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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Research and Writing in the Sciences, or Rob Jacob Communicates From a Glacier

Rob Jacob, Assistant Professor, Environmental Geophysics and Hydrology, Department of Geology
Writing is a chore. Writing for a geophysical audience about research to be published as a manuscript is not meant to be the fun part. Developing the idea for the research, honing your skills within new and diverse areas of science, developing equations using physical laws in order to predict an expected outcome, collecting data in spectacular locations, analyzing/interpreting the data to develop the results, and comparing the results to the expected outcome – all of this = excitement, fun, and constant enjoyment.  In order to communicate my findings with my colleagues in science, it is critical to write.  Hence, when I am in the final stages of the gratifying research process, writing begins in my head, with short notes, maybe even sentences, expressing thoughts toward the final manuscript.  The key for me is simple: 1) do not stop writing, 2) carve out 6+ hours to write, and 3) fake a deadline.  I write best when I have enough time to formulate coherent thoughts and when I’m under pressure - or at least I write under pressure.  When I’m not under pressure or have only a short amount of time, I plod along, writing quick notes and only portions of the complete manuscript, or I switch to a new project in order start the next thrill ride. 

Currently, I am on the west coast of New Zealand working on data collection during the day and data analysis/interpretation at night to examine the subsurface of an unexplored glacial feature - icy debris fan - that stores and translates material to the rapidly retreating glaciers.  In addition to this "cool" research, I am writing this blog (and giving myself a deadline of tonight), and have several other active projects in various stages of the writing process.  Several are in the late intermediate period, where data has been collected and analysed (yes, in Kiwi - and British - you spell this with a "s"), and I return to each in short (<20 min) intervals and write down notes or different ways I can rephrase aspects. I have one manuscript in final stages of publication, and the next manuscript in the queue is waiting for a solid block of dedicated time.  

In addition to my three listed tricks, I provide students who conduct research with me or are looking to improve their writing process several further suggestions: 1) write early, write often, don't delete - just make a new version until you have fleshed out the particulars, 2) READ OUT LOUD. Ideally, you do this step a couple weeks after finalizing a draft – my short term memory will insert words that aren't there if I read a draft silently or when it is too fresh in my mind.  I have to read out loud or the writing will be rubbish - or close to it.

Every form of communication is important, but the more I gain experience communicating to clients, students, colleagues, administrators, the public, and my children, the more I realize that writing is different.  Writing is expected to be polished, not abbreviated or left unclear. Eventually, as you gain experience/ voice, even your spoken words are expected to be polished. And the best way I have been able to improve my ability to speak in front of an audience (such as a class or some clients looking for an underground storage tank or sinkhole) is by improving my written communication.    


Monday, March 9, 2015

Wendy McTammany ’95 on changing careers and adapting her writing to suit new audiences and purposes



Wendy McTammany ’95, Physical Therapist Assistant at Evangelical Community Hospital
Who I am as a writer has changed over the years based on my career, but more so as a result of whom my audience is at any given time. Something that I feel I was able to grasp at Bucknell, when I was writing every day for different classes, was that clear communication is paramount. I know that this sounds a bit cold and clinical, but depending on his/her audience, a writer has to change vocabulary, structure, organization and/or format. Even the most informal writing is ineffective if your reader cannot understand what you are trying to say.

When I was at Bucknell, my English essays were far different from the short stories I wrote in my creative writing class. Not only because they were for a different purpose but also because they were for a different audience. My social science essays needed to clearly communicate in the language of that discipline. When I went to graduate school for education, I had to write lesson plans that communicated to my cooperating teacher and to the professors at school while also teaching my students. As a teacher, I had to write test questions that were clear enough to elicit intelligent responses from my students and also answer my question. I made it clear to my students that clear communication and audience focus was important to me. I responded to student complaints that their history or science teacher was asking for different formatting for essay references by reminding them that different audiences and purposes require different styles of writing, different ways of communicating. (Not that they liked that very much, but I do think most of them eventually understood what I meant.)

Communication, one can see, is the reason that we write. We write to share knowledge, to express emotion, to elicit a response from our readers.

After eight years at home and doing little more writing than emails and an occasional poem or story for a now defunct informal writing group, I went back to school to become a Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA). I had been out of the classroom as a teacher for eight years and out as a student for twice that. I was going to have to learn to communicate in the language of the medical professional and that was a bit intimidating. I clung to my focus on audience and purpose, and that focus helped me to tackle a technical writing class and then move on to writing daily patient notes when I got my first job out of school.

As a PTA, I write daily notes about patients that have to quickly and clearly convey information about that patient’s symptoms, progress, exercise program, pain level, etc., so that any therapist who sees that patient after me can quickly know just where that patient left off and what needs to be done to best care for him or her in the future. I may not be available for questions, so I have to be clear and, as time is a factor with appointment scheduling, concise. Again, it all comes down to clear communication.

