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A pirate story and a postdoc writing

If I could wave my postdoc agony aunt wand, it would be to fix people’s writing issues. I’m not sure why this is such a challenge for people, but the struggle is real! People either can’t find time for writing, don’t know how to get started, get stuck, think that they have to sound super, super clever in their writing or all of the above!

No-one wants to read you sh*t

This blog is inspired by a little book by Steven Pressfield, called ‘Nobody wants to read your sh*t’. Why? It’s an interesting take on writing. The chapters are really short. It’s part autobiographical, part tips and tricks. Even though he has built his career in marketing and screenwriting and writing novels outline writing non-fiction, there is much of relevance for researchers.  

What’s your story?

I want you to think about what if your research was an amazing story. Tell us an entertaining story – humans love them! We need to know where the characters start. Where did the research start? We need to know the middle. What are you doing now? We need to know the end. What’s the point of all this? Where are we going with this research?

But the other thing that good movies and novels have is that they make us care, one way or the other. Either we cry about a sad romance or we’re on the edge of our seat on an action thriller, but they make us care, they make us pay attention. You need to put in that passion and that drive. Why do you get up in the morning and do your research? That’s what we need to know.  

Genre

What’s the genre? What are you writing? Are you writing a paper for scientific publication? Are you writing a chapter for inclusion in a book? Are you writing a review article? All of those have very different flavours, different genres and different ways of writing.

Why do they have those? Because they have very different audiences and even if they had the same audience, the audience is coming to that with different expectations. So, you don’t rock up to a Bruce Willis film and imagine that you’re going to get a beautiful, very slow paced romance. You’re going to get action, it’s a Bruce Willis film, that’s what happens. So, thinking about what is my audience expecting? Am I writing in the right way?

A review article is a great example of this. When I was a PhD student, I can remember reading some review articles that really were fantastic. They laid it all out straight, they work perfectly for someone starting out in the field. That was me as a PhD student.

Focus!

Your writing needs to have a theme. What are you going to come back to time and time again? That is the point of what you’re writing. People need signposting but it also helps you keep on track. People don’t have time to read stuff that isn’t relevant to them in that particular moment. So, if you’re writing a review article, chances are they’re not expecting a deep discussion of some very technical piece of methodology. They’re looking for a general spread, “x did this, why did x and y link together in this way?”. 

Thinking about your theme and come back to it time and time again. This is particularly relevant in a thesis.  I would put your theme on a piece of post-it and stick it up somewhere large! If it doesn’t fit on a post-it, it’s probably not very clearly articulated and that might be the first writer’s block that you have. So, if you’re trying to write something and it feels like you’re going through mud, you haven’t brought clarity on that theme? Stop and ask yourself : what is the one message I want to convey?

Heroes

If you are telling a story – you and your group are the key characters here. You are the hero in this! You have done the research, you have worked through the ideas, you’ve generated a hypothesis, you’ve worked through the experiments, or you’ve interviewed people. You are people championing this theme, this cause.

So, don’t forget that we might need to know a little bit more about you. Certainly, in grants and fellowships, this is where quite often I see the missing piece:

Who’s doing the research and why should I give you this money? As opposed to a group over there because they told me exactly why they deserve it rather than just how important the project is.

In grants and fellowships we need to write about ourselves, but also in your average paper, we do need to perhaps outline how things were done, who did what and to make sure that we’ve got all that lined up. This comes back to thoughts of authorship as well who is on that authorship list? Why are they there? What have they contributed and thinking about that, early doors before you’ve even put pen to paper can be an important thing? 

Villians

In your writing, we need to know what we’re battling against. What is it you’re trying to discover? What is it that you are trying to cure if you’re in medical research? What is it that you’re trying to achieve technically? What barriers are you trying to break? Is it computing speed? Is it delivery in a chemical process? You’re trying to get things so much more efficient. The villain here is important. It comes back to having that same point. What are we trying to do? What is the villain here? Now, if you’re in a cure for cancer type of race, the villain is cancer but that is quite a big villain. Can we break that down into what are you specifically trying to tackle as well? So, there might be that there’s the big bad, but there might be smaller bads as well, that you want to address but making sure that you come back to that key theme.   

So, your theme will be ‘we are doing this’ but what’s missing is the why. That’s where the villain comes in, we must know what we’re trying to fight against. Otherwise, what would be the point? Research is hard enough as it is. So, even if its blue sky research and we’re trying to push forward the barriers of knowledge then the villain is the unknown. But we need to articulate that, that helps us convey our passion. 

Jeopardy

So here, slightly different to the villain, the jeopardy is what happens if we don’t bother? What happens if we don’t rush in as the hero and kill the villain. If we don’t do this piece of research what happens? What’s the opportunities we’ve lost? How many people might die? Depending on your research, there will be different levels of jeopardy. This is where you can lay in the passion that you have, the drive that you have, you will have a drive for your research because you want to know you want to cure people, you know that if you don’t happen to do this quickly, then x amount might die.

There is a timeliness associated in this as well, which if we bring back to the movie, a sense of jeopardy in the future doesn’t work. We must have jeopardy now because we’re sat watching this, you can’t really think about the future because what we’re watching is something unfolding in front of us. So that jeopardy must be there. It must be tied up to what happens if I don’t fund this research if we’re looking at a fellowship or grant application. What happens if this funding doesn’t happen now?

Get telling that story!

This book by Steven Pressfield is really helpful in just taking some lessons from outside academia and tallying it to make our writing better. The other thing that I would do to encourage you to make writing better is practice, practice, practice.

When I was a postdoc, I hated writing. Now I’m finding myself quite liking it. Now that has been a 30-year journey. But I write in a way that suits me. So, I grab a cup of coffee, I sit down for a pomodoro amount of time (25 minutes) I write, I then get up and have a wander around and then I come back.

What’s the key point you’re trying to get across?  Who are the heroes? Who are the villains? What’s that absolute crystal focus? What happens if it doesn’t get funded? Why is this important? That’s your conclusion in a paper, thinking about wrapping that all together.

That can’t happen overnight. It needs practice, it needs you to read around to work out what works well in your discipline for communication. So be forensic when reading other people’s stuff and think “that’s good, I’m going to remember that bit!” Assimilate good practice, learn from other writers in every form of writing, and entertain us with your research story.

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