E. B. White and the glory of a piece of paper

August 9, 2008

“Even now, this late in the day, a blank sheet of paper holds the greatest excitement there is for me — more promising than a silver cloud, and prettier than a red wagon.”

There are few ways to better spend time than with a good pen and your notebook, sitting at a tiny table in busy coffee shop or a park bench.

I think this applies to most folks whose job it is to be creative. My wife Debby is a compulsive sketcher, which is a good thing, as she does stuff like this for a living. Growing up in the San Francisco area, she would occasionally run into one of her heroes, R. Crumb, who once told her “Always have your notebook, and draw everything and anything.”

One pleasant consequence is that wherever we are, wherever there is a place to sit, we can comfortably spend an hour or so with our respective notebooks propped open, scribbling away.

This leads to some interesting situations. Once in a Firenze Museum, we both took up precious bench space in front of Michelangelo’s David, intending to spend some time scribbling. We couldn’t help but catch the eye of some older citizens. They first shadowed Debby, standing behind her at her end of the bench. They clucked appreciatively. (I mean, how could they not? Her drawing of David looked just like him!). They then sidled over behind me. Instead of another sketch in my open notebook, they found gridded paper covered with chicken scratch, boxes, and arrows. Their comments stretched my rudimentary Italian, but the tone was clear enough.

Here’s wishing you a half-empty notebook, a good pen, a nice spot, and some free time.

quote from Hannah Hinchman’s A life in hand: creating the illuminated journal

On writing better–Kurt Vonnegut

July 23, 2008

One could do far worse than to model your writing after Kurt Vonnegut. His mythic stories are simply constructed, easy to read, and stay with you long after you’ve shelved the book (or, better yet, given it away).

In his book of essays Palm Sunday, Vonnegut provides some tips on how to write elegantly, simply, and memorably.

Below the fold, I interpret the master’s advice for the beginning science writer.

Read the rest of this entry »

On the Five Stages of Proposal Writing

May 24, 2008

I’m preparing to dust off a proposal that was rejected six months ago. It’s a resubmission to the National Science Foundation. In such cases the word submission is particularly apt. When NSF is funding less than 10% of the proposals it receives, one is pretty much resigned to one or more rewrites before you have a chance at funding. And since you often have only one or two chances a year to submit a proposal for 3-5 years of work, well, one doesn’t have to be a whiz on the quantitative side to see proposal writing as a lovely lesson in the brevity of all things mortal.

But I digress.

While dwelling on such things existential it was great to come across FemaleScienceProfessor‘s take on the the process of writing a grant proposal. What emerges is the notion that successful grants have to be in some way transformative, that their writing is not linear but aggregative, that much of it has to do with juggling budgets and filling out forms, and that, when it’s all over (after months of nurturing the baby that you then unceremoniously kick out of the nest), well….I’ll let her do the honors…

And then.. someone in the grants office pushes a button and the proposal is gone. I get an automated email. I am relieved, but there is also a melancholy feeling of emptiness at the departure of the proposal out of my intellectual grasp. What will I do next? I contemplate cleaning my office, but I don’t actually do it.

FSP is a worthwhile blog. Check it out.

See also:

10 steps toward better grant writing

5 ways of dealing with that rejected manuscript

Another GTDA haiku

QotD: How your writing reflects the quality of your thinking

March 19, 2008

“People who cannot distinguish between good and bad language, or who regard the distinction as unimportant, are unlikely to think carefully about anything else.”

B. R. Myers The Atlantic April 2008

5 writing tips from A. Lincoln

February 26, 2008

lincolns-sword.jpegOne way to improve your writing is to read good writers. Occasionally, if you are lucky, you come across a book on how a great writer writes. Such is Lincoln’s Sword by Douglas L. Wilson. No American president’s writings are so well known as those of Abraham Lincoln. His First and Second Inaugurals, and the Gettysburg address survive in part for the music of Lincoln’s words. But that music served a purpose; his style served the content masterfully. Here are a few things any beginning writer can learn from Abraham Lincoln, as revealed by Douglas Wilson. Read the rest of this entry »

5 books that will make you write better

January 23, 2008

typist_reporter_scribe_small.jpgCheck out Reading Lists above for five books that address two basic roadblocks to the beginning science writer.

