Friday, August 22, 2008

Barely Writing

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.


Anonymous said...

I like the idea of writing something fun as a way to get motivated for more "serious" writing work. Maybe I'll try it, though like you, I generally enjoy writing papers and proposals. I've been trying a little journaling in the mornings lately, as a way of getting myself focused for the day. So far, results are mixed but promising.

I wonder if your writing-challenged students would find it equally hard to write something fictional or poetic as a warm-up? (Maybe if they could be assured no one else would read it...) One thing that often helps me get unstuck on a research problem is to start composing an email to a mentor asking for help. Often just the process of explaining the issue will jog things loose in my mind. So if poetry is too threatening for your students, maybe a letter or email (or blog post) on the topic is another possibility. Let us know how this idea works -- I'd be interested in trying it with my grad students.

This fall, I will be teaching first-year college students and am thinking about ways to help them over whatever writing phobias they have. I think simply giving them regular practice (such as 10 minutes at the end of each class) could be really helpful in increasing their comfort level. Anyone have any thoughts about this? (The class is a science-themed seminar, but not a science class per se.)

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Huh. I'm getting ready to send off my first book MS to a publisher, and so I'd like to propose a variation to the either-or of the nudity metaphor: I'm afraid that I may be overestimating the sexiness of my own literary nudity, and that once revealed, it's actually going to cause some people to visibly recoil, and possibly tell others how repellent they found the experience, thus preventing me from ever getting any in the future (the "any" in this metaphor being publication opportunities).

(Appropriately enough, this is more or less the way I feel about real nudity. I guess I'm just an all-around neurotic mess.)

A Life Long Scholar said...

Yes, I think that sort of encouragement would really help some students! Perhaps asking them to do an illustrated children's story on some small aspect of their research--boiling it down to easy to understand components that a small child could understand would help them get used to taking their work/research/thoughts and putting them on paper.

Anonymous said...

Instead of a writing problem, I have a speaking problem.
For instance, attending group meetings makes me uncomfortable. I dislike having to show my data unless I have a well versed story about my results. Plus I am intimidated by the male students (I am the only female student in our rather large group) and getting hammered with questions from them. I have no problems asking them questions about their work. It is just my own work that I am insecure in describing (which is sometimes indescribable). My advisor is nice and helpful. He often pulls me aside after group meetings to ask me about my week's work (results). He knows I want to graduate.
But for my own personnel development, I want to get better at talking about my work in these informal group meetings. I have not figured out a creative way to improve my situation. Hmmmm........

Mister Troll said...

Your comment about students understanding everything yet being "flummoxed" (word of the day!) resonated.

My students have all struggled with writing (no surprise: no one teaches them how). I ask them, "Well, what did you do?" With only a little coaching, they can say, "I did this, this, this, this, and then this." "OK, write it down." And then they can't.

Weird. My current guess is that it relates to some things being too obvious/boring. Maybe subconsciously they need something significant or interesting to write?

Even if I'm correct with this guess (and I don't know that I am), would it apply at a higher level?

Anonymous said...

Love your blog and this post, especially since I'm at home putting the finishing touches to a manuscript discussion before sending to peers to read. The implication that having the ability to write well does not prevent having difficulty with the task, is so true. I think perfectionisim plays a large part there!

Anonymous said...

I like the nudity analogy ...

I know that my youngest, who has learning disabilities, is extremely reluctant to share anything she's written. She is totally involved in the content of a number of online forums - but few know she's there as she rarely posts a comment.

Anonymous said...

I don't feel naked when I write, but I do feel that way when I speak publicly about my own work. When I write, I know that I will get a chance to double-check and if necessary triple-check my work, that I can ask someone else to help with proofreading, that I can fiddle and rearrange bits until it is, if not perfect, at least a great deal better. If I need more information or a question comes up that I can't answer, I can quietly go look it up or reason my way through it.

When I give a talk, however, everything inevitably comes out garbled. I am nervous and sweaty, forget the structure of the talk, and speak in nonsense riddled with slips of the tongue. As I listen to myself and hear how badly everything is coming out, I become increasingly nervous, which makes my delivery even worse.

The same applies to written vs. oral exams. In written exams, I can recall detailed information, formulate coherent ideas, and solve complex problem. In oral exams, I freeze, forget everything I know, and can't answer even very simple questions.

Anonymous said...

You might check out the early books by Natalie Goldberg like Wild Mind and Writing Down the Bones to offer to students who are blocked about writing. She teaches writing practice, an unintimidating type of work that gives you permission to "write shit, but just write." If you do that over and over, you eventually have something useful.

Anonymous said...

