Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Writing journal articles - 2


At the recent workshop I did on finding time to write, someone asked when I use an outline. I had to think. I do use outlines, but there is a great danger of using them as a means to avoid writing. People who don’t enjoy writing often write and outline and then another and another.

If you find yourself falling into this trap, then skip the outline stage, and try to actually write. For a week or two, force yourself to write sentences when you are working on your manuscript, and then, once you have some “bricks” to work with, you can sit back and take another look at how you’ll arrange them.

Just remember that they should be a guide, not a rigorous or restrictive framework. If you think your outline works, try to stick to it, but be aware that you may deviate from it as you write, and sometimes you need the freedom to explore a little, and that could result in an even better work than you’d planned at the beginning. Just as long as your work is evolving, rather than retrogressing – and you should be able to judge that.

Outlines are a useful tool to help you organize your thoughts. They should be used as aids to the process of writing, not an escape from it. Outlines can be helpful, as long as they keep you “in” the writing mode. Toss them out if you find yourself using them to get out of adding substantive content.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Writing journal articles - 1

Thirteen tips on becoming a prolific writer of scientific journal articles
(13 is a lucky number in my culture)

1. Fall in love with writing, right now!
Learn to love the process of writing. For some scientists, it might be an arranged marriage, but you have to do it all your life, so you may as well make yourself fall in love with it. One thing that helps: don’t be hypercritical of your own writing – don’t edit as you write. Write when you write.

2.Don’t say you don’t have time to write even though you want to; you have just as many hours in the day as Einstein, Marie Curie, and Subramanyam Chandrashekar.
This is at least somewhat true.

3. Write everyday, even if you don’t write everyday.
Keep in touch with subject matter mentally on days when you aren’t able to write. Think about it – think actively and constructively about your manuscript – sometime every day – maybe not when you are driving to work, but perhaps at least when you brush your teeth at night. Why? It keeps the subject alive in you.

4. Write as you read.
Read critically; turn on the editor in you as you read other manuscripts and proposals – what works, what doesn’t; what you like and what you don’t and why; what is hard to read and what isn’t – sentences, paragraphs, papers – why are some so easy to read and others so hard to understand – it may be partly because of the writing style.

5. Are you schizophrenic? Do you suffer from mild or not so mild attention deficit disorder?
Someone told me all scientists are. I know I am both, so this statement must be true (n=1). Make ADD work for you: Write different mss or different aspects of your mss. It doesn’t have to move from the beginning to the end, and you can work on many at one time – you probably have to work on many at one time.

6. Don’t start at the very beginning. That’s a very bad place to start.
Scientific manuscripts are NOT written starting with an abstract and proceeding through to the conclusion section. Don't start with the introduction, either. Write your methods down as the experiments are done and make sure to let your students know to do this as well, as they work, not after they are done and can’t remember what on earth they did – you don’t want to wonder later if they did what they said they’d do in their proposal or did they do something differently – and they don’t want to rely on memory rather than writing this section while it’s fresh in their minds. Other sections: keep things in order; file your presentations, abstracts and other “written on the way to the mss” items in the folder where you’ll end up filing your mss. See presentations and abstracts as steps towards the mss and use them as you write.

7. Deal with rejection.
If you think scientific papers and proposals are hard to get accepted, you should really try your hand at writing something else. In my current field, anyone who has an acceptance rate of 5% is considered an “easy” publisher. The moral of the story: keep moving forward; read the reviewer’s comment and then go and have a glass of wine; come back and read them again with a pen and paper so you underline what’s constructive and strike out what isn’t, and, most importantly, start making points on how you’ll address the comments – which ones to address first, etc.

8. Hand someone else a bit of authority.
Set a deadline, and then write to someone else (your internal reviewer) and say, “I’m working on a mss for XXX journal and I’d really like to have your comments. I will be sending it to you on May 5. Thanks!” Why? If you tell someone else you to expect this from you, you are less likely to let your deadline slip. You no longer have a major prof., but you do have colleagues, help yourself help them help you to stay on track.

9. Give yourself a carrot when you get done writing. Champagne works, too.
Yes, you can invite me to the party – so long as it’s a party about finishing a proposal or mss. Getting funded is fabulous – getting a manuscript accepted is magnificent – but the most important thing is finishing that bit of writing – and it’s also something we DON’T pat ourselves on the back for. You carried something through to completion and did the best job you did, didn’t you – reward yourself now! Who cares what NSF or the reviewers think – your tenure panel might – and you might want to care at some later date – but first, CELEBRATE!

10. Make writing a priority.
Doing research without communicating it properly to others is like cooking a meal and then not eating it yourself. Guilt trip yourself if you must – as a scientist, it’s your duty to let others know about the progress you’ve made in your field.

11. List mania.
Aim for the highest and best journal – believe in yourself and let someone else turn you down. And after you send your article off in the mail, get realistic and make a list of all the other journals you can send to if your dream journal doesn’t reply with a romantic review.

12. Respect yourself and others.
Be ethical about authorship and don’t be afraid to ask for it and demand it if you have to. Give others the credit they deserve and take the credit that is rightfully yours.

13. Never compromise quality for quantity.
Don’t go the LPU (least publishable unit) route, but don’t write tomes that people sigh when they look at, either. Write a paper when you feel there’s enough substance – and allow others to be the judge of what’s enough, too. You don’t want to wait too long, but you also don’t get recognition for publishing a lot of poor papers [not the type of recognition you want to, at least].
Prolific is what you define it to be.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

A previously published INTERVIEW

Interviewer: Uma Girish

Published in Chatterbox magazine, 2003.

