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.