How do you make people write?

May 18 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

There was some discussion last night and this morning on the twitter about training lab peeps to write. People of all ranks come into a lab with varying writing ability - sometimes an undergrad will have rare clarity whereas a postdoc appears to write with a ball pein hammer. How do you get people to at least approach a viable level of written communication?

The answer, of course, is practice. No one ever likes that answer, but it's true. You need to read and write a lot to be proficient at it and some of it can be picked up in grad school and some can't without a shit ton of work.

One of the ways I try and get people to think about what they are writing is by avoiding track changes in the early stages. Don't get me wrong, I think track changes is great. But the ability to breeze through and accept everything without thinking about why, is waaaaaay too easy. So I mark up a hard copy and send it back. This may happen again, depending on where the piece is at, but eventually we switch to track changes.

In the hard copy phase I try and focus on big things. Does the flow need to be changed? Are there major gaps? Do the figures make sense in relation to the text? Once we transition to track changes, the sleeves get rolled up. After a couple rounds of that, things should be in order. If I can, I like to circulate it through another member of the lab at a point when it is getting close to acceptable.

As a final check I like to send it out to someone outside the lab. If we have collaborators on the project then this is an obvious and critical step. If not, I may tap one of my senior colleagues to do a once over. We all have people around who delight in the opportunity to edit, use them. At each step of the way, the trainee makes the changes, not me.

There are many other ways to get people to write for practice, some of which I employ across the board and others for just certain people. It takes a lot of work on their part and a decent amount on mine. But when they get to the point where they can get something finished in just a few drafts back and forth (and act as editors on the writing of others), then it is worth the initial investment.

22 responses so far

  • DrLizzyMoore says:

    It's great if undergrads get practice at writing before they hit grad school. I recently worked with an undergrad on a small summer grant-and she was SHOCKED at the amount of back and forths we did. Undergrads are used to writing something, turning it in and getting a grade-typically a good grade. I did use the 'track changes' but instead of putting in the changes myself, I put them in the comments. That way she couldn't just click 'accept' and move on....

    It can be a painful process, but completely worth it, IMO....

  • DJMH says:

    As a trainee I have found it most useful when my mentor can articulate a general principle about the writing, rather than just fixing individual errors. Useful comments I've gotten are things like, "There is too much Discussion in the Results and too much Results in the Discussion;" or "You need more consistency of word choice from when you set up the question in the abstract/intro to when you address it in the results/discussion, to tie the parts of the paper together" and then they point to specific spots.

    If you don't hear the principles, it can be hard to extract them from just a marked-up draft.

  • Katie says:

    I'm glad you expanded on this. Now I fully understand why you avoid track changes at the beginning. Very good idea! Undergrads are always shocked at the amount of red I put on their first drafts. I like your approach of going big ideas --> small edits instead of all at once. Of course, as I mentioned on Twitter and as DrLizzyMoore points out, they can end up being just as shocked at how many times we* make them revise.

    I agree with DJMH, the best editors I've ever had of my work have explained WHY they changed something. I try to do the same with our UGs and any peer editing I do for classes.

    *The way it generally works in our lab is that the grad students supervise specific UGs and we do the first proofing and edits of UGs writing. It only goes to PI when the grad students think it's okay then he revises further.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    The initial hard copy edits are for the stuff like "This section doesn't belong here", "You haven't explained why you are doing this", or "This page is so confusing it made me question my own existence". After we get through that, I can use track changes to highlight the smaller stuff, deal with grammar and point areas that need to be beefed up or trimmed down.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    http://wac.colostate.edu/intro/

    I've had experience with writing across the curriculum and thought it worth while. Principle is to have a small group of students writing on a subject, then critiquing and editing each other in several iterations. The idea is that students will pay attention to the thoughts of other students better than to the instructor.

  • anon says:

    but how does a trainee train their PI to write?

    what should a trainee do when they
    - ask their PI for feedback on structure, flow
    - PI returns a document with Track Changes, fixing grammatical errors in some places while turning some sentences into an incoherent mess of commas, superfluous adjectives, and esoteric* nouns

    my current difficulty isn't writing so much as collaborative writing.

    * so esoteric that, eventually, the reviewers suggested a word change

  • another anon says:

    I taught my ESL grad student how to write. Her written English used to be completely incoherent and seemed to be more in her native language than in English. I started by sitting with her and going through each of her sentences to try and decipher them in terms of what ideas she was trying to communicate. I got her to start writing in short sentences (for each single idea) and to not worry so much about flow or whether it appeared sophisticated - we can always fix that later. I agree with PLS that writing takes practice. I told her it that it was similar to learning how to play a musical instrument - the more you practice, the more you improve and the easier it gets. Her writing and her confidence in her own writing is now much improved. Writing is something that seems to always evolve in each person. My own written work has changed since I started a tt position (presumably for the better).

  • I never use track changes, mostly because--as has been amply pointed out--it encourages unthinking obeisance instead of thoughtful editing. But also because it creates the danger of confusing versions of documents. Our editing workflow is that trainees provide me with a single PDF of the entire manuscript, I print it, and I mark it up. Then I sit down with the trainee and explain the rationale for the markup (other than obvious or trivial shit like word choice, typos, grammar, and simple sentence structure stuff). We reiterate until we can't bear to go another round.

  • Isabel says:

    "The initial hard copy edits are for the stuff like "This section doesn't belong here", "You haven't explained why you are doing this", or "This page is so confusing it made me question my own existence"."

    I always have to rewrite something on my own many times to smooth out the writing, but often in the early stages, especially of a new type of document (such as an NSF grant proposal) I feel the need for exactly the type of feedback you describe. Sometimes I suspect an entire section may be unnecessary or much too long. I will send it to someone with a specific request for a once-over, focus on structure, etc, and it invariably comes back with all my writing smoothed out using track changes, and few if any structural changes or comments.