The first is “making time to write” and overcoming procrastination.

The second is the craft of science writing, the assortment of tips, tricks, and practices that every good science writer accrues, often through trial and error.

All but one is under $20.00.

Your 10-point checklist before sending off that manuscript

January 19, 2008

checklist.jpgA recent article in The New Yorker by Atul Gawande suggests that complex missions often fail due to the sheer number of steps required to complete them successfully. The aggravating thing is that these steps are individually simple. However, in our frenetic world, even experts often miss a step.

The solution? A checklist–the low-tech answer to mastering challenging tasks. As Gawande reports, when the health care workers of a hospital’s ICU were required to follow a checklist for a seemingly straightforward task–keeping catheters clean and infection-free–10 day infection rates dropped from 11% to 0, and 8 fewer people died over a 15 month period. These were competent professionals yet their performance benefited from a simple piece of technology. And I don’t know about you, but it gives me comfort when I board a plane and see the pilot reviewing a pre-flight checklist.

Preparing a manuscript is a complex task. Your career ultimately depends on producing successful manuscripts. The last thing you want to do is send out a manuscript prematurely. It wastes your time, your editor’s time, and the time of your anonymous colleagues. So here’s a ten point checklist toward making sure that every manuscript you send out allows your work to shine. I wish every graduate student would do the following before sending me a manuscript, as an advisor, committee member, editor, or reviewer. Read the rest of this entry »

On leaving MS Word for cleaner pastures

January 9, 2008

My mini-rant against Microsoft Word prompted reader Sasha to suggest looking into Scrivener. Now wouldn’t you know it, Virginia Heffernen has a nice article on cheesey little website about her move away from the Redmond empire.  It links to a nice essay by Steven Poole on the same topic.

The upshot of both: the process of creative, synthetic writing is largely divorced from the process of formatting mass-produced documents. Our job as academic scientists is not to write memos, but manuscripts. Why not find software that gently removes the distractions, and lets you, and your words, flow?  Read the rest of this entry »

10 tips toward better grant writing

January 6, 2008

Johnny CashHappy New Year everybody. I hope your holiday has been restful and productive. Mine has been….productive, as I’ve been participating in the yearly ritual of grant-writing over Xmas break.

Grant writing serves two purposes to the academic. It is first a way to get money. Money is good, and allows you to do stuff.

Another reason field biologists spend winter break writing grant proposals is that it’s a logical time to plan for the upcoming field season. What are the next steps in your research program (or programme, if you prefer your vocabulary spiced up with a few extra letters)? A convincing grant proposal will convince you of a course of action that will occupy a significant chunk of your life. Here are a few tips that might make this journey a bit less ornerous. Read the rest of this entry »

Keep your writing on schedule

December 3, 2007

Research as a second language has a nice review of the concisely titled How to write a lot.

The money quotes:

Its basic argument is that if you write on a schedule, rather than according to whim, you will be more productive and happier as an academic writer.


Writing projects (even whole writing careers) too often go off the rails when writers abandon their schedule and start waiting for inspiration. Or they never get started because they never consider the question of exactly when they will put all their great ideas into writing.

and, the de-mystifying

Silvia takes great pains to make academic writing seem like an ordinary, non-existential activity. “Academic writers,” for example, “cannot get writer’s block”.

This is wonderfully true. Granted, there are days when you are “on fire” and days when the mind is sludge, the hands cramp, and the heebie jeebies multiply.  On the former days you compose the Introduction and Discussion–easily the most literary parts of a scientific paper. On the latter days, work on your Materials and Methods, draft a figure, even type in your references.

Just write…every….day.  The currency of academia is still publications. And you want to leave grad school with pocket full of cash…


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