Thursday, November 29, 2007

Quiet Mentor Speaks

"I know you're a big girl and have written many papers." He said as he sat in an armchair beside me in the seating area that occupies one corner of his spacious office. He crossed one ankle over the opposite knee, the creases in his slacks sharp.

"I wouldn't say many." I offered, cursing the fact that I'd arrived late to campus and my bag was full of printed and highlighted journal articles rather than a neat notebook and copy of my manuscript. "And I realized we've yet to write a paper together, so it makes sense to meet."

I like Quiet Mentor and have done since we met on the day I interviewed here 2.5 years ago. But I'm glad our contact is somewhat limited. We sat in an office after I gave my interview seminar and he spoke too slowly about career development and how to pick projects and how to select labs. It's his style of dealing with underlings, I decided, so I try to appreciate the attention while I have it. So yesterday I removed several pages that held color figures for Problematic Paper and folded them in half so I could write on the backs. Happily Revising Paper rested on a table in the pleasant sitting area and I smiled at it fondly before returning my attention to Quiet Mentor.

"This is a teaching moment." He declared. "And I like to take advantage of teaching moments when they appear." I nodded and tried to look interested.

"Always start," he began to lecture with a nod toward my paper and pen that indicated I should begin to write, "with the figure legends and figures. They tell your story and should contain the experimental design. So you move that text to the methods section and expand on it a bit." I scrawled words on my paper and put little numbers next to my list to indicate order. I'd already decided to write a blog post about this meeting, so I didn't want to forget relevant details.

"The titles of your figures provide subheadings for the Results, so then you fill in that section. Then I move to the Introduction. There should be three paragraphs. What's the problem? That's paragraph one. Why is the answer important? That's paragraph two. And what did you end up finding? That's paragraph three and should end with a single sentence describing your conclusions in such a way that draws readers into your methods because they're so impressed with what you've written so far."

He nodded, appearing satisfied with his explanation, and waited while I finished writing and looked up expectantly. "Now I write the Discussion. Yours was too long." He noted, with a wave of his hand toward the stapled pages on his table. "You had three figures and each gets a paragraph. Now if the paper is particularly complex, you can have one of two extra paragraphs and when I read yours, I decided it likely needed to have five in this section. The good news is that you can combine many of your paragraphs."

"I did that." I said. "Your suggestions of what to remove were good and when I combined the paragraphs, I noticed I could reorganize and remove the redundant information. It did make the section much cleaner." He smiled and nodded rather regally, pleased that I appreciated his suggestions.

"The last sections - the very final step - are the title and abstract. I review a lot of manuscripts and most people struggle when it comes to naming their papers. I think it's because they've submitted abstracts for meetings and already have a title and abstract they want to recycle."

I nodded in agreement and was rewarded by a dark frown of disapproval. "Don't do that." He ordered. "Throw that away - it'll hurt you far more than it helps. You want to read the paper and get a real sense over what it tells readers and title it appropriately. I can't tell you how many times I've picked up a paper and thought it was going to be fascinating and realized that everything they were telling me had nothing to do with how they'd titled the work!"

I opened my mouth to tell him the authors probably did not mean to offend him personally by the slight, but instead decided to admit I often struggle with titles.

"I get writers' block sometimes." He said, trying to identify with me. "That's why I follow the format I laid out for you. There's no room to get blocked because it's paint by number. Each section flows into the next and you know what each paragraph should contain so you just type it out." I nodded thoughtfully, but thought I could still stare at a blank screen, knowing what the paragraph should say but not knowing how to say it.

"Now the title and abstract require creativity. I suppose the introduction and discussion might as well. So I work on those first thing in the morning." I wrote down 'utilize creative periods' as he explained that he was most creative when he first woke up. "Caffeine also works well for me, so I often sit down very early with a pot of coffee and write the difficult sections. You have to find your own creative period." He declared and I nearly smiled as I pictured him standing around his early morning slot, guarding it against eager students who might want to use it as well while drinking part of his coffee. "It's mostly bimodal." He decided, using his hand to draw an M with rounded edges in the air. "Some people are early morning and late afternoon. Other people are mid-afternoon and late evening. Very few are middle of the day though." He frowned. "So no writing titles and abstracts around lunchtime." He shook his head at the very thought. "If I can't write in the mornings, I'll go exercise at lunch to encourage my afternoon creativity. You need to find the tricks that work for you, but you're free to try the coffee and exercise."

