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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How to assess “importance”?

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from the one and only Mark Vellend.


The thing you study is underappreciated.  Maybe it’s facilitation, or parasites, or time lags, or precipitation, or nitrogen.  We’ve all written papers arguing that the thing we study is more important than people think.  But what does it mean to be “important”?  This was one of many questions raised by the poll results – and ensuing discussion (see comment by Shan Kothari in particular) – about ecologists’ views on potentially controversial issues.  Maybe “true” and “false” answers to the same question reflect, at least in part, different conceptions of how to assess importance.

Debates in ecology often focus on relative importance of different processes or factors: niche vs. neutral effects on community structure, stabilizing vs. equalizing processes underlying coexistence, local vs. regional processes in explaining diversity patterns. Many of these debates come with the added complexity (and confusion) that the things we measure (e.g., spatial position) map highly imperfectly onto the concepts we hope to capture (e.g., neutral stuff).  There are also questions that seem answerable via an assessment of relative importance, but that actually are not. Those are debates for another day. To think about assessments of “importance” we can start much more simply, focusing on a situation where at least some quantitative comparison is clearly possible.

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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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How “phylogenetically conserved” are views (and study results) on controversial scientific questions?

Everybody’s familiar with the idea of an academic lineage–you’re the “academic offspring” of your PhD supervisor. And perhaps of other mentors who also had a big influence on you. So you can imagine arranging academics into a sort of “phylogenetic tree” tracking lines of academic descent.

Question: how “phylogenetically conserved” are scientists’ views on controversial scientific questions? To what extent do mentees tend to share the views of their former mentors on controversial matters?

I’m particularly interested in cases in which there’s high conservatism not just of opinions, but of results. Are there any cases in which members of one “academic lineage” tend to obtain one sort of result, and members of another “lineage” do similar studies but yet tend to obtain different results than members of the first lineage? The first possible case that comes to mind is fluctuating asymmetry. Rich Palmer (1999) did a meta-analysis of the literature which asked (among other things) whether empirical studies by certain prominent authors tended to obtain different results than studies by other authors.

Sociologists of science must have studied this. Anyone know of any references (he asked lazily)?

We (and all other websites) are not nearly as widely read as you’d think from our traffic stats (CORRECTED)

Just a quick navel-gazing post that will be boringly familiar to many of you but might be eye-opening to others.

As you probably know, this blog gets a lot of traffic for a science community blog: about 60,000 pageviews and 25,000-30,000 unique visitors per month. (Thanks for reading, everybody!) But as some of you may not know, those numbers give a very overinflated impression of our audience size. Because guess how long the average visit to Dynamic Ecology lasts? Seriously, guess!

No, lower. 🙂


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Summer conference advice

Summer conference season is here! No matter what conference(s) you’re attending, we’ve got you covered with plenty of advice on how to prepare, and how to get the most of the conference once you’re there. Most of it’s from us, some of it’s from others, and most have excellent comment threads with additional advice. Share your own tips in the comments!

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