Unsolicited Advice: Writing, Part 1

Ever since Physioprof wrote a post about how to write a sentence, I’ve wanted to write some posts about writing. I was mulling this over, and then DrMrA gave me this book by Stephen King entitled ‘On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft’. I’ve been enjoying this book (and occasionally laughing out loud) every morning from 7 – 8 am while I’m sweating my guts out in the gym. Despite the fact that the book is about writing fiction, so many of the fine Mr. King’s points can be applied to scientific writing as well. If you write anything more than a couple of words long-you must read this book.

It is going to take a bunch of posts to cover everything I want to say about writing. Some of them are going to be very simple and some are going to be more complex- I’ll try to break them down into parts small enough to chew. Just a warning- they are not going to come out in any particular order- and some will be inspired by Mr. King’s book. This last part is because in reading the book, I realize that I do many of the things mentioned (both good and bad) in my own writing.

First, I have favorite places (a la King) and times of the day that I can write papers and grants extremely productively. My three spots are: 1. In my bed with my knees supported by a pillow and the laptop in my lap when no one else is in the house (usually in the mornings of school days), 2. A local coffee shop that has a corner bar type thing and is generally pretty quiet except right at lunch, and 3. My office, but only between the hours of 5 and 10 pm – after everyone else is gone.  When I’m really serious about getting the words to flow, I escape to one of these three places- and/or make deals with DrMrA so I can work freaky hours.

I think working in my office between 5 and 9 pm works the best for me. I like to listen to music while I work, and for some reason this works better when I’m wearing headphones. This helps me block out my surroundings and kind of get in the zone…. I have no idea why this works but it does. I’ve even got special playlists just for writing… yes, one for papers and one for grants… if you must know. I write in periods of about an hour, then I get up, walk around for a few minutes, get something to drink- and go at it again until I just feel dead tired.

Now, there are things I really enjoy writing, putting data in papers for example, and things that I have to drag myself to get done (cough *grant re-writes* cough….. cough *review articles* cough).  I’d rather work on a paper about 1000x more than doing those other two – but I don’t have any special secrets for making the writing of the things I dread any more pleasant. I find I just have to sit down and grind it out either way. I do have a couple of co-PIs and co-authors that I enjoy writing with- because exchanging and editing each other’s work with the goal of improving the final product is extremely gratifying… even if the project itself was something that wasn’t my favorite to start with. It actually doesn’t matter to me if oceans of red pen cover text that I wrote, I’ve lost my pride about this long ago, and I’m equally good at dishing out the red pen.

So there you go- lesson #1- figure out where your temporal and spatial writing sweet spot is- then grit your teeth and go for it. If you are lucky enough to have mentors, co-authors or collaborators who are good writers and will edit for you- don’t be proud- cough up the text and give them the red pen!

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22 thoughts on “Unsolicited Advice: Writing, Part 1

  1. Yup, I’ll definitely be following this as well.

    King’s book is on my To read list, but it’s gonna be a long time before I get to it. With the new little one, any attempt to read inevitably leads to immediate sleep.

  2. Advice about writing is always welcome! I think I’ll add King’s book to my list of books to read on the commuter bus. I’m currently reading “How to Write a Lot” by Paul Silva. This is a great little book with lots of suggestions academic writing.

    Out of curiosity, what songs are on your writing playlists?

  3. Different play lists for grants vs. papers – that is hilarious! I don’t need to know the songs, just which genres work best for which activity, and why!

