Wednesday, March 16th 2011
My blogging mojo has been channeled almost entirely towards a book project I’ve undertaken with Julienne Rutherford of UIC and Katie Hinde of UCLA (though shortly to be of Harvard). The book is called Building Babies: Primate Development in Proximate and Ultimate Perspective and it will be published by Springer in 2012. Each co-editor has a chapter in there, and then we have a number of other rather fancy-pants contributors as well.
The first drafts of the chapters were due yesterday. I did not submit my chapter (er, to myself). I’m running about a week late. I thought I would come clean with this, because there are a number of elements of the writing process that I think remain obscure for students and other junior scholars. And after I share a few thoughts about academic writing, I thought I would show you some of the draft I’m working on.
First drafts suck
They really, really do. If you think your first draft is amazing, give it to someone else, and that someone else can’t be a pet, spouse or parent. First drafts suck because we write the most obvious things in them, the most vague. First drafts don’t have enough context. First drafts are where you use cliches because you haven’t figured out how to say what you’re saying in a sophisticated way. They are often under-cited. They are out of order. And, they aren’t that compelling.
This is why so much student writing is bad — but it’s not their fault. Close together deadlines, ones that align with other projects, and little teaching of time management means most students start writing projects just before they are due. So they essentially submit first drafts of papers, with a little copyediting if you’re lucky. Plus, somehow a lot of students have picked up this idea that first drafts are better or more authentic than revisions. This is patently false. They are simply the place our favorite worst stuff goes to die (this is why revision is so often called killing our darlings, to use a term from scio11, though its origin is much older).
But everyone has bad first drafts, so it is absolutely useless to feel bad about them. Give them to your advisor or your colleague if they have said they will read a first draft (otherwise, revise it after consulting with someone else first). They write bad first drafts too. You have to write a first draft in order to get to the revision, and to me, this was a liberating realization. Get it all out now! Don’t worry about using the right word! Just get the words on the page, get about the right content in about the right order, and if something is repetitive, just leave it for now. Because after a little breather away from it, or a look from a trusted colleague or advisor, you will hack it up and remake it into something far better.
Revising only sucks sometimes
Revising sucks when you get your first comments back from a colleague, because it is terrifying to share that vulnerable, bad first draft with another person (ever had that moment after you print it out or hit send when you realize your prized metaphor was a trembling nod to your failed attempt as a fiction writer?). It sucks at those moments when you feel at cross-purposes with the thesis of your paper. And it’s frustrating, also, that revising is the most important yet under-taught skill in academic writing.
But here’s the thing. Revising can be glorious. If you abandon any sense that you own your words, and remember only to own your mind, it allows you to be merciless in cutting out all the badness of that first draft: the cliches, the vague repetition, the jargon. If you return again and again to your outline, or abstract, or data, or whatever materials you keep to help you remember what the paper is about, you will start to see the right shape of the piece. And then you can also build in the context.
The best moments of revision are when you remember why you were writing the piece in the first place. Do you want to produce a fundamental review that will be useful to other practitioners in your field? Do you have an amazing piece of data to share? A well-grounded hypothesis that you want to articulate? What was surprising or compelling about that work when you first set fingers to keyboard?
One last thing I’ll say about revising is that owning your mind is not the same as owning your ideas. You need to be willing to let go of being right, and you need to be willing to change if the evidence is against you. Accepting reality and working with it in an interesting way is the mark of a good scientist, and a good revision.
My first drafts suck
The title of my chapter is: “Inflammatory factors that produce variation in ovarian and endometrial functioning” (eventually, I think, I will need to change the title to better reflect the manuscript). I thought this would be an easy piece for me, since I have been doing a lot of work on C-reactive protein, a biomarker for systemic inflammation, and I have been studying the endometrium and ovaries for many years.
I was wrong. Oh, so wrong.
A few quick searches pulled up an embarrassingly large number of citations for chemokines and cytokines, for toll-like receptors, natural killer cells, and other immunological terms I barely remembered from high school and college. So I re-drafted my outline, set aside a lot of time for reading (as in, several days straight), and then finally set to work.
The problem with the literature on this topic is that it is wholly mechanistic. I can now tell you what interleukins are expressed in the periovulatory phase versus the implantation window, or which ones are suppressed or overexpressed for certain pathologies, but I can’t tell you what that means in a broader sense, or what produces variation in any of these immunological factors in a systemic way that might impact local inflammation in the female reproductive system.
Here is my section on normal endometrial functioning (alas, given the literature, the section on pathology in the endometrium is far, far longer). First draft ahead! Remember, I am sharing this embarrassingly bad prose for the good of SCIENCE.
