Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Learning to Think Like a Writer

After being out of grad school for…umm…a little more than a few years, I recently got another publication in a reputable scientific journal . Before I get any further, I have to say that Megan Brinkmeyer (a current grad student for my Ph.D. advisor, whom I have never met) did the bulk of the research for this paper. If she hadn’t taken up this project my brilliant (well, sort of brilliant) data would only be published in my thesis which if I’m lucky will be read by maybe ten people. So Megan if you happen to accidentally stumble on this blog, thanks, you rock!!! :)

Bear with me; this will tie into writing I promise. :)

Learning to think like a scientist

I’m not going to bore you with the details, but the data used in this paper was my first project when I joined the lab. I worked on it then got frustrated with it, worked on something else then came back to it. And I did this off and on for my entire graduate career.

When I got the green light to write my thesis, I gathered all my data on this project and scattered it around me and tried to piece it together into a cohesive chapter. It didn’t take me long to realize that all my data said NOTHING. It was all useless, dead ends, and I could not put it in my thesis.

So I sat down and really thought about the project until I formed a new hypothesis, then I designed experiments to test it. I ran the experiments night and day for about a week, and I got good results that made that chapter really strong. In one week, I did what I couldn’t do in four years.

What takes the bulk of the time in grad school isn’t the research but learning how to research. And at the end of your graduate career, you should have retrained your mind to see things more objectively, to think more critically, to look for creative solutions. You should’ve learned to think like a scientist.

My being able to solve that problem in a week really exemplified this. It was gratifying to see that growth in me, that a problem that had plagued me for so long was now obvious, and I really felt that I had gotten to where I needed to graduate and move on to the next level.

How Learning to do research is like learning to write.

I’ve been writing for four years now, and once again, I feel like I’m retraining my mind, but this time it is to think like a writer. Here are a few similarities I've found between learning to do scientific research and learning to write.

1. You are never going to learn without actually doing it. Reading up on all the scientific theories and techniques isn’t going to teach you anything if you don’t actually get your butt into lab and do the physical research.

Likewise, you will never learn to write without actually writing. Don’t worry about reading up on all the theory and studying every book in your genre before you start to write. You’ve already read a lot of books and seen a lot of movies. That was your undergrad degree, now you are ready to start writing. So get your butt in the chair.

2. BUT reading is essential. It is absolutely necessary that you stay current on the scientific literature in your field. If you don’t know what is going on, you are going to fall behind and become irrelevant. Also, you will rob yourself from inspiration. Reading about what others have done could spark a brilliant idea that could lead you to the Nobel Prize.

In writing, reading is just as essential. Tastes of readers evolve, so you need to stay current in your genre. Also, reading is a great source of inspiration. You just need to accept that reading is part of writing and make time for both for the rest of your life.

3. You need to learn about the tools available to you and learn how to use them effectively. Millions of scientists have come before you and passed down vital information generation after generation. They have developed techniques, protocols, and instruments that will be necessary for your research. The most brilliant hypothesis doesn’t do you any good if you can’t test it, and to do that, you need these tools.

Writing is no different. Millions of writers have come before you. They have learned things and have passed on their wisdom, so have editors, agents, English professors. Why wouldn’t you take advantage of that? These are your tools (usually called the "rules" of writing). Learn them and how to use them effectively.

4. You can’t be afraid to tweak those tools. In research, the protocols and techniques rarely work perfectly. You are doing something that has never been done before even if you are using methods that have been thoroughly established. Most of the time you have to tweak the protocol to get it to work. This is one of the most challenging parts of research.

In writing it is the same thing. You are writing something that has never been written before in your own unique way. And while the “rules” are helpful, you can’t just follow them exactly and get the results you want. You have to be brave enough to tweak them, play around with them until you get them to work for you.

5. You are going to fail, accept it. Research leads you to lots of dead ends. Your hypothesis may be proven wrong or worse you get unpublishable results. Failure is part of the game. You need to take what you can from it, shake it off, and move on.