  4. Cath- Yeah- what can I say- I’m odd like that. I’m all about rock and some folk, I don’t like jazz very much with the exception of Stan Getz and a couple of others (but come to think of it he’s not on either of my writing play lists), I much prefer the blues, and I do like some country (although I swore I would never go there- that tends to be what happens to me when I say the word never). 100 jazz fans are now going to send me hate mail. (Grant writing play list includes but is not limited to: Alison Krauss, Elvis Costello, Barenaked ladies (If I had a 1,000,000 $$- Ha Ha Ha!!), Billy Joel, Bob Dylan, Mark Knopfler, Dido, Counting Crows and various other not particularly adventurous selections- for those of you that must know)

    Perhaps not surprisingly I like good song WRITING- and would never listen to what I consider to be empty music with crappy lyrics and no soul (that includes Britney, Miley and Jessica Simpson)…

  5. Hmmm, see, I am kind of the opposite–I love good, well-written lyrics, but while I myself am trying to write they are too distracting. I would rather have mindless vocal sounds going on (or at least not too intricate). I like to listen to dance music like Basement Jaxx and Justin Timberlake to get focused in the lab, dancing around with my experiments (I haven’t done that in a while now that I am the boss!). But classical music is the only thing I can actually WORK to. And quartets, trios, solo piano and otherwise “small” music is best for my brain.

  6. Oh, and btw, given your writing playlist, you might like these people too: Nickel Creek, Feist, Regina Spektor and Imogen Heap. I should be a Pandora algorithm. :)

  7. Arlenna- I do like Nickel Creek and listen to them on Pandora from time to time- I’ll check out the others! I don’t know, lyrics don’t bother me, esp. if they are songs I listen to over and over. I used to listen to quite a bit of classical piano- but not so much lately. Maybe that’s from going to too many music lessons w/kids.

  8. Showing my freakiness here…
    When I write grants, I need stuff that my ass ain’t gonna wiggle around to, but keep me awake and functional. John Mayer, Phil Collins, I heart George Strait, Chicago, Tom Petty, Eagles, Fleetwood, James Taylor, Lucinda Williams, Emmy Lou, Union Station, Bob Seger, Joe Cocker. I usually work through the night, until my brain turns off, for a week at a time. It’s that whole “science crazies” thing.

    When I write papers, I need my ass wigglin around and gettin jazzed/rocked about my hot science, so Def Leppard (and pretty much every hair band, Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, etc), Mariah, Sugarland, Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban, Taylor Swift, Shania. I move around alot writing papers, I print off paragraphs and pace around like a moron. Think about how to best arrange them and how to connect thoughts. I really am a total spazz. The floor near my desk looks like a paper explosion (like NOW!) when I’m in full ‘cranking out the papers’ mode.

    I know my friends do this too – I cook snacks for myself. This week was chocolate chocolate chip cake with cream cheese icing. Last week was cheesecake. And I have a treadmill for clearing my head and working off the snacks. And I go into pre-writing “cleaning” mode if it’s gonna be a bitch of a paper and suck my brain dry.

    I hate book chapters. If there’s a gun pointed at my head, I might write another. I hate review articles. ditto with the gun. I just hate regurgitating other people’s stuff. that’s just me.

  9. Jc- Ha Ha Ha- that’s totally awesome. I do realize that my grant writing play list is also slightly more mellow than the paper writing play list. But some of my less tame is some of your tame. Probably a generational thing.

    Also- ditto on the paper explosion, it’s like I have to have everything where I can see it. But my office looks like that about 364 days out of the year. I’m hoping 2009 will be different- I’ve lasted 9 whole days with visible desk space and nothing on the floor thus far.

    I hate book chapters. If there’s a gun pointed at my head, I might write another. I hate review articles. ditto with the gun. I just hate regurgitating other people’s stuff. that’s just me.

    God damn. After the torture of the recent review article, most favorite collaborator asked me to help with a book chapter. I can’t bring myself to answer the email. I’ll edit- but I’m not taking responsibility for that thing. To use your words- not unless someone points a gun at my head.

  10. For grant writing, I need music with an edge. My current grants have almost entirely been written to Against Me!, with a little Hot Springs thrown in. For papers I tend to tone it down a bit and go with songs that I listen to a lot so that I don’t get distracted by the lyrics. The New Pornographers, Hey Rossetta, Mother Mother, maybe even Tegan & Sara. For serious editing or writing something I am not enjoying I have to turn to music with no lyrics, occassionally even going classical if things get really bad. Different writing takes different music, I completely agree.

