Archive for August, 2009

More tips for breaking up writer’s block

In my last post, I discussed two strategies for beating writer’s block: starting anywhere and brainstorming. These techniques for getting something, anything down on paper lead directly to my next strategy, which is…

Let it be crap. Too often when we write, the desire for perfection is hounding us. We expect the words in our head to flow onto the computer screen fully realized and shining with precision. After all, haven’t we thought about our research enough? Putting the words down should be easy.

Alas, it isn’t, not for nobody, no how – and yet, we cling to the possibility that we’ll be the first. That’s why I think perfectionism is the number one cause of writer’s block. It certainly is for me. I don’t want to see a bunch of awkward, stiff, embarrassing sentences dribble from my pen. I want excellence right off the bat, and if I can’t be excellent, then I sit and sweat, or get up and avoid the task altogether. It’s understandable – no one likes to witness a train wreck, least of all one of her own making. But being squeamish about making a mess also doesn’t get one very far.

So in the name of progress, let your writing be bad, bad, bad – as bad as it needs to be to get the job done. I’m not going to lie: This can be uncomfortable. But try to be okay with the discomfort; don’t run away. Then, once you’ve written some crap for a while, you’ll read it over, spot a few pearls in amongst all the tidal wrack, and start cleaning it up. You’ll rearrange, you’ll cut, you’ll rephrase, you’ll augment, and pretty soon, the entire piece will be much closer to pearly white.

Time yourself. When actor and filmmaker Woody Allen famously said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up,” he could easily have been talking about writing. In other words, if you can plunk yourself down at the keyboard for even a short period, often the words begin to flow on their own. So, make a deal with yourself to write for 10 minutes, 15 minutes, a half hour, every day. Then buy a timer and stick to it, even if on some days you do nothing more than stare into space.

I’m guessing that if you can get yourself to show up, you’ll end up writing for longer than your original time limit. But don’t count on it, especially if you’re really blocked. And tempting as it might be to increase the time period after a good day, keep to your original goal for at least a week, so that you don’t put too much pressure on yourself and burn out again. It’s like running. When you’re trying to motivate yourself to run regularly by sticking to a mere one to two miles per day, you don’t suddenly increase to five simply because of one good outing. You stay at one or two for awhile, because the point is just to keep heading out the door every day.

August 25, 2009 at 10:17 am Leave a comment

Don’t get stopped by writer’s block

“Writer’s block is inevitable. It may arrive like an uninvited visitor at the start of a project, or just when the writing was proceeding smoothly.”*

How true. For me, this state of mental paralysis typically sets in just as I’m starting out: I can’t decide how to begin. I’ve sat sometimes for hours with nothing to show for it but a few crippled sentences, all the while sweating over my deadline and fretting the assignment will never get done.

If this sounds familiar, you might analyze your thoughts the next time writer’s block strikes you. Something straightforward could be nagging you: You realize you need to write at home rather than in the lab, or that you should do another experiment before writing anything more. What’s often happening with me, however, is that I’m putting undue pressure on myself to create something beautiful or clever or in some other way perfect, while simultaneously telling myself that it’s never going to happen, that everything I write is clunky or dumb or boring. This is what I call my “self-conscious state.” Instead of just getting down to business – just doing it, as Nike says – I write for, say, one minute, and then spend the next 10 or 20 second-guessing what I’ve composed.

It’s a painful place to be in, of course. That’s why over the years I’ve developed strategies for breaking out of it as quickly as possible and into what I call my “unconscious state.” In this blissful place, the entire universe shrinks down to my computer screen, I develop a laser-focus on what I want to say, and – best of all – I forget all about myself as the writer. I’ve learned to do this primarily through writing on tight deadlines (you really can’t waste two hours getting started when you need to submit 700 polished words by 5 pm). Still, even when deadlines are longer and more fluid, the writing must get done. Here are some tactics for getting on with it.

Start anywhere. If I’m stuck (and even often when I’m not), I let myself start absolutely anywhere in a story. In the middle, at the end – whichever spot happens to capture my imagination at the moment. In the feature stories I write, for instance, the most compelling, enjoyable task is usually writing anecdotes, or mini-stories, about the people involved. So I often start with these bits as a way of entering the piece as a whole.

So, the next time you’re not getting anywhere, ask yourself: What could I get myself to write about today? Maybe you feel like describing the significance of a certain result, because you think it’s just so cool. Or maybe the methods appeal because they’re straightforward. Or perhaps you want to compose the background paragraphs for your introduction, because synthesizing information is one of your favorite writing tasks. Don’t get hung up on writing in a logical sequence – you can put all the pieces together later, trust me. Plus, the progress you make on these parts will make finishing the whole much less daunting.

Brainstorm. When I was uncertain how to start an article in the past, I used to compose one opener, and then anxiously tinker with it for a very long time, before finally throwing it out, writing another and starting the whole process over again. Talk about inefficient! Luckily, I’ve now learned to avoid all the drama and delay by purposely not deciding anything at first. That is, I quickly write three or four (or even five or six) different opening paragraphs, without passing judgment – that’s key. Through this process, one almost always emerges as the winner. But if not, I put them aside to read over later with fresh eyes.

So, not sure what a piece of data means or how to describe a certain figure you’ve created? Write down anything at all that comes to mind (remember: quickly and without passing judgment). Just dump out all the possibilities, even if they contradict one another. Then, let your words sit for a day or two, take another look and see what sticks. Who knows, you may even discover an important insight that would never have surfaced through a more controlled writing process. At the very least, you’ll have something written, which is the first step toward curing writer’s block.