I don’t get the opportunity to write for fun very much, but I feel that I am truly blessed to feel so confident when wading through the sea of different kinds of writing. I think that my writing experiences at Bucknell were varied and not always easy, and tackling them gave me the writing confidence that I have today. I love to craft a piece of writing with an audience in mind; it feels (at the risk of sounding too sentimental about writing) almost like creating a personalized gift for that audience. Thank you, Bucknell for giving me one more writing assignment. This is my first blog post… another new form of writing to add to my ever growing list.


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Amanda Ayers '14 shares insights on multimodality, collaborative writing, understanding audience and how she transitioned to writing as a professional

Amanda Ayers '14, Research Assistant at Keybridge Public Policy Economics
Hi all! I’m Amanda, Bucknell grad (’14) and former Peer Writing Consultant. I began working last June for a small public policy economics consulting firm located in Washington, DC.  I was excited to be approached to submit a piece to Bucknell Writes because the concept of the blog excited me, and I knew it would be a great opportunity to reflect on the work I’ve done out of school for the last 9(ish) months – more specifically, how my Bucknell experience, particularly as it relates to writing, has shaped the way I think and work here.  

To put it broadly, my current role is to provide preliminary research and analysis – both qualitative and quantitative – to my superiors on a wide range of emerging economic and public policy issues.  The more quantitative assignments I’m given range from processing and analyzing data on the efficacy of an anti-obesity program to narrowing a wide pool of academic studies and public datasets in order to order to assign a dollar value to the loss that cyber attacks impose to society.  Examples of the more qualitative-heavy work I’ve done include tackling the first draft of a literature review to synthesizing responses from hundreds of interviews we’ve conducted.

There are a couple salient features of the work that my firm delivers – which have become increasingly evident over the last few months.  In our capacity as consultants, the “product” we deliver is high-quality, polished material that distills complicated issues to our clients in a way that is both intuitive and, perhaps more important, actionable.  When I say intuitive, I mean our work needs to be methodical and easily understood by audiences that are both familiar and unfamiliar with the topic at hand. By “actionable”, I mean that our client needs to not only be able to make sense of what we give them, but also be able to easily use and act on the information - whether that be to take our material the Hill as part of a lobbying effort, present it in front of key business stakeholders, or circulate it internally within their organization.

Regardless of whether we’re using words or numbers -- or even the medium with which we choose to share the information (a slide deck, a word document, a spreadsheet) -- everything we deliver has a narrative and unfolds a cohesive argument.  For example, one of the most popular ways that we present information is through reading decks; rather than give a client a 5 page report, we deliver our information visually, using PowerPoint slides as our “canvas”.  We call them “reading decks” because rather than be presented, they are meant to be printed and circulated, communicating the same information that a document/PDF could, but in a much more visual and engaging manner.  Each slide contains what we call the “horizontal logic” – an ideally pithy, 2-sentence-max overview of what the graphs/visuals/text in the body of each slide are supporting, located at the top.  In theory, should we string all of the horizontal logics in the presentation together, they should form a cohesive, skeletal outline of the story we’re trying to tell.

When I was first learning to build out a deck like this, my boss suggested the following process: (1) write the horizontal logic of each slide first to produce a general roadmap of my argument; (2) support each logic in the body of the slide with the quantitative and qualitative data we’ve gathered, and (3) when I’m almost finished, interpret only the body of each slide and write down what it is communicating; if what I’ve written down relays the same idea as the logic I had previously written, I know my argument is sound and effectively supported.  As soon as he imparted this advice, I could not help but realize how reminiscent this was of my favorite consulting technique, which I used throughout my time at Bucknell on both my own work and with peers during sessions in the Writing Center: reverse outlining.  This is an exercise requiring a writer to read each paragraph of his/her paper, succinctly summarize the essential purpose of each paragraph in 1-2 sentences, and then string those sentences together.  A coherent string of sentences is typically a clear indication that the paper is well developed, supported, and structured.

I was interviewed as part of a video produced by the Writing Center my senior year – in it, I made note of the fact that by virtue of working there for 3 years and helping my peers, I had simultaneously grown tremendously as a writer myself. I believe that the anecdote I share above is testament to that growth.  With that being said, there are a number of other writing concepts and strategies we frequently discussed in the Writing Center that have permeated into my writing process now, proving themselves over again as invaluable in the “real world”.

1)    Writing is a process. Writing takes time and drafts are allowed to be messy; as a writer, my best ideas often come about when I’m not even actively working on an assignment, and always because I’ve allowed sufficient time for my argument to gel. I find this even more evident now than I did at Bucknell – rushed writing (for me anyway) results in half-baked ideas.

