Social aspects of writing

Intro: this is the second of a series of posts exploring some common themes in three books: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write, and Tad Hills’ Rocket Writes a Story. The first post focused on getting started with a new writing project, rough drafts, and the pleasures of writing. This post focuses on social aspects of writing.

 

Writing is inherently social – at a minimum, your article is read by reviewers and, of course, we write hoping that colleagues will read and understand (and maybe even like!) our article once it comes out. But the process of actually doing the writing can sometimes feel very isolated. Certainly my general approach is to hole up in my office and try to crank out some text. I get feedback from coauthors, but that’s done at a distance and with little interaction outside Word.

So, I was interested to see that Helen Sword has social habits as one of the four components of a strong writing practice. She devotes a chapter specifically to writing among others, talking about writing groups, write-on-site boot camps and retreats, and online writing forums. Each chapter of Sword’s book ends with a “Things to Try” section; for the chapter on writing among others, it includes “start a writing group” and “retreat in the company of others” as two of the four suggestions.

Right after reading that section of Sword’s book, I read a Monday Motivator email from NCFDD (written by Kerry Ann Rockquemore) that also emphasized the social aspects of writing. That email also focused on social aspects of writing, including traditional writing groups, writing accountability groups, write-on-site groups, and boot camps.

Reading those back-to-back made me realize that I severely lacked social components in my writing. I have gotten very used to setting my own goals and not sharing them with anyone else, and to holing up in my office to write. But I also don’t feel like writing is generally a problem for me, so wasn’t sure if I really needed to address the lack of social habits. If there isn’t a problem, why try to fix it?

But then, on a solo morning run, I thought about how much further and faster and more enjoyably I can run on the days where I go with a friend. And I thought about how, when I first got into distance running, I would tell some friends and family members about my race plans, which made me more committed to sticking with my training runs. And I’m much less likely to skip a run if I am meeting a running buddy, which explains why I ended up running in a downpour recently. Could these same social habits help with writing?

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Rough drafts, getting words on the page, and the pain – and pleasure – of writing

Intro: this is the first of a series of posts exploring some common themes in three books I’ve read recently that relate to writing: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write, and Tad Hills’ Rocket Writes a Story. (And, yes, one of those is not like the other.) This post focuses on getting started with a new writing project, rough drafts, and the pleasures of writing.

The post:

Everyone I know flails around, kvetching and growing despondent, on the way to finding a plot and structure that work. You are welcome to join the club.

     – Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Unfortunately, a universal experience of writing is that getting started can be hard. Rocket knows this:

The next day, Rocket returned to his classroom. It was time to begin. He looked down at the blank page and the blank page looked up at him. But no story would come.

From Tad Hills’ Rocket Writes a Story

This is something that all writers struggle with, but that can be especially problematic for new writers. The task can seem so big and daunting – and there’s a decent chance that you are feeling like an imposter who is about to be exposed.

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My lab’s new lab notebook backup system. Part 2: The system

In yesterday’s post, I talked about my motivations for seeking a new system for backing up lab notebooks and data sheets. Here, I describe the system we’re now using for backing up lab notebooks, data sheets, etc. I think it’s working well. At the end, I ask for suggestions of systems that work for backing up files on lab members’ laptops, which I think we could do a better job of.

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My lab’s new lab notebook backup system. Part 1: The backstory

Back when I was an undergrad, the fire alarm went off while I was working in the lab. As people gathered outside the building, it became clear that it wasn’t a drill – I don’t recall specifics, but I think it was actually an issue in a neighboring building that caused someone in our building to pull the fire alarm. In the end, it wasn’t a big deal (even for the neighboring building!) But while people were standing around outside, the conversation turned to how much data would be lost if there was a full-on fire. It was clear that lots of people did not have complete backups of their lab notebooks and other data files.

When I was telling about this experience to a friend, Brooks Kuykendall, he told me of his father Bill’s related horror story. In the fall of 1963, Bill had completed his PhD research at Johns Hopkins in Archaeology, and started teaching at Erskine College in rural South Carolina. In the summer and early fall of 1964, after his first year of teaching, he had managed to finish writing his dissertation. In early October, he had assembled the six copies (and these were the days of carbon copies) ready to be submitted to his committee. They were stacked on the floor of his office, needing only to be packed off to go in the mail.

And then that night Bill heard the sirens. Rushing to his office, he found that the building was on fire. The firemen had cordoned it off, but somehow two students—of whom he forever after spoke with gratitude—managed to get in through the window of his ground-floor office, recovering only 1) a single rough draft for the whole text, and 2) a box that had the originals for all of the illustrations. The copies on the floor—and virtually everything else in the office—were ruined by the water.

