Motherfucking Writing

June 3, 2010

Dr. Crazy posted something interesting yesterday about writing, including this sentence:

[T]he kind of thinking that you can do in writing is far more substantial than the kind of thinking that you can do that is confined to your own brain.

This got me thinking about the following incident: One of my trainees and I discussed a manuscript he was writing and decided on a particular angle. He spent several days generating a complete draft coming at the topic from this angle.

After I read this draft, I realized that the angle wasn’t optimal, and indicated that we actually needed to come at it from a different angle, which would require substantial rewriting. The trainee got all huffy, angrily accusing me of “wasting his time” by not having pointed him at the correct angle in the first place.

The point is that writing is a path-dependent process, and sometimes you just can’t arrive at the optimal destination without meandering around and taking some detours along the way. Corollary is that you frequently learn some important shit while off on those detours. Consequently, it is fucking absurd to look back and in hindsight consider any non-linear path to the destination to have been a “waste of time”.

Of course, being a brilliant mentor, I persuasively explained all of this to my trainee who happily pranced off back into the lab to joyously revise the manuscript accordingly. (Well, actually, he stalked off in a major-league snit muttering under his breath about what a dickbag I am. If your trainees are never mad at you, you almost certainly aren’t mentoring them effectively.)

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7 Responses to “Motherfucking Writing”

  1. leigh Says:

    Consequently, it is fucking absurd to look back and in hindsight consider any non-linear path to the destination to have been a “waste of time”.

    this is applicable to much more than just writing- and i kinda needed to hear that from somewhere other than my own brain.

  2. PalMD Says:

    i think this is one of the reasons i hate dictating—there is a unique sort of thinking and editing that takes place for me when writing that is very different from speaking or dictating.


  3. The trainee needs to learn that the rewrite could mean the difference in getting their manuscript published in a good journal versus a dogass one. My mentor makes me write multiple versions of abstracts just to see which one best encompasses what the fuck we are trying to do before submitting.

  4. Narya Says:

    And, depending on how technical/complex one’s subject is, trying to write a paragraph/page/paper that someone outside that subject could understand is extremely useful in removing the jargon. Sometimes jargon is useful shorthand, and other times it’s a portmanteau stuffed with lots of unexamined assumptions that really should be examined. And, often, it takes rewriting and editing to find those stuffed spots.

    Just sayin.

  5. skeptifem Says:

    I have been writing an argument and then ended up refuting my original position by the end because of how writing made me examine the issue. The whole thing gets deleted, but it is an excellent way to learn.

  6. Maartje Says:

    I both agree and disagree with you.

    It’s definitely been my experience that the process of writing changes whe thing you were going to write, and that non-linear paths are wonderful things. And yes, that may take substantial rewrites, and the final product will be the better for it.

    On the other hand, having SOMEONE ELSE tell you that you need to do substantial rewriting isn’t easy. As the person who just spent hours lovingly crafting pages that will never see the light of day, I need to know the mentor is on my team, and it won’t be held against me that I wasn’t brillant enough to write the paper right the first time. (Which sounds dramatic, but happens.) As long as a mentor of mine managed to find the tone of “Great! So, we tried this, and it doesn’t work because of this and that and that, and we couldn’t have known until we tried. Time well spent finding out where it goes wrong. With what we know now, you’ll nail this thing,” I’d happily get back to work.

  7. Anaass Says:

    I just wanted to deliciously watch a scenario where NIH cut the budget coz professor tried this research and they (NIH) dont find it interesting or not in line with a potential impact the research could bring to the economy. Then professor tried the other way round (trying to do something subtly similar to his/her original research). But NIH dont fund it coz it’s too boring. Or perhaps they exclaiming “Get the fxck out of that research theme and try another or we won’t fund you”


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