Some days people are just nice to you

Aug 02 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I got a paper submitted yesterday. It felt good, like the relief right after you throw up. I've always felt that nausea is a great metaphor for many many things in life. You feel bad. You feel worse. You feel like you're going to die. You worry that you might not die. And then, behold: it is gone.

This paper had a new  co-author, involved in one part of the work. Here's what he wrote to me when I sent him the draft that was somewhere between "you feel worse" and "you feel like you're going to die":

                I have attached the manuscript with some very minor suggestions.  Very nice and I am honored to be a part.  You have a gift for writing. Be thankful.  That is something I lack, which was made even more apparent in a talk with a previous reviewer of our fluid flow paper.  She is a good friend for my sister at U Chicago and certainly helped to have her open up.  Her comments indicated her issues were not with the methods or data, or even the interpretations.  Instead, I/we had not adequately crafted a compelling story.  Creative writing (not to be confused with fiction) is not my forte. 

Ho ho ho. It did not feel like gift whilst I was in process. What I remember is the step between feeling like dying and feeling like you might not die.

This comment was from the person who wrote this letter. (note if you want to know about writing letters, I've got lots of posts, and you can go down this rabbit hole here and here). He writes beautifully, but can't see it. My job is to remind that he does. He is every bit as wonderful as a collaborator as his initial letter for my proposal suggested he might be.

New Co-Author's point is good. One crafts a compelling story. Writing creatively is one path to telling that story. If you write a paper, or give a talk, and overtly or implicitly say "this is another silly/stupid/trivial thing I did", no one will care. If your work is fun to you, exciting to you, something you love, let that come out. One needs the basics: a question or hypothesis or point, a solid design, data that answer the question/hypothesis/point in a paper or talk or grant proposal. But getting someone to care, getting someone to be the advocate for you, means getting their enthusiasm up and out of bed. Enthusiasm doesn't have to be loud, it can be quiet and strong. But its what will get you published, funded and invited to the fun parties.

So how does one get good at writing like this? The same way one gets to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.

3 responses so far

  • Tenure track says:

    I think you're saying (among other things) that revising the bazillionth version of a manuscript can hurt. That's what I feel the need to read right now. It's somehow easier when it's really my own draft---almost fun---but it can feel tortuous when I'm not first author. I chronically underestimate how long editing takes.

    I try to teach that a reader's attention is precious. We can try to clear a channel for it or keep muddling it with clunky prose and unnecessary diversions.

  • xykademiqz says:

    I constantly annoy my students by insisting, for each paper, "What's the pitch?" They need to be able to tell me in 3-5 sentences tops what the paper's raison d'etre is.

    One criterion that a student is close to graduation is that they have internalized this need to identify a clear and compelling reason for each paper to exist, and they distill their thinking and writing until it's they can identify it -- without me prodding them.

  • ecologist says:

    Yes, a thousand times yes.

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