I smiled at him and nodded, rather amused, then raised my eyebrows expectantly. "So what else can we talk about in terms of career development?" He asked. So we touched on grants and he demanded I resubmit the K award. We talked about potential employers for my next job and he listed various institutions and the people he knows. He said I could contact them and use him as a reference. We talked about CV formatting and I was surprised when he suggested padding it by putting various items - travel awards, specifically - in various places. "They're an award, a grant, an international presentation and an abstract!" I'll continue to list mine once, thanks. I don't like the idea of writing clean papers then sending out redundant CVs.

"I think this is good." He said, waving his hand toward the pages that had remained on the table, a silent witness to our meeting. "Many young investigators won't publish anything unless it has strong conclusions and far-reaching influence. They hold papers too long when you should be pushing your name out there. This is good work and though the conclusions are less than vital, it's still publishable. I'm glad you wrote it up. So tell me what's next - how many papers have you published?"

"First author?" I asked. "One from undergrad, three from grad school. There's one under review, the one you've seen and one other that needs to be rewritten. It explains the findings in this paper but I want to refocus it. I wrote a book chapter and I might be able to pull one more paper out of something I've done."

"Middle author?" He asked and I smiled. This is where I shine.

"Many." I said. "Upwards of 10 in the time I've been here."

"Really?" He asked. "Excellent. You'll be seen as very productive on the job market then. Let's get the grant back out there and I think most people would be very pleased to see what you've done."

"I could have done more." I said. Not necessarily in terms of quantity - I'm good at ferreting out papers from very little - but in terms of high quality, high level research? I could have done more.

He shrugged. "I think you look good. No regrets necessary."

"Thanks." I offered, then nodded when he said we'd meet again. He wanted to see the next draft of Happily Revising Paper and looked forward to reading Problematic Paper when it was ready. He wants to see my CV and look at the grant application I should be writing now (I have no plans to do so). "I appreciate you taking the time to meet with me." I told him, slipping my bag on my shoulder.

"It's always good to see you." He commented and I smiled at his secretary as I exited his suite of offices. I smiled at Ken when I dropped my bag in my office and set my soda on my desk, tapping the space bar to wake my computer. I told him of my meeting and he shook his head.

"I took notes." I grinned. "It was that or glare at him for treating me like a child."

"I'd have glared." He decided and I laughed.

"His heart's in the right place. And who knows? Maybe I'll end up following his format for the next paper and will write more effectively for it."

Plus, I decided silently as I waited for new email to download, it gives me a blog post.


hypoglycemiagirl said...

Never thought about writing a paper that way. I'll try that next time.

ScienceWoman said...

It's interesting to see how people write papers. But I doubt that a one-size fits all method exists. That said, I have heard before that you should make your figures first and write your papers around the figures...

Wayfarer Scientista said...

Paint by number, huh? I'd say you were most gracious given his patronizing attitude. Kudos to you.

Lucy said...

I'm glad you took notes. I get stuck easily unless I know exactly what goes in each paragraph (and even then, I still do quite often) so I might steal his method, too. I'm glad I didn't have to sit through his discussion of it, though. Thanks!

post-doc said...

Hypoglycemiagirl & Lucy-
I've been writing this morning according to his method and though it pains me to admit it, it's working quite well. I'm much more focused and concise when I relate everything I write to a specific figure. So do give it a try.

I do agree with Sciencewoman though - everyone writes differently and I don't disparage any method that gives you a publishable paper.

I try mightily to be gracious. I don't always succeed, but I can usually pull it off with faculty members who outrank me. :)

A Female Scientist said...


Thanks for taking notes :)
A senior faculty had told me a similar scheme on how to write a paper but the way you have written gets the point across much better.

Grad007 said...

I've also heard the suggestion to write the paper around the figures. Thanks for posting Mentor's paper-writing technique; I liked his tips on the introduction and the discussion.

suzy pepper said...

This is a brilliant post. I'd never heard of the writing the paper by the figures technique, but, then again, I am very early on in my academic career. I will definitely try it out - thanks!

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