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There is Shit Going On but it’s not my story to tell

As I mentioned in my post last week, just before I headed to the airport, Terry McGlynn posted a list of topics that he wishes people would blog about. Given that I was already planning on doing some #airportblogging, this was really tempting! A couple of his ideas especially stood out to me. The first was about how graduate students can get experience that will prepare them for non-academic positions; I wrote about that last week. The second was this:

-Thoughts about parenting and doing science and academia. (I have written about being a parent and a spouse on the rare occasion, but at a very young age, my son asked for privacy about these matters, and I’ve respected this.) I realize I should be talking about being a parent-in-science more often, because this is a huge part of our lives, and keeping this sequestered just amplifies gender inequities.

I’ve written regularly about the juggling act of parenting and doing science and academia, so it wasn’t the first part that really caught my attention. It was the parenthetical bit. Something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how quite a few people I know are juggling so many big things but, for the most part, only close friends or colleagues know about what they’re dealing with. A partial list of the issues includes personal health conditions; aging parents (or death of a parent); partners who have a chronic illness or major injury; non-trivial things with children; infertility; financial struggles; harassment and/or bullying; and major work upheaval.

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How my student has explored career interests outside academia

Last week, Terry McGlynn wrote a post with a list of things he wishes other people would write posts about. I read this minutes before heading to the airport, and this was like catnip given my #airportblogging habit. So, I sat in the airport thinking about this topic Terry suggested:

How PhD students and postdocs are getting professional development to do things other than become a tenure-track faculty member

This is something I’ve been discussing a lot on seminar trips, with prospective grad students, and with colleagues, but I hadn’t thought about writing a post on it before. So, with thanks to Terry for the prompt, here’s the story of how one of my students has explored career interests outside academia.

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When writing, tell us your biological results!

Quick quiz! Let’s imagine you are reading the results section of a manuscript. Which of these is the most useful/interesting/compelling/informative?:

  1. Figure 2 shows the relationship between infection and lifespan.
  2. Our experiment on the relationship between infection and lifespan found unambiguous results (Figure 2).
  3. Including infection treatment as a predictor improved model fit for lifespan (stats, Figure 2).
  4. Infected hosts lived, on average, half as long as uninfected hosts (20 days vs. 40 days; stats, Figure 2).

I think we’d mostly agree that option 4 is the most informative and interesting by a long shot. It focuses on the biological results, which, as ecologists, are usually our primary interest – presumably you did the experiment because you wanted to know whether and how infection impacted reproduction, not because you just really like making figures or doing stats!

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How to support undergraduate students experiencing mental health concerns

(Trigger warning: mental health, self-harm, and suicide discussed below)

I recently attended a really great workshop on interacting with students who are experiencing mental health issues. The workshop was run by Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT), which is a fantastic resource. One thing that makes it especially good is that it has the CRLT Players – a theatre program that “uses a diverse array of performance arts to spark dialogue”. Often, they act out a scenario and then pause, allowing the audience members time to reflect and discuss different aspects of the situation in small groups. It’s amazingly effective! They are really good at creating scenarios where there’s no clear “best” option, which leads to really rich discussions.

In this case, the focus of this workshop (run by Sara Armstrong) was student mental health, and the players acted out a scenario where a student approaches her professor to ask for an extension on an end-of-semester assignment. The student discloses that she’s been having a rough time and having a hard time getting her work done. I suspect I’ve spent more time than the average faculty member thinking about how to support students with mental health conditions, but I still learned a lot from the workshop. The workshop also included a great handout with principles to guide interactions with students with mental health concerns. I’ve been thinking a lot about what was covered since the workshop and there’s been a lot of interest in the past when I’ve posted about supporting students with mental health conditions, hence this post.

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Do your figures tell your story?

When I review papers, I often read the introduction and methods, and then skip to the figures to see what I take away from them before reading the results. This can also be done the opposite way: read the results and imagine what they would look like in figure-form, then go look at the figures. I find this really useful when reviewing for making me get out of the passive reading of a manuscript and for encouraging me to think critically about the results. Sometimes, there’s a great match. Sometimes there isn’t and I realize I misunderstood something (which sometimes is just me messing up, but sometimes suggests something that is unclear in the paper). And sometimes I can’t figure out the reason for the discrepancy, which ends up being something I bring up in my review.

I was originally thinking about this as a tip for reviewing – as I said, it helps me think more deeply and critically about a paper. But, over time, I’ve realized it relates to a bigger issue: the accessibility of a paper. If you have a figure that clearly summarizes your results, your paper will be much more accessible to everyone from specialists in your area (the people who review your manuscript!) to non-specialists (including people who serve on search committees and award committees) and perhaps even to the general public.

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