How do you help people write?

This year, one of the PIs in my lab has been requiring people to submit regular writing samples. It started off as 1000 words per month and is now at 300 words per week. The idea is that writing is a big part of science and it becomes easier when it’s part of your day-to-day activity. I’ve been writing a lot recently, but I’ve haven’t been sending in the 300 words. I agree with the goals for these writing assignments, but I’m not convinced that their current implementation is the best use of our time and attention.

  • They’re basically homework. They become distracting busy-work when non-writing issues are most relevant to a lab member’s work. Perhaps somebody is struggling with experimental design, or statistics, or the best way to represent their results as figures, or learning to code. More-frequent deadlines make the distraction worse. A large part of the work on my plate is writing, but not everybody is in that position.
  • Assigning frequent writing tasks and then having to pursue people to complete them emphasizes external motivations for writing — sticks wielded by authority. It reinforces negative associations with writing as something unpleasant but required. This seems counterproductive if the goal is to make writing easier. A healthier approach would be something that helps people appreciate writing as an important part of the scientific process. Writing a draft abstract and introduction early on in a project, for example, helps you work out what the main point is and therefore what the most important experiments and controls are. Writing up results as they come helps you understand what you have and the best direction to take the project. A project doesn’t count as scientific knowledge until the paper is published. It can’t be built built upon or meaningfully incorporated into others’ work until it’s citeable. Seeing one’s work published, cited, and recognized improves self-esteem. Going through the peer review process helps you design better projects in the future because you learn to anticipate the issues and concerns your colleagues will have. Grad students will appreciate the fact that committee members are less likely to ask for revisions on chapters already published.
  • Specific word requirements discourage concise language.
  • My impression is that people often do not find the feedback they get on these assignments all that useful. People do need feedback on their writing, but in my experience the most crucial problems are in the structure of arguments, not the specifics of language. Arguments in scientific writing usually take place over the course of several paragraphs — over a whole introduction, or a section of the discussion. Abstracts are one of the few places where a whole argument fits into 300 words. People write differently, but I usually work out my arguments in abbreviated outline form. When I have trouble formulating an argument, what often helps me is to talk it through with someone and bounce ideas off them. Fleshing out an incoherent argument into complete sentences seems like misplaced effort.
  • Assigning tasks and pursuing people to complete them casts PIs as bosses rather than an advisors. This seems counterproductive when the goal is to train independent, self-motivated researchers.

I’m not sure what a better implementation would be. Perhaps something less rigid and more tailored to each lab member’s work — having people write up the materials and methods for the experiments they’ve just started, for example, or writing the figure legend and results for the data they just finished collecting. I think it’s something worth discussing as a lab, to see what people think would be most useful.

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    1. Manuel Kleiner

      Hi Jeff,
      We have a similar writing task in place in our group. However, it is not simple provision of writing examples, but rather self-reporting and reflection on current research. Basically all Master and PhD students in the lab have to write a small report every two weeks in which they reflect upon several questions related to their research e.g.

      1. What did you do? (Describe your results, e.g. tree, figures, tables, or other data)
      2. Why did you do it? (What was your short-term and/or long-term goal? What research question(s) did you want to answer?)
      3. Did you achieve your goals? (Which questions were you able to answer? Which questions remain open?)
      4. Interpretation of your results (What does your data show? How do your results compare to those of others?)
      5. What’s next? (Write a clear plan for the next 2 weeks, but possibly also revise your long-term goals)

      This self-reporting has a lot of advantages even though some students at times complain that it steals their time. It helps the student to organize their scientific thought and forces them to engage with the literature early on, also it makes the writing of manuscripts later on much easier because they can draw from the writing that they have done earlier. Additionally, it is a good instrument for the PI to stay up to date and be more engaged with the details of the research projects.
      Initially we based our reporting on this essay:
      A Simple E-Mail Mechanism To Enhance Reflection, Independence, and Communication in Young Researchers

      But we have adapted it a lot to our own needs in the meantime.

      All the best,

      • jeff

        Those are definitely good questions to think about, whether in writing or in a face-to-face meeting. Perhaps they’d be less distracting if they were a writing assignment only if the lab member isn’t already working on writing something else (paper, referee report, research statements, etc.).

    2. Manuel Kleiner

      I wanted to add.
      The reports are sent by the students to their direct advisor (mostly postdocs) and also to the main PI and usually they receive extensive feedback on the reports and if needed face to face time can be scheduled to discuss specific challenges, ideas and plans.