Oh dear. I really do need to go write the discussion and conclusions for my current manuscript. It's a little outside my area of greatest expertise, so I do feel nervous, which is dumb because a senior scholar in the specific area actually offered to review it before I submit it. You've prodded me a bit, and I appreciate it.
I enjoy grant proposals much more than manuscripts. I love to take my idea and spin out all the great things that could come of it. Describing what actually happenned, at least until I find the cure for cancer, tends to be more pedestrian for most work. The project never comes off perfectly, which it still is when you're writing the proposal.

I also like writing letters.

I enjoyed this post especially much, thanks for sharing.

Odyssey said...

What a wonderful post! Made me want to go write.

Anonymous said...

I get nervous about writing on website because I know the power of google to keep finding all the stupid things I've written for ever. Don't mind writing real papers, but this is my first blog comment!

Eugenie said...

As a student, I have to agree about the nudity analogy. When it comes down to writing a paper for a class, or a major paper for an internship, I freeze up (because the thought of undressing infront of someone is terrifying in its own right...)

You did a good job summing it up - I get the paranoia that who ever reads the first draft will think I'm stupid/ignorant, or a "loser" etc. Even though I know the material cold or that my methods were correct the self-doubt will be there to keep me in check.

So when (if) I have people edit my papers, I make sure I'm not in the room because it royally freaks me out.

I'm not sure how creative writing would help? I've dabbled in some of it and I've never had an issue with that. When it comes down to material that I eventually will be graded on/ or present, it is one of the most nerve racking things.

MGS said...

susan b. anthony:
I know of a professor who asks the first year undergrad students to write about their process of writing as the first paper for the course. They then discuss as a conference the different approaches to writing. It seems to be working very well for the students.

I like this idea because it shows the students different ways to approach writing, and if the way they're currently using doesn't work well for them, they can try other ways until they find one that works. It also deconstructs and demystifies the writing process a bit.

Anonymous said...

wow. I've made the nudity analogy before (to a friend who thought I was joking and exaggerating, so I pretended I was). There's also the issue of a myriad of possibilities confronting me at every turn; I much prefer programming and even then I see the possibilities open in front of me and feel temporarily stumped.

For the record, creative writing did help, especially the part where we workshopped stories that were read out loud in front of everyone while we stood naked in the middle of the class. (Other people in class seem to have forgotten the part about being naked. weird!) I didn't feel like I was supposed to be good at it, so I wasn't worried about the sag of my ass as much as I do when I'm writing on my supposed area of expertise.

It was liberating. I submitted 3x as many manuscripts in that term as in previous terms. Unfortunately, the effects were short-lived, and the sense of freedom was gone almost as soon as the class was over.

I wonder if blogging would help.

Unknown said...

Any chance you'd share the stories / cartoons you sent to your daughter? Or is that asking too much (too revealing)?

Female Science Professor said...

I suppose I could change their names and put little black bars over their faces, but posting the cartoons of the cats would reveal some personal and possibly embarrassing details about their medical history, personal grooming habits, and weight. This might have a negative impact on their educational and employment opportunities. Also, you'd probably have to know the specific personalities (and relative IQs) of the cats to think the cartoons were even somewhat funny.

Anonymous said...

@sara: Thanks for the suggestion -- sounds like a good one!

ScienceGirl said...

I think starting a blog had the same effect on me as story writing on you, except since I am not yet that good at writing, I am also learning how to write better.

Anonymous said...

Im right there with sciencegirl. Im working at it, but it helps me learn to cut out the non-sense and to choose my words carefully. Im hoping that blogging will help me to expand my vocab and make me a better speaker.


Pagan Topologist said...

I do not agree with the nudity metaphor. I am known as a good writer, but writing does not come easily for me. (Speaking before a group, on the other hand, is easy and natural for me.) The problem is that I leap from insight to insight in my natural writing, and I have to go back and painstakingly put in background that readers are likely to need. I cannot just shuffle text piecemeal with a word processor the way some people can; this leads to stilted, artificial prose which is not flowing and often easy to understand. I need to write the entire manuscript from where a new sentence has to be inserted, by hand with a pen, thank you, since there may be a syntactical change needed here and there in what follows because of the insert. Sometimes this can lead to twenty drafts or so being written before the final result is acceptable to me. I only wish more of my colleagues were so conscientious; so often math research papers are really hard to read, even for specialists.

So, the "naked me" version would not be easily comprehensible by anyone but me; the carefully embellished version is always much better.

No, I have no explanation as to why I do not have the same difficulty with speaking. I once had a conversation with Isaac Asimov about this. He was equally facile with either speaking or writing. I am not, although I approach speaking much as he did, and have as little trouble with it. I tend to be unsympathetic, I fear, when a student is reluctant to present something orally to a class, at the blackboard.

butterflywings said...

