The fine art of writing

Writing is such an enigma to me.  It is a skill that is both learned and somewhat in-born, I think.  However, it is a skill you may possess in one instant at other moments feel like you never learned at all.  I have turned to blogging this morning to remind myself that I can write, I can communicate, even if for now it’s not in the realm I prefer.  You see, I have finally hit what feels like an unscalable wall on a manuscript I am currently revising and resubmitting.  And these walls always make me question if I can ever effectively say what I want to say.

I naively told myself, “Once you finish grading this and turning in those final projects, THEN you will have time.  THEN you can finish the manuscript revisions.”  But writing doesn’t work like that.  Here I sit at my desk, with ample time to crank out a large amount of revisions on my paper, yet somehow my brain is at a loss for words and ideas.  To have the time to work but not have the ability to create is one of the most frustrating feelings in the world.

I have rewritten my intro and discussion around four times.  One or two of those times involved major overhaul of my entire theory.  And it’s still not right.  It’s still not ready.  And the strange thing is that I can’t really force it to be ready.  I just have to come back to it over and over again until, in an instant, it all fits together.  And then you know you have your final draft.  But I cannot explain how this happens, this mystery of writing.  I cannot explain why the more time you have to write does not necessarily equate to the more writing you produce.  I have had wildly productive bursts of writing in short periods of time and hopelessly unproductive periods of writing over long stretches (e.g., my current manuscript).

But I have spent a lot of time writing manuscripts these past 7-8 months.  More time than I ever have before.  And these are the few things I’ve learned.

1.  You must write every day, even if you don’t feel like it.  Over time, this translates to more ease and comfort with writing.  This translates into more productivity, usually.

2.  Some days, you have to go somewhere outside of your ordinary workspace to get creative insight into the writing you are trying to do. Often times, I find that I have learned to associate my office with “failure” in writing because it has happened so many times in here.  So occasionally, I’ll write from home or a coffee shop or somewhere that I can break out of the mold and get new ideas flowing.

3.  Writing cannot be rushed.  Some days you are in the flow, other days you are not.  Either way, writing comes with time, patience, and diligence.  I have never been able to sprint my way through writing and see good results.

4.  Writing is rewarding and frustrating at the same time.  It’s such an amazing feeling to say something the exact way it should be said or how you want to say it.  But the journey to getting there is frustrating.

Given my ambivalence toward writing, I am often tempted to just give it up.  But then I remember, my job as a scientist is to be a storyteller.  To tell the world how things work and function.  And so I must communicate.  Without effective communication, my job is obsolete.  But it’s hard to remember that on days like today.  Days where I feel like no matter what I do, I cannot say what it is I hope to say.  Unfortunately, as a scientist, I often get so good at presenting data that I forget about the important stories that go with the data.  So here I am, sitting at my desk, back to the drawing board.  I have nothing but a pen in my hand and paper in front of me, and I am left to ask the most basic yet most difficult question about my research, “What is it that my audience MUST know?”


About Megan Johnson Shen

I am a social psychologist graduating with my Ph.D. from Baylor University this May and moving to NYC this summer to start a new job as a postdoctoral researcher at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in the Cancer Prevention and Control Department. I love the brain, human behavior, and anything to do with understanding them better. I love research and a good dinner party. Fine wine and cheese - I'm there. Interesting experimental data? I'll probably show for that too. View all posts by Megan Johnson Shen

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