There is a nudity analogy that describes why some people have trouble writing manuscripts and proposals, hate the entire process of writing, and struggle with this important aspect of academic life despite the dire consequences of not writing well or enough. Note that writing problems apply to those who do not write well and to those who can write well but have difficulty writing.
The analogy/hypothesis is: People who hate writing and are reluctant to write feel as if they are "undressing" in front of other people. By writing, they are baring a private part of themselves, and this is extraordinarily difficult and painful for some people. When they put words in a document, they are standing naked in front of other people.
When I first heard this analogy, I laughed a lot because of the implications of this analogy for people like me who love to write and do it fairly easily.
There are surely complex issues involving brain function and emotions when we write, and it is fascinating how different writing is from speaking and how some people can be good at one but not the other.
Writing involves creating a tangible record of what we are thinking, and, in academic writing, it shows other people what we know (or don't know). That can be intimidating. You can listen to a discussion or a talk or a lecture and understand what is being told to you, but when you write a manuscript or a proposal, it's just you and your computer and a seemingly infinite number of ways to go about selecting and organizing the words. For some reason, although word choice when speaking also has a large array of options, most people are less intimidated by this than they are when writing.
The local environment has to be perfect for some people to write. Imagine what the world would be like if we only spoke once we had the right music in the background at the right volume and we were neither hungry nor thirsty and the cat was asleep in the other room and we hadn't received any interesting email in at least a few minutes.
Scientific writing has certain requirements in terms of style and content, and some people are overwhelmed by thinking about all the mysterious rules that they believe must be followed as you type every word, even in the first draft.
Some people may also be intimidated by the "unknown audience" aspect of writing. A student may discuss something with me and be entirely articulate and demonstrate a complete understanding of the topic, but if I say "OK, now go write that down", they are flummoxed. By writing it down, they are making a record of their words and thoughts in a more permanent way, and what they write might be read by other people -- perhaps a group of very wise and judgmental people somewhere out there in the scientific universe. This group is in possession of a large stamp that says LOSER. If you write something less than perfect, even in a first draft, they put a giant red LOSER stamp in permanent ink next to your name and you are forever labeled as stupid. They might even write to your mother. The only one who will still think you are clever is your dog. By writing, you are baring your soul, perhaps with long-term consequences, and overcoming a fear of that means being willing to "expose" yourself to others.
There is clearly more to it than what I have described. Some of my students have been so impaired at writing that even if I give them a fill-in-the-blanks template (a kind of Mad Libs for Doctoral Students), they can't even do that.
Writing can be highly technical, but writing even seemingly dry descriptions of methods and results involves making decisions about what to include and what to leave out, what logic and organization to use in presenting data, and what words to use. I try to remember this when I encounter someone who has trouble writing even the most basic description of their research methods and results.
I like using writing in many different ways, both technical and non-technical. My major writing activities involve manuscripts, proposals, email, and this blog, and this summer I also did a different kind of writing that I very much enjoyed: writing letters, on paper, to be sent by mail in an envelope with a stamp.
My daughter was away at camp for part of the summer, and our only communication was by letters sent via regular mail (no email, no phone, no fax allowed). Not wanting to write boring letters about how the tomato plants were doing and what the weather was, I sent her newsy notes but I also sent her a piece of a story in each letter, each letter containing the next part of the story in sequence. In some letters, I also sent cartoons I had made using photos of our cats with speech bubbles over their furry heads. Fortunately she is still young enough to really like this kind of stuff.
Doing different kinds of writing flexes different brain muscles, and I found that this letter-story-cartoon writing inspired my scientific writing as well. I didn't start drawing cat cartoons in my scientific manuscripts (though maybe I should), but after writing a story-letter, I often felt like working on a manuscript. I seldom have to force myself to write, so the effect was not dramatic, but there was an effect. It felt like when you've exercised and you feel really good and kind of energized and you want to go out and do something else active.
Maybe I should encourage my writing-challenged students to write short stories and poems, and this will help ease them into their science writing. As long as their manuscripts and thesis chapters aren't haiku or horror stories, this might be a way to make writing less of a difficult obstacle. And as long as our scientific writing doesn't become total fiction, we might all become better writers in the end.
10 months ago