Probably (not) good writing advice

Writing is always hard. No one, doing it properly, finds it easy. I think that this is the one lesson I have managed to distill out of all the “how I write” interviews, blurbs, and articles over the years. The skill is getting it done, making the chore happen. Hence the “1000-words/2000-words a day” mantras, regardless of quality, or the “two hours before breakfast” or whatever, a routine, a mechanism to force the words out. This might all sound terrible, but of course professional writers love that effort, come what may, whilst everyone else goes “you’re welcome to it”.

That love of ugly effort is probably common to all of us who have, for better or worse, a drive or passion or vocation for something. I mean, I love analysing data, but I do not love entering data into Excel, row after row, or checking those data, or re-doing the same analysis three times when I forget the right co-variates, and then change my mind about the correct error structure… And do you really love pipetting, hour after hour, as PCR reaction after PCR reaction heads south, despite wearing your lucky PCR pants and promising you’ll never go to the pub again until it works? Then there are the professional athletes or musicians, endlessly honing their physical skills, with hour after hour of numbing repetition. But they love it too, somehow.

So writing is a toil, a work of craft and graft, helped by practise, helped by reading. Bob Trivers said anyone can do anything for two hours a day, but I would be more generous than that – an hour fifty? For grad students and post-docs who find the writing difficult, find your routine and try to stick to it. But don’t imagine it is so very different for the greatest writers. Julian Barnes – very much a stylistic hero of mine, who then obviously destroyed my dreams of writing a novel – said that he knows when to stop working on a piece, when he starts to make it worse (sound familiar)? Or this, the single most inspiring story to me about the reality of writing – Gabriel Garcia Marquez took nearly two decades to finish several of the short-stories collected in Strange Pilgrims. That Marquez didn’t just sit down and write a short-story, but could take years, decades even, to finish one, opened my eyes to the craft that is writing.

Find your routine, but don’t think it will be anyone elses. Here is Geoff Dyer’s day. I am not sure it is all good advice – except the giving in to the urge to nap of course – but it highlights the importance of knowing thyself, and finding out when the writing comes. It is also quite fun.

Homemade biology

As busy academics with a penchant for both travel and lying-in, we don’t always spend enough time doing “serious” gardening. Fortunately, we get a helping hand – as all good Jurassic Park fans know, nature always finds a way. So, we are currently in aconite and allium heaven, not to mention the lupins. Next time, the real stars – the insects!

Taxonomic bias in behaviour

This week’s paper of the week is a very nice study by Malcolm Rosenthal and friends looking at taxonomic bias in the species studied by researchers that publish in the field-leading journal Animal Behaviour. Unsurprisingly perhaps, they find that vertebrates – especially birds and mammals – are vastly over-represented in the study of animal behaviour, especially when compared to insects (although within insects, the Hymenoptera don’t do so badly). So far, so unexpected – we all know and love that animal behaviour is quite a “fur and feathers” game (although if one included behaviour genetics and/or behavioural neuroscience, Drosophila would be far more prevalent perhaps). The paper comes into its own though in terms of discussing the causes and consequences of this bias. In particular, the authors highlight that risk-averse publishers and grant-awarding bodies channel our science down familiar, safe paths, rather than allowing us to open up new studies with new organisms. Such studies may either fail (“model” organisms are models because they “work” in the lab or field) or – perhaps worse! – be seen as just more “stamp-collecting”. However, this latter criticism is at best misguided or at worst downright foolish – those stamps will either be valuable to test the generality of theories via meta-analysis, or those stamps will over-turn our comfy assumptions and reveal something truly new and valuable. Moreover, early studies with a new organism require much description, and such studies are frowned upon by major journals as well as promotion- or tenure-awarding bodies. However, there is much still to be discovered, if we choose – and are able – to look.

The paper is here and the citation is: Malcolm F. Rosenthal, Matthew Gertler, Angela D. Hamilton, Sonal Prasad, Maydianne C.B. Andrade. (2017) Taxonomic bias in animal behaviour publications. Animal Behaviour 127: 83-89.

Happy reading!