Hmmm. I am far, far better at writing than at speaking.
I can understand something - yet not be able to put it into words when speaking, and consequently sound inarticulate.
Ask me to write it down, no problem.
I don't get the idea that writing is a permanent record. Of course it isn't - there will be a record of this comment, for example, but I have already edited it several times. Equally I could scribble down some notes on paper and throw them away.
Speaking, though - I feel that once you have said something, other people don't forget it (even if you didn't think it through all that well before speaking). You can backspace, erase, but you can't unsay something.

Anonymous said...

By writing, they are baring a private part of themselves, and this is extraordinarily difficult and painful for some people.

It is almost impossible to explain how absolutely shocking it was for me to hear that. I learned something today.

Like to the Lark said...

upgI have been struck by the similarity between scientists and writers and artists working in creative fields - like theatre, visual art and poets/novelists.

Each has to remain creative, and persistent, following a unique path, creating new work. Each has to apply for grants which are variable.

And each needs to market/communicate their value.

For artists/writers/actors the book The Artist's Way, or The Artist's Way at Work by Julia Cameron and Julia Cameron and Mark Bryan, is excellent.

I believe it would equally well work for scientists.

Key to the program (it is a 12 week program with a series of exercises) are two practices:
1 - Writing "Morning Pages' - 3 pages of longhand stream of consciousness writing every morning as a kind of "brain dump".

2 - taking a weekly "artist date" (or scientist's date/ "time out") taking 1-2 hours to do something creative and fun. It may be visiting an exhibition, taking time to draw or paint, window shopping, going to a movie on your own or whatever floats your boat.

I have thought about setting up a virtual Artist/Scientist cluster, but have other stuff on at the moment.

I strongly believe that the practice of morning pages would really help scientists as much as it helps artists.

Anonymous said...

I recommend the book "Writing your dissertation in fifteen minutes a day" by Joan Bolker. It has great (general) writing tips. I use her focused freewriting technique when I get writer's block (I just write about the topic and don't stop, even if its crap, even if all I'm writing is "this makes no sense, etc")

I do find writing hard, and I think part of it is that I'm a perfectionist. Constructive criticism helps, as long as the student understands that this doesn't mean the prof thinks the paper is crap, just that it can be improved. Ideally, this is the advisor's role.

Anonymous said...

For technical writing, I had to un-learn whatever I knew about writing.

Anonymous said...

Wow. This post really resonated. I have been trying to fix my writing problems for some time now- reading all sorts of different kinds of books about "how to write" or whatnot. But none of my efforts have really had much of an effect. The writing I do manage to complete has improved, but when it comes time to sit down and write the things which are the most important- and which carry the highest risk of getting stamped with that "loser" stamp- I freeze with terror, and procrastinate until opportunity has passed me by.

After reading this post though, I think I might have identified my problem. You know what that means?! That means that all I have to do is identify the solution*! At the least, I can stop wasting my time with the books about writing style...

Thank you for posting this! You just may have saved my life!

*Now, if only it were so easy as a simple titration...

Ms.PhD said...

Good idea.

This post raises an important point about science education, though. There's too much emphasis on test scores no training in writing. It's ridiculous. I'm sure students would be more comfortable with it if they had more practice.

Another thing you might have them do is write weekly progress emails to you. Tell them to spend 20 minutes on it, maximum, but you expect full sentences in conversational (but scientifically correct) format.

Unbalanced Reaction said... that I think about it, there certainly *were* some theses at LargeU that could've been classified as horror stories....

So many of my fellow grad students were uncomfortable, or worse, just bad at writing. My college had such a heavy writing component that I found it shocking (at the time) that these brilliant grad students couldn't fathom writing more than 5 pages at a time.

Now I'm making my intro students do 1-2 page writing assignments a few times throughout the semester.

Amanda said...

I'm with Science Girl. Blogging has helped me a lot with writing. Scientific writing is not the same style, but both involve describing something (a story, a method) clearly to an audience. It has also lessened the fear of the dreaded blank screen.

Anonymous said...

If we can't see your cats, what about revealing your Mad Libs on a subsequent post? It might be fun to see (get Aunt Maude to fill one out) and quite possibly, useful.

I found this a very interesting analogy. I am another of those who has been told she writes well (since forever) but has a difficult time stepping up to the plate. The more the subject matters, the more I feel I can't do it justice. Perhaps it is that worry about my subject matter not being as seductive in prose as I would like it to be. And being judged for that lack.

On my part, there is also a good deal of inertia, too. Writing is more work than preparing an oral presentation, now that I've overcome my discomfort with that, so I'd rather do the latter, generally, though I'm prouder of praise received for the former.

B said...

Writing scientifically is very difficult for me. I can verbally explain myself, my work, or answer questions. Talks are not usually a problem. But transitioning all of that to paper is hard for me. I usually feel like I wrote a piece of crap but I know it can be fixed and that helps.

Deborah Leiter Nyabuti said...

Just wanted to let you know I appreciated this post, and blogged about it on my blog about the (academic and creative) writing life: