes easily. Nothing could be further from the truth: I’m just like most scientific writers. Yes, I find writing much easier than I used to (thank goodness); but I still have many days when producing the next sentence is like pulling teeth. My own teeth.
I find Introductions particularly hard. Continue reading
Image: In the Chasm of Despair (crop), Gavster CC 0 via pixabay.com. Happy Hallowe’en?
Warning: it’s not clear whether I’m using metaphor here, or whether metaphor, having taken full control, is using me.
In nearly every writing project I take on – no matter whether it’s an 800-word blog post or an 80,000-word book – there’s a point where I feel like what I’ve produced so far is horrible, that I can’t see how to fix it, and that I’ll probably never find my way to a worthwhile end. I sit in front of the screen cursing, if I can summon the energy to curse; if I can’t, I just stare at the page with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
I call this point in my writing process the Chasm of Despair. Continue reading
Image: Gustav Flaubert, portrait by Eugène Giraud (1806-1881), via wikimedia.org. Public domain. I bet you’re wondering why he’s relevant. All in good time…
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about an old chestnut: whether you can, or should, reuse blocks of text when you write a new Methods section describing methods you’ve already published. My suggestion that you generally can’t, and that often when you can you shouldn’t, raised a predictable number of people to a high dudgeon. I won’t rehash that here, except for one objection that’s both common and interesting. It’s this: the claim that “there are only so many ways you can write we prepared a one molar solution of KNO3*”.
This claim achieves an interesting trifecta: it’s simultaneously irrelevant, false, and important. Continue reading
Image: Der Grossvater erzählt eine Geschichte (Grandfather tells a story). Albert Anker, 1884 (Berlin Museum of Art) via Wikimedia Commons
Sometimes I’ll meet with a grad student who’s feeling stuck on a piece of writing, and I’ll do something they find surprising. It’s this: I’ll think for a moment, roll my chair away from the desk a bit, look up at the ceiling, and dictate the paragraph that’s needed, more of less off the top of my head. (A very rough version, mind you. And I can do it for a paragraph or two – not for a whole paper!) A while ago, one student stopped me midway through dictation and asked me how I could possibly do that. It seemed, to her, like a superpower.
That brought me up short, because I hadn’t consciously realized that when I do it, I’m using a writing trick. Continue reading
Photo: Stockholm public library, Marcus Hansson, CC-BY-2.0 via flickr.com
I’ve always loved libraries. As a young boy, I combed the stacks of my town library, finding great books that took me far beyond the world I knew (40 years later, I’m sharing those same books with my son*). As a no-longer-young academic, I love libraries just as much; but my reasons have changed a bit, and so has my understanding of what a library is.
As a boy, I loved the library because I loved books, and I understood the library as a building full of books. Libraries still have a lot of books, but fewer than they used to, as information has moved online and more square footage is allocated to meeting rooms, study space, computer stations, and so on. It’s not hard to find someone declaring with anguish the death of the library; it’s also not hard to find someone declaring that same death with smug pleasure. For a while I was tempted to join the anguished camp; but instead I’ve come to see the library not as a building full of books, but as a building full of librarians. And if books are wonderful, well, librarians are pretty great too. Continue reading