In my experience, writing up a paper for publication in biology has become an intense affair, a love/hate relationship. Writing is something I always loved as a child and an adolescent, but the bud is off the rose when it comes to writing manuscripts and grant applications for science. Rather than being a joyful act of creation, it has started to feel more like a chore. Most of this is likely due to generally being burned out. However I also blame, at least in part, the fact that to be a good science writer, it seems, you have to follow a very strict formula. It definitely, stifles some of the creative license you have in other types of writing.
This is not to say that as long as you follow the rules it becomes a menial task. Far from it! Formulaic, yes. Easy, no. It’s very difficult to follow rules like the three C’s (and this tidbit comes from an old post-doc I know that was widely published). Writing should be clear, concise, and coherent. Anyone should be able to read and follow what you write. No extraneous or repetitive sentences. Lastly, there should be a flow from one paragraph to the next from start to finish.
There are other rules, of course, and these depend on what section of the paper (i.e. introduction, methods, results, discussion, or conclusion). For example, there is the “reverse pyramid” approach for the introduction section. Start with the broadest thing first and with each successive sentence narrow down your focus. The last sentence tells the reader the specific hypothesis you tested in your paper and in what way.
Even following what appear to be straightforward rules has been a big challenge for me in my science career. I have worked really hard to learn how to fit into the mold of science writing. This did not come naturally to me. I think that I have come a long way in some ways. It hasn’t gotten much easier. Shrug. But my finished products have been publishable – which is the only objective standard I have. I have no comment on whether the writing was actually good!
My moderate success in publishing has come with a downside for me. I have all but forgotten how to write in any other style or for other purposes. Recently, I tried to write a short story of fantasy fiction. I had the story all mapped out in my mind. In this fantasy world, dreams could be made manifest into strands, stronger than steel and yet flexible like rubber. These are used to build floating ships. So it’s kind of a pirate’s tale meets star wars. In my mind it sounds fantastic, but I couldn’t get on paper (or screen) a single sentence. Here is what went through my mind…
Okay! Here I go! Uh…where do I begin? In a world? Once upon a time? Uh…should I google how to start a story? Should I just start in the middle? Wow. I am so lost!
I am sure that there are many rules to writing fiction – since there are whole college majors and graduate level courses devoted to the cause. So it’s probably my own fault for being so out of touch with how to do it. My only beef is that before college, I used to write a lot of short stories (probably terrible ones, I know) and it came so easily. Is it a lack of imagination? Or has the imagination been programmed out of me by years and years of technical writing?
A big part of blogging is to help me find my voice again – in writing and in life.