Maybe I am a writer after all


I’ve been head down, focusing on writing grants lately. These days I spend a good deal of my time writing and thinking about writing, which isn’t what I imagined life as a scientist to be.

When I was much younger, I wanted to be a writer. I read voraciously. Mainly fantasy novels and classics like Jane Austen and Lucy Maud Montgomery. I spent a lot of time out in the fields and woods around the places we lived and in my head in worlds far from my own. Being a writer sounded so romantic. But along the way that idea faded. Writing in my English classes was uninspiring and the one thing I didn’t do was write, which is of course what makes one a writer. I continued to read with my tastes broadening (but I still enjoy a good fantasy novel when I get the chance) but honestly I didn’t write that much and most of that was because I had to.

Fast-forward to my first undergraduate research project, I was working on sex-allocation in plants. The measurements came fairly easy (besides all the time they took) but once I had a complete and analyzed dataset, then came the writing. It was my first experience writing and rewriting and rewriting something. And then there was submitting it to a journal and rewriting again. I never had worked so hard at writing something but I definitely done so since then.

As my career in science has progressed, I’ve needed to take writing seriously. As an undergrad, I really had no idea how much writing was involved in most scientific fields. Unfamiliar with such things as peer-review, I was ignorant about the process between doing research and published papers.

These days I’ve published a modest number of papers but the stories behind them have really helped me grow as a writer. There was that paper that we decided to cut a significant number of words (I can’t remember the number but maybe a quarter of the paper) to try for a journal with a strict word limit (where it was rejected from). It meant looking at every single sentence to see if every word was truly necessary. The process was kind of fun and became a little like a game or puzzle. I’m still overly wordy at times but now I’m better at slashing in the later drafts. Then there was that time our paper kept getting rejected and we realized (read: my co-author because I didn’t even want to think about it anymore) that the entire introduction needed to be reframed. So we basically tossed the intro and discussion and started again. It was painful but ultimately what needed to be done. What was there before wasn’t bad writing but was setting up expectations that weren’t fulfilled by our data.

Through all of this and especially writing here, I realised that I became a writer with out even realizing it. My science has taught me more about the craft of writing than any of the English classes I took ever did (but to be fair I stopped taking these after first year of my undergraduate degree). I’m not sure if I’ll ever tackle a fiction story, and that is ok. I turned into a different kind of writer than my childhood self imagined. And I know there is a whole other craft of understanding how to construct a story, which is very different than writing a paper or a grant proposal or a blog post. I’m not arrogant enough to think my writing is a universal skill but if I did want to write a novel I now have a better idea of what that might take (writing and rewriting and rewriting and repeat).

There are lots of scientists who also write books for more general audiences suggesting that the transition from scientist to what most would consider a writer isn’t that farfetched. This Christmas I enjoyed the writing of one of my favourite people from my graduate school days, Harry Greene. “Tracks and Shadows” is a lovely, often poetic read about life as a field biologist, snakes and much more. And I haven’t picked it up yet but another Cornellian I knew has gone on to do science television and write “Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You”. It looks fun. These examples of scientists I know writing books also speak to the possibility of writing beyond scientific papers. And as the Anne Shirley books taught me, you should write what you know.

Maybe someday I’ll decide to write a book, but for now, back to those grants.

4 thoughts on “Maybe I am a writer after all

  1. I do agree, writing is vital for every successful scientist; it’s hard to be one if you can’t write. A favourite quote of mine (though I forget who said it) defined a writer as “an individual who finds it more difficult than most people to write”. This sounds like an oxymoron but makes sense: writers work hard to get it right, and that can be a struggle. But it’s worth it.

    Simon Leather’s recent blog piece about writing papers is useful and he makes a good point about telling a story when writing. I’d say that the same is true for giving a lecture: in both cases one must draw in the reader/listener.

    This old post of mine might be of interest too:

  2. Ah, I tracked down the quote – it was Thomas Mann: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

  3. Writing is an essential part of science, even more so these days when we are supposed to write more and more articles, grants and whatnots. As a non-English person supervising non-English students, my main advice to my students is to read, read, read, and write. I urge them to read novels in English, thereby they can get a richer vocabulary. With that comes the feeling for the language and the flow of writing science becomes, if not easy, at least less hard.

    Actually, the writing and rewriting part in a team of writers is something I really enjoy. When it is good, then it is REAL GOOD! And, admittedly, sometimes it sucks.

    Thanks for a nice blog post!

Comments are closed.