    Frustrating, and I also feel somewhat guilty at appearing to need someone's precious time to help me make my sentences shorter, when that is not what I wanted in the first place. So your trainees are lucky- this is a very logical way to work.

    I also find track changes confusing if you've sent the document to several people for feedback and they all send back a version with writing changes in track changes.

  • NatC says:

    My undergrad advisor used to take the second draft ( after 1 round of feedback), hang on to it for the weekend, then give it back to me unmarked saying "now you've had a break, edit your own work" we'd go through the next versions in detail. The first time he did this I was so pissed and frustrated, but once I done it a couple of times, I got the point - and i got much better at self-critical editing. That two day break from looking at it is helpful.
    Most of my advisors ( with the notable exception of one for whom editing meant 'replace this paragraph with the one that I wrote") have taken CPPs approach, and I have learned so much from them.

  • I totally understand you on 'how to train your PI to write', anon.
    My adviser gives me edits using track changes but I never EVER accept them blindly. I open a new version of the paper/grant and manually add in some version of the changes where and how I want. Not that my PI is a bad writer, it's just the flow of a paper is hard to maintain when another person interjects new sentences, words, or ideas.

    I find the best way to handle it is to make the grammatical changes as stated, but completely re-write the sentences that the PI has altered, taking into account what you think the PI is trying to add, but in a way that sounds good to you. Then give a new clean copy back to the PI and hope s/he doesn't remember exactly what the edits were. (I am guessing s/he won't remember, mine never ever does)

  • Lady Day says:

    The least amount of help writing was always from my grad school and postdoc mentors, strangely enough. I got a lot more substantive help from other, "unofficial mentors" and, later, collaborators, who were genuinely interested in my progress. I had to learn to seek out help back then, and that practice has helped me since, incredibly much.

    I don't think that mentors should be so easily let off the hook, with regard to their trainees, but I do think that trainees should learn to seek out help, when necessary.

  • Lady Day says:

    Oh, and, yes, I do like the hard copy thing that you advocate, PLS, but, when one is away from the lab for conferences, etc., and trainees are good at procrastinating, sometimes electronic mark-ups are the only way to go. Addition of comments is a great way to make general statements. I reserve direct edits for text edits that are, relatively speaking, minor and a matter of taste.

  • TheGrinch says:

    PLS: There are many other ways to get people to write for practice, some of which I employ across the board and others for just certain people. It takes a lot of work on their part and a decent amount on mine. But when they get to the point where they can get something finished in just a few drafts back and forth (and act as editors on the writing of others), then it is worth the initial investment.

    Could you please elaborate more? How do you get them to write for practice?

  • Then give a new clean copy back to the PI and hope s/he doesn't remember exactly what the edits were. (I am guessing s/he won't remember, mine never ever does)

    I learned from my post-doc mentor to always demand back my markup along with the new version. (Cause he did this with me, and would catch me rejecting some of his beloved edits.)

  • Bashir says:

    Early on my advisor sent me to the campus writing center. I'm pretty sure she required it for my prelims (we had an exam and a paper). That was probably the most helpful thing. It also helped me explain my ideas to a non-scientists.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    A little humor mixed with truth here. Occasionally I would hit a writer's block. I would get out one of my previous publications and reread it. Then say to my self, "Wow, Awesome!" and go back to writing with new vigor and confidence.

  • anon says:

    @thecellularscale

    Not that my PI is a bad writer, it's just the flow of a paper is hard to maintain when another person interjects new sentences, words, or ideas.

    exactly.

    I actually think my PI is a very good writer when he's flying solo, but the collaborative approach can be hard when working at multiple scales of structure.

    I appreciate proflike's approach to tackling the big picture and the minutiae serially. I think I would appreciate a similar dissociation.

  • chall says:

    Hard copy is something that is missed where I work now :( (I still use it for my trainees though). I've been ok with marking and "fredd hand writing"/commenting on a pdf on the computer but mostly the old schoold ink pen and a hard copy in the first drafts are more relevant, imho. It's more about "structure" and "fluency of paper" than "spelling and my type of sentence"....

    Not to mention the dreaded "self confidence" deal, if you give someon back the first draft with all red on the coimputer and "track changes".... they're usually not too keen on getting on with thinking on how they will write better.

    As for practice, my former PhD advisor and later my post-doc mentor always wanted me to write drafts/reviews for them. they both completely rewrote them as to how they wanted them to be, but sat down with me and talked me through what they had done to my text and why. It was fun seeing the inprovement over the years, since they needed to change less and less :)

  • Namnezia says:

    I have terrible handwriting and can never find enough room to add my notes/questions on a hard copy so I always use "track changes". If used effectively this can be as useful as the big question edits PLS and others here advocate, and I can sit down with my trainee in front of the computer and go over the changes. Also it makes working remotely easier. Oddly though, for my own edits I always work off of hard copies. Makes it easier to spot mistakes.

    On a separate note, I've noticed that undergrads in my lab write way better/more efficiently than grad students and postdocs. I had one hand me once a nearly perfect draft of a manuscript.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Nam, I'm not saying that track changes can't be used the same way as a hard copy if you put most edits in as comments. I just find HC easier for me.

    Grinch, I figured someone was going to ask about practice writing, but I didn't want to derail the point. A few possibilities include making students blog about papers, setting up a peer reviewed write up for journal club (student presenting writes a one pager that two or three other students edit and return), or even having students turn in a summary to their PI (assuming you want to read it).

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    Do university students still write in Freshman English? I wrote nine 500 word themes. My grades, in sequence, were F, D-, D, D+, C-, C, C+, B-, and, finally, B. Evidence of learning and gaining mastery, I think. ;-)

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