  11. PLS- I think I’ve got to broaden my musical horizons!

    JC- Your youth is showing. When you are past a certain birthday that ends in a zero and starts with a 4, your metabolism slows to nothing and celery is the only snack you are allowed while writing… and pretty much any other time. It’s so depressing.

  12. This is very funny. I absolutely can’t have lyrics when I’m writing–if I know the lyrics, I’ll start muttering along, and if I don’t know them, I’m trying to figure them out. Either way, disaster.

    I’ve taken Sciencewoman’s route (or was it Alice’s?): put a CD on (in my case, always classical, preferably chamber music….), and force yourself to write as long as the music plays. When it stops, you can stop and get up for a while. Then another CD. Basically same schedule as you, but more Schuberty.

  13. I love the music to write to discussion. The music choice is definitely determined by the particular activity (here not limited to just writing)

    Brainstorming and “project thinking”: Classical all the way. Brandenburg Concertos seem to pop up a lot there. Gets me all Ivory Tower and stuff.

    Programming, more rote analysis of patch clamp stuff, cell culture if it’s the routine variety: Metal. Metallica seems to be the current favorite. (Yes, my data is my “Master of Puppets”).

    Paper reading, plucking the highlights out: I seem to always head back to things like George Michael, Duran Duran, Crowded House.

    Actual experiments: Silence. No music at all. The real time nature of electrophysiology makes it very hard for me to adequately pay attention with any music going on in the background.

    And for writing: Silence again. But I’ll often set a timer and force myself to write for the duration of that. Same idea as DrJ referred to.

  14. Nat- Holy Cow- Metallica??? … and as for paper reading stuff- are those oldies for you… because I’m so sorry to say that they are my generation. I suppose I should have also said that I don’t listen to new music while I’m writing- I listen to the songs I know every single lyric too- and eventually they just kind of become familiar background noise.

  15. All the science blogging types are starting to make me feel that I’m the only biologist who listens to any metal at all! But really, when you’re feeling angry and alienated about the state of science (as we are all wont to do at times), there’s nothing like some good heavy metal to make you feel a tad better. And few bands do it better than Metallica (seriously, unless all hard rock is anathema to you, go to YouTube, search Metallica One Studio and listen to the top hit result. Then tell me what you think).

    Duran Duran, George Michael and Crowded House aren’t oldies for me, though they do represent the first music that I started to listen to, in junior high. I’m not that much younger than you I’d guess.

    You’re right though that background music has to be exactly that, and something new doesn’t work. You need something your brain won’t attend to actively.

  16. Nat- My alternative to metal is Green Day…. and another of the oldies… the Ramones. Bet you didn’t see that one coming.

  17. That’s cool! Punk is another favorite “Science Can Be the suXX0rs!” soundtrack.

    But if you meld the fast paced tempo, in your face character of punk with the guitar heavy, distorted sounds of blues/psychedelic-rock, you end up with the sounds of bands like Iron Maiden (another favorite) and others that directly influenced Metallica. But there are a few degrees of separation there!

    And PLS has definitely given me a whole host of new stuff to check out. Wikipedia here we come!

  18. Nat- I don’t think you are going to win me over to metal. I had a favorite lab mate that already tried, and failed. The heavy distortion (I don’t even know if that’s the right word for it) of the guitar just doesn’t work for me for some reason. Punk is a whole different thing. And I really love Green Day. People just never see that coming from me.

  19. No skin off my nose whatsoever! I’m a big believer in the “what I like” theory of aesthetics.

    Green Day is definitely excellent. This whole discussion has made me break out the “Dookie” for drafting my responses to reviewers’ comments.

    Hopefully it won’t come out too angry!

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