My name is Madeline Fisher. After training to be a scientist (a microbial ecologist, to be exact) and getting more than a year into a postdoctoral research project, I leapt about 10 years ago into writing, editing and other communications work. I’ve since worked for several communications offices on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, but now make my living primarily as a writing tutor to a group of graduate students in a UW computational biology training program, called BACTER.
I’m well aware that being an experienced writer doesn’t necessarily make one capable of teaching writing. That’s why I’ve been using this blog to explore, organize and hone my ideas about what good writing is and how to create it. I also hope the students are reading this blog from time to time, and that others may find it helpful someday.
The focus is scientific writing, especially (right now, anyway) the craft of writing research papers, which are so critical to the survival of any scientist – and often so deadly to read. Why are they deadly? In my opinion, it’s because writing in science is frequently seen as a means to an end – another publication, tenure, more grant money – rather than an activity that has value in and of itself. As a result, it tends to be rushed through as quickly as possible.
What’s more, I think a lot of scientists are apt to forget the goal of writing, which is to produce a work that will be read and understood. Or as George Gopen and Judith Swan say in their essay in American Scientist, The Science of Scientific Writing: “It does not matter how pleased an author might be to have converted all the right data into sentences and paragraphs; it matters only whether a large majority of the reading audience accurately perceives what the author had in mind.”
There are definitely some nuts and bolts issues to making yourself understood – things like word choice, and sentence structure and what goes where in a paper. And, so, this blog definitely covers those topics. But reaching the reader also requires thinking about her in the first place, knowing what you want to say, and figuring out how best to say it. So, the blog also takes on these less tangible subjects – subjects that have more to do with the process of writing than the polished end result.
At all times, I reserve the right to skip around as the mood (or the students’ needs) strikes me. I also don’t claim to be super-original; indeed, many more accomplished writers than I have tackled these same themes. But by thinking about these ideas and writing about them, I make them a little more my own. And once in awhile I may even turn up something new. In the end, I think this is what I’m trying to model for researchers by writing this blog: That writing can be an aid to discovery – even scientific discovery.
–Madeline Fisher, July 2009