Green Markers and Coffee

Continuing with some thoughts on writing, I thought I’d share this post from The Open Notebook. David Dobbs interviews leading science writer, David Quammen, about his process as he combines his notes from the field and recordings of interviews with scientists into a cohesive, finished piece.  I especially loved Quammen’s statements about beginning the writing process.

Quammen talks about piles and piles of field notebooks he has from his trips.  Somehow these get condensed into paragraphs, which are strung together to form chapters of his books.  He says, “I don’t make an inventory, and I don’t make an outline. I just pile this stuff up there and then eventually, after three years or four years or so, I start writing. I sit down with all these notebooks and sources and I drink coffee until I go into a trance and I start writing.”

He talks about using a green magic marker to put a slash by interesting tidbits of writing while going through his notebooks: “So I don’t know exactly what the structure is going to be . . . until I see what’s interesting and what’s not interesting. One of my organizing principles, always, is Throw out the boring stuff. If it’s important but boring, leave it out — it’s probably not necessary.”

For Quammen, writing begins with piles of notebooks and a green marker to pull out the interesting stories.  For me, it’s more of a half-outline, half-stream of consciousness filled with sentence fragments that eventually morphs into something coherent within the same Word document.  And, like Quammen, coffee is most likely involved as well.

What does the beginning of the writing process look like for you?

5 things I’ve learned while writing my first journal article

In September 2011, my advisor gave me a previous grad student’s project to complete and then write up for publication.  As a one-month-old grad student I jumped at the opportunity to get a publication under my belt so soon. But now, over a year later, I have a real picture of the time that goes into not only data collection and analysis, but into drafts upon drafts of writing and (finally!) preparing a paper for submission to a journal.  So I have some reminders for myself later and in case for some reason these might benefit someone else, here are 5 things I’ve learned while writing my first journal article:

1. Find the right music to get into the mood.  For me, getting the writing vibe going is the result of a ritual. Emailed checked. Facebook/Twitter off limits. Ear buds in. And, most importantly, the right tunes in my ears to get my mind going.  The music I choose when writing varies by the hour. I’ll be jamming to Of Monsters and Men, then suddenly I’ll need to switch to Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 to stay focused. (I’m checking out Milo Greene while writing this post, by the way.) Needless to say, Spotify and I have become best friends this year.  And when I am having listening block, inevitably to be followed by the much dreaded writer’s block, I turn to this blogpost for inspiration.  Now I know that when I’m having trouble “summoning the [writing] muse,” as the post states, I need to make sure I have the right music accompanying me.

2. Get some space. Right before I took some time off for Christmas last year, I was so burned out with writing this paper that I was about to rip my keyboard out and bend it around a tree.  I could literally feel my computer-strained, twitching eyes glaze over while reading over (and hating) what I’d already written.  Much frustrated, I decided to completely forget about the paper for two whole weeks. Turns out, it was the best thing I could have done.  When I sat back down at my desk and opened “Publication draft 12_17_12,” I felt my work ethic flow back into my typing fingers.  Suddenly I cared about writing the paper again, and, even better, I was enjoying it.  Next time I feel the need to dismantle my computer or just plain quit, I’ll get some space from the paper, trusting that later on, it will become my friend again.

3. If you love it too much, get rid of it. To be honest, I learned this lesson in undergrad, but I’ve applied it countless times while writing this paper.  During my junior year at Baylor, I received my first ever C on a paper. After a near mental breakdown (grades used to matter WAY too much to me), I gathered my pride from my dorm room floor and headed to the so-thought evil, C-granting professor’s office hours.  He gave me a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which I still have, and explained why he gave me a C. He said that too many of my sentences, while sophisticated and eloquent sounding, didn’t contribute any meat to my argument.  He suggested that when I spend a lot of time time crafting a lengthy, complicated sentence and come to love it so much that it becomes like a child of mine, I need to kill it.  Get rid of the sentence-baby and replace it with a concise statement that actually has meaning.  Nowadays, when I catch myself lovingly admiring one of my verbose sentences, I know that, instead, I need to be hitting the delete key.

4. When you need to write, read. At times when the words would just not come, I found myself reading through some of the papers from my reference list or browsing through the science posts on my Google Reader.  Just as Erin Podolak said in her blogpost at Science Decoded, “if you want to write well, you must read good writing.” When I come across a really great piece, in which the writing just flows together so perfectly and clearly, I find I’m re-inspired to get my nose back to the grindstone.

5. Sell it!  One of the notes my advisor gave me on my first draft was that my emphasis in the discussion section was way too negative. He said that after reading a paper like mine, a publisher would think “Heck, why publish this at all? Everything was all wrong with this project!” Apparently, I went a little too far while writing about the limitations of the project.  Now I know that alongside a healthy discussion of what could have made a project better, I need to express why the findings contribute to existing literature and inform future research.  I need to sell it, or no one will buy what I have say.

Now onto draft #257.  Not really, but that feels about right.

Autism or the Lack Thereof

Can you see the figure on the left within the figure on the right? (hint: try looking at the lower left corner of the figure on the right).  In a journal article published last month, Michael Spencer and colleagues from Cambridge explained that while people with autism perform normally on tasks like this one, they demonstrate deficits at the level of brain activation while performing such tasks.

The authors state that people with autism demonstrate a failure to deactivate certain brain regions that make up the default mode network when performing complex tasks like the one pictured. These regions, including the prefrontal cortex and the posterior cinguate cortex, may be collectively responsible for abstract mental activities like day dreaming. Why would deactivating the default mode network be important when performing complex tasks?  In a way, taking certain parts of the brain offline clears the air from distracting thoughts, allowing one to focus on the task at hand.

What’s interesting is that the authors not only found this failure to deactivate in people with autism but also in their siblings who don’t have autism.  In other words, when performing a task similar to the one above, the brain activity of brothers or sisters of people with autism looks more autistic-like than typical.  The authors present this finding as a potential endophenotype, or marker for familial risk, of autism.  Though this finding is only preliminary, it shows that siblings of people with autism (who share some genetic similarities with their siblings) may display certain traits that are indicative of autism, without actually having the disorder.  If this concept holds, it could provide a better picture of what goes on genetically in autism, or in the lack thereof.