Next, more ideas for putting the chop to writer’s block…

*Writing for scientific publication: Tips for getting started. A. Lin (2006) Clinical Pediatrics.

August 18, 2009 at 1:21 pm Leave a comment

To build good titles, break down a few

If you’re feeling unsure about what makes an effective title, one useful strategy is to find ones you like, analyze them and then try to emulate them.

To get you going, here are a few recent titles that I like:

  • Quantitative analysis of mechanisms that govern red blood cell age structure and dynamics during anemia
  • The role of anorexia in resistance and tolerance to infections in Drosophila
  • Integrative analysis of transcriptomic and proteomic data from Desulfovibrio vulgaris: A non-linear model to predict abundance of undetected proteins

What do these titles have in common? They use simple (but not simplistic) words, avoid acronyms completely, and keep jargon to a minimum. They are grammatically correct and well structured, making for easy reading. They are also specific and unambiguous. For example, the first title names the research subject (red blood cells), what was studied (cell age structure and dynamics) and the larger context (anemia). And in the third: Desulfovibrio was the research organism, transcriptomic and proteomic data were studied, and the problem was finding undetected proteins. After reading these titles, I feel like I have a good grasp of the papers’ contents.

What these titles don’t do is preview the main result. Here are three that do:

  • Rapid response of a marine mammal species to Holocene climate and habitat change
  • The circadian clock in Arabidopsis roots is a simplified slave version of the clock in shoots
  • Circadian clock genes contribute to the regulation of hair follicle cycling

Titles like these that make a statement don’t necessarily work for every paper, but they can be very effective at getting people’s attention. And that’s an important function of a title, of course: to get your paper noticed. So, in addition to being clear and concise, you want to make your title as broadly appealing as possible, without overstating things.

For example, “Circadian clock genes contribute to the regulation of hair follicle cycling” is a good, descriptive title. However, upon reading the paper, I learned that hair follicle cycling occurs on much longer time scales than the approximately 24-hour cycles normally regulated by the circadian clock. In other words, say the authors, “While circadian clock mechanisms have been implicated in a variety of diurnal (daily) biological processes, our findings indicate that circadian clock genes may be utilized to modulate the progression of non-diurnal cyclic processes.”

Thus, the authors might have tried to incorporate the study’s larger significance into the title, as in “Circadian clock genes contribute to the regulation of a non-diurnal biological cycle in mice.” While my title may not be the best alternative (for instance, it assumes people will know the circadian clock normally regulates diurnal cycles), it does offer a way to prevent people from reading “hair follicle cycling” and thinking, “so what?”

August 11, 2009 at 1:29 pm 1 comment

A few quick tips for writing titles

If there’s one part of a paper that hundreds or even thousands of people will read, it’s the title. And if your title is good, they may read further. So, what makes a good one? A good title tells readers exactly what your paper is about in the fewest possible words. But achieving this isn’t easy, so let’s look at some guidelines and examples.

Avoid abbreviations
Consider this title from a recent Bioinformatics paper: “Complex discovery from weighted PPI networks.” While many scientists in the authors’ field likely know what PPI stands for, remember that this title could be read by thousands of others. That’s why a better, more informative title avoids the abbreviation: Complex discovery from weighted protein-protein interaction networks.

Be specific
Often, authors achieve brevity at the expense of clarity and specificity. For example, in “Complex discovery from weighted PPI networks,” what does the word “complex” mean? I read it first as an adjective, that is, as “complicated” or “multifaceted.” But a quick look at the paper reveals that the authors are referring to protein complexes. Thus, a less ambiguous title would be: Protein complex discovery from weighted protein-protein interaction networks.

I also learned from reading their introduction that many methods exist for predicting protein complexes from PPI networks. So, it’s possible the word “weighted” isn’t sufficient to differentiate the authors’ new algorithm. Thinking about how to do this in a small number of words might be another way to make this title more useful to the reader.

Here’s another example: Neural basis of cold-seeking behavior in endotoxin shock. Not only does this sound a tad strange (i.e., like endotoxic shock is exhibiting the behavior), but it also doesn’t say anything about the model that was used (rodents? monkeys? people?). To me, “cold-seeking behavior in rats with endotoxin shock,” is much more informative — and it only adds two words.

Use good syntax (word order)
This rule can be easy to break when you’re trying to be brief, so take care. For example: “Comparative toxicity of fumigants and a phosphine synergist using a novel containment chamber for the safe generation of concentrated phosphine gas.” In this structure, it sounds like the phosphine synergist is using the chamber to generate gas. The problem is easily fixed, though, by rearranging the sentence and substituting a different word for “using”: Comparative toxicity of fumigants and a phosphine synergist during the safe generation of concentrated phosphine gas in a novel containment chamber.

How about this title: The environmental dependence of inbreeding depression in a wild bird population. While it contains no outright errors, the order of the words makes the meaning hard to grasp. A better title might be “Inbreeding depression in a wild bird population varies with environment” or something similar, so long as the confusing phrase “environmental dependence of inbreeding depression” is removed.

August 4, 2009 at 1:46 pm 1 comment


Science of Scientific Writing

This article describes what readers expect when they read - and how scientific writing often violates those expectations.