The endometrium is composed of the functionalis and basalis layers; the functionalis comprises two thirds of the endometrium and is the part that proliferates and sheds each reproductive cycle. The basalis is adjacent to the myometrium, and is the place from which the endometrium regenerates after menses. The proliferative (also known as follicular) phase is when estradiol promotes proliferation of endometrial tissue, where the secretory (also known as luteal) phase is characterized by progesterone control of decidualization and menstruation. The endometrium typically proliferates with narrow, straight glands and a thin surface epithelium, and angiongenesis continues as ovulation nears (King and Critchley 2010). After ovulation and during the secretory phase, the endometrium differentiates: endometrial glands become increasingly secretory, and by the late secretory phase spiral arterioles form. If implantation does not occur, the corpus luteum degrades, progesterone declines, and this triggers a cascade of events to produce menstruation.
Menstruation is a key inflammatory process of the endometrium. Menstruation is when the functionalis are shed at the end of the human reproductive cycle. The basalis regenerates over the course of the next cycle. The demise of the corpus luteum and the associated withdrawal of progesterone precipitate inflammatory mediators that cause tissue degradation. For instance, progesterone inhibits nuclear factor κ B (NF-κB), which increases the expression of inflammatory cytokines like IL-1 and IL-6 (Maybin et al. 2011). The withdrawal of progesterone is also associated with an increase in endometrial leukocytes and IL-8, which regulate the repair process (Maybin et al. 2011). At this time other inflammatory factors promote MMP production to break down endometrial tissue (Maybin et al. 2011). Further, it is thought that progesterone withdrawal, not an increase in estradiol concentrations, leads to the repair of the endometrium so that it can resume activity for the next cycle (Maybin et al. 2011). Thus, variation in progesterone concentrations may lead to variation in inflammatory activity, degradation, repair and cycling in the endometrium.
First question: why should I care about any of the above? So what if any of this happens? Then, you might not know this, but I do: the only two citations in these two paragraphs are both review papers, and one of the authors overlap between them. Therefore, it’s quite under-cited. To be fair, in this section it is less important that I demonstrate the depth of the literature, but a review that only cites two other reviews isn’t doing its job.
Do I inspire excitement in my field? No. Do I provide an appropriate context for this material in order to situate the reader? Not so much. Right now, these two paragraphs contain the exact information I wanted them to contain, based on what was in my outline. That is, I’ve described the basic functioning of the endometrium, and menstruation. It’s flat because that’s all that I did.
My job in this chapter is to take this vast reproductive immunological literature, pair it with what little we have in anthropology and ecology that helps us understand the way genes and environment might produce this variation, and then describe the necessary context in future work to understand these mechanisms. In some places, a lack of context may help me make my case, because it will demonstrate why anthropologists need to be in the field. But if my whole manuscript looks like the two paragraphs above, it will be an unreadable yawnfest that doesn’t contribute a thing to anthropology.
So, I guess I would expand the “kill your darlings” advice. First, accept your darlings. Accept that you have them like everyone else, and that darlings aren’t just turns of phrase but entire ideas, hypotheses, fields of thought. Then, once you have accepted that your darlings make you just like every other academic writer out there, from the middle schooler to the full professor, kill them. With fire. Finally, make sure you provide what is left with context or else there is no reason to read what you wrote.
And now, I have been sufficiently inspired to go finish my bad first draft.
King, A., & Critchley, H. (2010). Oestrogen and progesterone regulation of inflammatory processes in the human endometrium The Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, 120 (2-3), 116-126 DOI: 10.1016/j.jsbmb.2010.01.003
Maybin JA, Critchley HO, & Jabbour HN (2011). Inflammatory pathways in endometrial disorders. Molecular and cellular endocrinology, 335 (1), 42-51 PMID: 20723578
Thursday, February 10th 2011
Thanks to Ed Yong and a number of other very smart people, I was inspired after Science Online 2011 to perform a survey of my readers to figure out who comes here, why they do, and what they’d like to see more of. I enjoy engaging with other science writers, bloggers, and fellow anthropologists, really I do. But I hoped to gain some insight into how I might reach an even broader audience, to increase awareness of the kinds of science I do and that I find interesting. There are political ramifications to having a lay population completely unaware of the basic functioning of the female body, particularly around reproduction, when we have so many strong feelings about it. Feelings will always win in a one-sided fight: put it up against evidence, though, and at least some people will start to operate more rationally.
Science Online 2011 taught me a few other things in terms of how to reach that audience. By bringing in a personal element, showing enthusiasm, or giving the reader more things to look at than a wall of text, I could invite different kinds of people in. As everyone now knows, you can try DMing Ed Yong (hee hee, sorry Ed!). I tried to do those things in subsequent posts. And so, this happened:
|Figure 1. My hits from the first day of #scio11 to yesterday. Eep.
