How to Write, And Other Things We’re Supposed to Be Teaching Trainees


Today’s post is inspired by a long-time friend of the blog Drugmonkey, who asked the following on The Twitterz…

There’ s no opportunity like the present to take a break from online shopping and offer my opinion.

Green heels

Which is no small feat because, how adorable are these? Spring needs to be on its way post haste.

Once upon a time, I wrote a now well-referenced blog post on my own approach to scientific paper writing. I, of course, think that this is the absolute best approach to paper writing and that everyone should always do things my way. Still, Drugmonkey’s question about what is best for trainees is not lost on me. When I was a postdoc, I had an outstanding mentor who was willing to be very open about his successes and failures in mentoring. He gave me two outstanding pieces of advice. The first, with regard to writing, was to read broadly and find people who I thought were outstanding writers. Not people who were reporting results that I was interested in, but people who did an excellent job of communicating information. Then, emulate and incorporate their style. This really motivated me to read broadly, which has been beneficial in both my science and writing because there is a lot of outstanding writing in the literature. Clear, direct, awesome writing.

The other broader piece of advice that he gave me was that mentoring is not a one size fits all activity. Different trainees have different needs and barriers. I remember, at the time, naively shrugging that one off. We’re all trying to be scientists, right?

Oh, how I wish I had listened better.

I quickly learned when I started reading student writing that, for some students, bringing a PI their first writing is a terrifying proposition. They have no idea where to start, with the white page of doom staring them in the face. Will their writing be any good? What if their PI thinks they’re an idiot?

And, as a PI, it can be a  mentally daunting task (even if it’s your job) to correct the same n00b writing errors over and over again, just to be able to get to the best part of the writing.

[As an aside, I often hear senior colleagues lamenting about how kids these days aren’t as awesome as when they were PhD students/postdocs/junior faculty. They are. It’s just t seniors’ frames of reference shift as they grow older and (hopefully) wiser.]

So, a couple of years ago I came up with a solution to try to make my trainees more comfortable with writing, and more receptive to feedback. We now have what I call “paper meeting.” The point of paper meeting is that anyone can bring anything that they’re working on and get feedback from anyone that shows up. Paper meeting is totally optional, but my observation is that people who participate write papers quicker and far less painfully.  We still use my basic formula for writing (results first, etc.), but this gives the trainees a chance to get feedback from people that aren’t me, alone, in my office, in the most intimidating way possible. They put their figures and writing on the wall and the feedback begins. I find that I can usually stand in the back, ask the occasional Socratic question, and the trainees do an outstanding job of critiquing their own work. Nearly every initial edit that I would have made is picked up in paper meeting, and by people who aren’t me. This gives the trainees experience editing others’ writing and it saves the most fun part of the paper writing for me.

Now, do my trainees like paper meeting? I will be honest that my sense is tainted by the fact that I’m the boss lady. Are people going to tell me they don’t like it? But, it is regularly attended and the feedback from the trainees to each other is scrappy. I call that success.

The best part of the process is that, by the time the rough draft is done, I get to focus on the fun parts. Wordsmithing.  Refining the perfect phrase.  The skeleton of the story is usually already established and the challenge becomes, how to craft everything else around it. I usually meet with the trainees to review a section together. I edit one section in from of them, let them see how I will edit the rest of the paper, and then give the paper back to them for one last edit. They typically get the kind of stuff that will stop me in my tracks, and edit it out themselves. Then, I edit the final draft.

It sounds like a lot of work, but once the lab got the hang of things, it became extremely efficient. I have more papers on my desk than ever before, and I think some of the fear and anxiety has been eliminated from the writing process. The most important lesson it teaches is that writing a paper/grant/etc. is an iterative process that is best accomplished by a community.

Very few people write outstanding prose in isolation and no one benefits from having a single mentor.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s