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.    

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Rob, stumbled upon this as I'm in the midst of second-paper writer's block...