2)    Writing is collaborative. Working in a more collaborative environment has necessitated that I refine my writing process – particularly the early stages. The way that our office is structured, I take the first cut at an assignment, present it to my superior(s), s/he offers me feedback, I implement, and then we iterate until we get the piece where it needs to be.  I almost wish I had done more group writing assignments at Bucknell because when I started my job, I was so used to my own messy brainstorming (which often consisted of a bunch of ideas floating around in my head) -- only to find that no one else could understand it because I hadn’t been accustomed to ever sharing anything but near-final drafts.

3)    Understanding audience is more important than ever.  When I was working in the Writing Center, I often came across papers that exhibited the so-called “data dump” – whereby the writer would attempt to demonstrate everything s/he knew about a topic for a professor, whether or every point necessarily strengthened their argument or fit cohesively into the draft as a whole.  What I’ve come to realize in my job now is the importance of sharing information both selectively and intentionally.  Whereas a professor is often obligated to read every word you write in order to assign a grade, a client simply doesn’t have the time.  Writing in the real world requires brevity and a keen sense of audience - both the client’s position on the topic you’re writing about and how they plan to use the information you’re delivering.  My favorite type of feedback is receiving questions that probe why I choose to do things the way I do – why I choose to (not) include something, why I use a certain word, phrase, sentence, etc. over another – because it forces me to be more intentional.

4)    Reading aloud is still the best proofreading technique!

5)    The more I read, the better writer I become!

6)    Writing can be therapeutic.  Writing isn’t a chore that I set aside for work only – I journal frequently, for example, and find that the benefits are immense. My mind often races faster than my hand can keep up, which forces me to really reflect on one thing at a time and – at least for that moment – not bite off more than I can chew, so to speak.

7)    Medium doesn’t matter.  What’s become more apparent now is that medium doesn’t matter, as evidenced by the reading decks that I discussed above.  I loved that the Writing Center offered to help students on more than just papers – presentations, for example - and hope that it can continue to clear up the misconception on campus that writing needs to be confined to paper (or, for students just entering Bucknell, a 5 paragraph essay). In my job, we’re often telling a story with charts and numbers, and it’s no less of an argument than a traditional paper is – and certainly not two sided (another common misconception).


Monday, February 23, 2015

Law Clerk Jessica Horne '10 on how "writing the opinion becomes the ultimate test of the soundness of the decision"

Jessica Horne,
Law Clerk to the Honorable Elaine Kaplan
of the United States Court of Federal Claims
and Former Peer Writing Consultant

During my late nights writing political science or philosophy papers as a Bucknell student, I discovered that writing, at least for me, involves more than simply communicating ideas. I never fully understand an idea until I translate it into words, sentences, and paragraphs. Finding a transition from one paragraph to another requires me to contemplate the nuanced relationship between the ideas in each paragraph. I also realized that the communicating function of writing and the understanding function of writing reinforce one another: the better I communicate an idea—the more accurate the vocabulary I use to describe it and the more concisely I explain it—the better I understand it, and vice versa.

While discovering all of this in college was an important lesson for me, nowhere has the function of writing as both communicating and understanding become more clear than in my current job as a law clerk for a federal judge. In this position, my primary duty is to assist the judge in deciding each of her assigned cases—that is, clarifying the facts of the case; determining whether, under those facts, the law entitles the plaintiff to a remedy; and, if so, gauging the appropriate remedy. My method of tackling this demanding job involves researching the law and studying the reasoning of other judges in similar cases, but writing the first draft of the opinion in the case accomplishes the bulk of the work. The particular logic of a decision takes shape only when the process of writing forces me to consider how to organize the opinion into sections and paragraphs and what grammatical structure to use when expressing a complex idea in a sentence.

Complicating this process, when I write a draft of an opinion, the ideas that I am communicating are not necessarily my own. Although the judge and I usually agree on the correct outcome in a case, each of us follows a unique path in arriving at that outcome, and the written opinion must reflect the judge’s approach to the issues. When I struggle to write a certain section in the draft, often that struggle signals that I have not completely understood the judge’s approach. Occasionally, however, difficulty writing the opinion has signaled that the conclusion we initially had in mind is the wrong one. Thus, writing the opinion becomes the ultimate test of the soundness of the decision.

After I finish my draft of the opinion, the judge rewrites it almost entirely. At the beginning of my clerkship, I worried that the quality of my writing must not meet the judge’s expectations. I now realize, however, that, for the judge too, writing is the process by which she thinks through and fully understands the issues in a case.  This experience as a law clerk has shown me that all writers, from college students to federal judges, labor through the process of distilling relatively crude ideas into thoughtful and precise prose.