Exploratory writing in scientific writing

December 10, 2009 at 11:36 am Leave a comment

From what I’ve seen as a writing instructor so far, graduate students in the sciences tend to view writing as an activity that merely bookends the real work of data collection and analysis; that is, writing is viewed as means to obtain money at the beginning of a project, as well as something to be gotten through as quickly as possible once a project is finished and ready to be published.

But “exploratory” writing — informal writing outside the structured realm of grants and journal articles — also has a place in science, I think, particularly because of its role in helping us to discover, develop and refine our own ideas. You don’t have to take my word for it, however. Below I’ve posted quotes from a mathematician and a scientist on the value of free-form, exploratory writing.

“We all know that one way to work out our thoughts is to engage in an animated discussion with someone whom we respect. But you can instead, à la Descartes, have that discussion with yourself. And a useful way to do so is by writing. When I want to work out my thoughts on some topic – teaching reform, or the funding of mathematics, or the directions that future research…ought to take – I often find it useful to write a little essay on the subject. For writing forces me to express my ideas clearly and in the proper order, to fill in logical gaps, to sort out hypotheses from blind assumptions from conclusions, and to make my point forcefully and clearly.” –Steven G. Krantz, A Primer of Mathematical Writing

Examples of exploratory writing include journals, notebooks, marginal notes in books, nonstop freewrites, reading logs, diaries, daybooks, letters to colleagues, notes dashed off on napkins, early drafts of essays, and what physicist James Van Allen, author of more than 270 scientific papers, calls “memoranda to myself”: “The mere process of writing,” explains Van Allen, “is one of the most powerful tools we have for clarifying our own thinking. I seldom get to the level of a publishable manuscript without a great deal of self-torture and at least three drafts. My desk is littered with rejected attempts as I proceed. But there is a reward. I am never so clear about a matter as when I have just finished writing about it. The writing process itself produces that clarity. Indeed, I often write memoranda to myself solely for the purpose of clearing up my own thinking.” –Engaging Ideas: A Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking and Active Learning in the Classroom, John C. Bean (2001) John Wiley & Sons, pp. 97-98.

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Entry filed under: From the tutor's perspective, Writing for writing's sake.

Writing the discussion section Strategies for revision

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Science of Scientific Writing

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