Writing is no different. You’re going to fail. You’re going to have to rewrite, trunk novels, and abandon your precious words. It is hard. Especially when you’ve put so much time into something, but nothing is ever done in vain. It is just part of learning. Learn the lessons, shake it off, and move on.

6. Don’t ignore your intuition. The idea that there is some intuition in science might seem strange. While you do need concrete evidence to prove your hypothesis, if something in the data looks strange or feels off, it might be worth investigating rather than brushing it aside as unimportant. Sometimes intuition pays off; sometimes it doesn’t, but it is always worth considering just in case your subconscious is picking up something your conscious mind missed.

In writing I think intuition is much more important. You are trying to give the audience an emotional experience, and emotions are for the most part intuitive. You have read thousands of books and seen thousands of movies, and your unconcious mind has most likely absorbed the patterns in story telling. So trust your instincts (for more on this read Sarah’s beautiful post).

So these are my tips for changing how you think. They worked for me in grad school, and hopefully they will work for me in my writing endeavors.

I know I’m still not there. But I hope that there will come a time when I scatter my WIP around me trying to makes sense of this whole writing thing, and suddenly that which had eluded me for so long finally becomes so clear and so obvious, and I realize that I’ve retrained my mind to think like a writer. Then I’m finally ready for the next step.



  1. You've convinced me, I'll read more books. :)

  2. As a former high school English teacher, I saw exactly what you are describing happening (and not happening) with so many students. Just writing a decent paper was really hard for them (and for me when I was in high school. I remember suddenly getting it my first year of college). I could give them lots and lots of feedback on how to write better, and what the "rules" are, but eventually they just need to learn to think like a writer. Of course, they just needed to write a 4-5 page paper for me. Nothing like the full-length novels all of you are creating. mm

  3. This is a wonderful analogy, MaryAnn. The way you explain "tweaking" the tools of writing is the best explanation I've seen of how to approach and responsibly break the rules :)

    I've had a lot of experiences of things coming together at the last minute. In my writing life I'm beginning to accept that while butt-in-chair is critical, some problems just need to marinate before I can figure them out. And sometimes a deadline speeds up that process :)

  4. You're absolutely right, the doing plus the reading and researching is what creates the best results. Thanks for the reminders and encouragement :)

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  5. @Sheena, yeah, slacker, get reading. :)

    @Anon,I'm not sure writing a 4 to 5 page paper is any easier than writing a novel, just different. To really write anything well is a skill, and I can see how learning to write essays would follow a similar process.

    @Sarah McCanless, a deadline definitely helps. Maybe that is my problem. I need a deadline. I agree that butt-in-chair isn't the only place where we work on our stories. I do my best plotting while running.

    @Sarah Allen, glad it helped. Thanks for stopping by. :)

  6. I've never been accused of thinking like a scientist, but as a pianist I've definitely had the experience of not being able to do something and then putting it down for a while and magically being able to do it the next time. In fact, when my kids get frustrated with a song, I tell them to stop and try again the next day. And it works! Definitely, writing is what will teach us to write in the long run, but sometimes we need to give our subconscious time to sort things out. Great post!

  7. Accepting failure is really the hardest part of it all, isn't it? I'm still working on that.

    I love it that a good number of us on the blog are scientists. :) I'll have to bring out more of my nerdy science jokes to share!

  8. I'm not sure if accepting failure is the hardest part for me, but rather priorizing my time in such a way that the most important writing gets done first. That's where I struggle. However I did want to let you know Mary Ann, that you won a book on my site! "The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms" by N.K. Jemisin. I figured that you might want to get that from me sometime so email me at JayrodPG [at] gmail [dot] com and we'll talk about how to get that to you. Thanks so much Mary Ann for a great post and your comments. :D

  9. @Melanie, Yes, coming back to something later feels like magic sometimes. Everything is so much clearer with a fresh mind.

    @Sabrina, Please give us some nerdy science jokes. I do love them. Failure is tough to accept. Especially if your a perfectionist type.

    @Jayrod, Awesome!!! That book looks really good. I'll e-mail you. Thank you so much. I'll pop over to your blog and thank you some more. :)


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