My survey went from the 17th of January until the 21st or so; I stopped at sixty respondents. As you might imagine, my readership has changed.
That said, I think I learned a lot from the survey, so I want to share it with you and see if we can broaden the conversation.
Who are you?
The people who filled out my survey were about my age, were my ethnicity (European), and were mostly women (I suspect the f:m ratio would have been even higher if I hadn’t taunted Twitter at one point that the female respondents were beating the males). Here are the graphs (notice that the bars/pie slices represent absolute numbers of respondents, and percentages are listed next to each choice):
I regret the way I wrote the ethnicity question. I was trying to figure out how to ask people’s ethnicity from a more global perspective — that is, I couldn’t exactly write European-American, African-American, etc, because I have readers from other countries. These ethnicities also mean something very different depending on where you live. This led to confusion in almost ten respondents, many of whom were white but not all, who just put in the “other” section that they were white/black/mixed race/etc.
Two last questions in this section were about the respondent’s education and vocation. Here is what I got.
A full third of respondents have PhDs. Damn, people. But I was pleased to see at least a handful of folks that were still in college (and I hope desperately that they aren’t just my current semester of students!).
So… I guess I and my doppelgangers read my blog. This demonstrates a few important things:
- People read people who are like them.
- If you want people who are not like you to read your blog, you probably have to step out of your comfort zone.
This is significant for a number of reasons. More prominent women sciencebloggers, for instance, likely means more female readers. Same goes with more sciencebloggers of color, of different sexualities, different physical capabilities, different countries, different ages. And since sciencebloggers can draw people into science, can excite them, inspire them to stay when they are feeling scared, and otherwise mentor them, having broader representation in scienceblogging is a Very Good Thing.
Conversely, if I want to reach something other than the white-female-straight-middle-class-academic audience, I need to be doing something different than what I’m doing right now. Some of that lies in promotion and marketing, but more of that likely has to do with voice, style and content.
What do you want from me?
Most of this section of the survey was freeform response, but I did have a few graphable questions.
What I find interesting here is that readers mostly want to read about the life of a scientist stuff (there are many women sciencebloggers who do this more regularly and eloquently than me), and more plain-old anthropology. Ladybusiness, reproductive choice, women’s reproduction, not nearly so much.
On the one hand, I think I would like to expand my writing a bit to try to write posts that have an anthropological perspective and broad appeal. On the other, if ladybusiness isn’t your top priority, readers, you don’t know what you’re missing!
I’d like to think that’s what I demonstrated last week with my iron-deficiency anemia post. If I weren’t scrabbling for tenure I could probably write a post a week on anthropological perspectives on women’s health like that post. Men and women commented on, and wrote on, that post. It made it to reddit, a few great feminism blogs, and lots of other non-science individual bloggers and livejournalers.
So ladybusiness is here to stay, but I am going to try to expand my reach. Anthropology is a discipline most don’t get in high school, so most people know next to nothing about it. It would be a great thing if I could expose more people to how cool the field can be.
What you had to say
I had two open-response questions, one on how I could attract more laypeople, and another that was just open for questions and comments. For the first question, you said:
- Explain more terms, go for a less scholarly tone.
- Many of you found me through Twitter, so continue using that medium.
- Try for less of a wall of text (break it up, use pictures, etc).
- Use more keywords so they get Googled.
- Write “basics” posts that can be referred to again and again by laypeople, teachers and students.
- Use surveys and other interactive widgets.
For the second, mostly you just said really nice things. Several women in academic positions more junior than me said they read me to stick with academia. I wanted to share just one quote, because it demonstrates what I’m aiming for, even if I don’t really think I’m there yet (but thank you!):
“…I really enjoy [your blog], and thank you for being one of the voices that makes ongoing work in science into something I feel I can read and follow, rather than some impenetrable ivory tower only accessible through poor mainstream media interpretation. (Even laypeople get tired of saying “They did a study! You know, the ‘they’ that ‘does studies,’ whoever ‘they’ are.”) The perspective on women’s issues is a particular bonus as well.”
I think those of us who want to write for a broader audience, if we can inspire this feeling in our readers, even some of the time, we’re doing well.
And finally, what I want from you
I didn’t write this post to inspire a conversation just about why you read my blog: I don’t need more of a lovefest and feel a little like I’ve reached Internet Saturation anyway! But I’d like to know:
- Why do you come here?
- Why do you read any science blog?
- How do you think we can get your friends to read us too?
If we could inspire people to reach for other connections, with material and people they don’t know, instead of the zone of comfort they do know, it would be a marvelous thing.