1. Why does science always fall into the 'difficult subject' category in school?

I think it’s because all science involves mathematics, and mathematics is abstract, which can be frustrating to some people. Also, if you don’t understand the fundamentals which are taught very early, it becomes very hard (though not impossible) to do well in it later on.

2. How did you fall in love with science? Was it a wonderful science teacher who encouraged it?

I’ve had many good teachers, which was certainly the main factor. The other two important things that sparked my interest in science early on, were my love for nature and my love of books. Like many other children, I liked to dream about exploring new worlds and wanted to become an astronaut or a marine scientist. I read a lot of books about astronomy at the house of an uncle who worked at the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research. I really enjoyed physics when I was young. I also love animals and natural beauty and I spent my formative years at the Krishnamurthi Foundation School in Madras, where concern for the environment was greatly encouraged. When I was in college, I was introduced to Professor Gadagkar by a relative. He is at the Indian Institute of Science and I got my first taste of research when I worked under his guidance. I chose marine science rather than astronomy, because I felt a real need to help save the environment.

3. In your 10-book series 'The Amazing Animal Kingdom', you weave fact and fiction so cleverly that a serious message you slip in is absorbed and remembered by the child with such ease.

Thank you. I have strong views and sometimes they slip into my stories without my noticing that it has happened.

4. How does one make science fun for kids?

First of all, one has to love science and feel comfortable with the subject. If you don’t have a thorough grounding in science, then you may communicate a feeling of fear or inadequacy to the child, rather than sending the message that it is fun. One of the most exciting things about science is the aspect of discovery. Questions come naturally to children, and this is also very important in science. It’s easy to make science fun for kids if one has a thorough knowledge, because kids are naturally fascinated by nature and objects and phenomena around them. Their natural curiosity and urge to discover things on their own needs to be nurtured and guided. I also think that something we really need to do a little more, is expose children to hands-on experiments. Conducting a simple experiment is like playing a game, which is always fun for kids.

5. What does it take to simplify a complex subject like science and make it great reading for kids?

To make science into great reading, you have to enjoy writing. The science itself is secondary, in a sense. Writing has to be your first love, something that comes naturally. Secondly, you have to take writing very seriously and work hard at doing it to the best of your ability. Sometimes, people make the mistake of thinking that writing for children is simpler than writing for adults, but this is just not true. Children are extremely critical and will not read a book that is not interesting. When you write for kids, the responsibility you shoulder is immense. If a child reads a book and gets put off, he or she may decide that reading is boring, or else that the subject (in this case science), is boring. The impact you make on a child can be much more intense and long-lasting than any impact you make on an adult. When you try to simplify a scientific concept and make it into enjoyable reading for kids, you need to check the accuracy of your facts, and then try different approaches and re-write the same story (or article) in different ways to see what’s best. I find it is more demanding to write for children than for adults.

6. When did you discover that you could use your knowledge of science to tell stories for kids?

Earlier, I used to write just poetry and fiction for adults (which I still continue to do). For a very long time, I thought that my involvement with science and my love for creative writing were two distinct worlds. My friend Iwan was the first to suggest that I could combine the two and write lyrically about science. Although he was referring to this at a different level, it was probably the first time I even thought of putting the two together. I grew up with Target, and always wanted to write for children someday. In 1995, I met Sandhya Shridar, who was the editor of Gokulam. She helped me start writing for children and suggested that I could weave my knowledge of science into my work. Mini Krishnan, who worked at Macmillan India, also encouraged me greatly. She convinced me that there was a real need for authors who wanted to try new approaches in the area of science writing for children.

7. Where did the idea for the series come from?

Lots of places! Farida was written before I had the idea for a series. I work in an oceanographic institute where people study marine animals like seahorses and oysters so I had ideas for stories about sea creatures. Then, I met Chandralekha, the editor of Neve, and she invited me to write a series for children. I always liked bats and Balan was a creature that was in my head already, waiting to be fleshed out with a sketch pen. Thangam comes from turtle walks and working at the Madras Croc bank.

8. You write and illustrate for children. That must be a terrific advantage as you see the book in complete form in your mind's eye, and you have full control over how it turns out.

I suppose it is an advantage, because it makes you see the balance between the text and the drawings more clearly, but I think all writers see pictures in their minds. I can give thought to the presentation as a whole but the only person who has full control over how the book turns out is the editor. She (or he), often decides how to package and market the book, how the cover should look, what should be on it, the general layout, etc. So each book is a co-operative effort in which a lot of people work together as a team. An author gets input rather than control, I think. Perhaps more established authors have greater say, but I am relatively new at this, and I feel I have a great deal to learn. I hope to improve as a writer in the years to come, as I gain experience and get feedback from different sources. I plan to concentrate on writing in the years to come, and leave illustration to others with greater talent.

9. Shouldn't authors like you really be writing science textbooks to make it creative and fun for school curriculum?

I’d be more than glad to write a textbook that’s creative and fun. I have been talking to the editor of Neve about bringing out a series which will be a little like a set of creative textbooks. I hope to have the opportunity to do more projects along these lines but there are some unique problems faced by Indian publishers (through no fault of their own), that I don’t want to expand on.

One thing all of us can do to help to increase the quality and quantity of creative books including text books, is to buy innovative books written by our own authors. Actively seek out Indian authors when you are in a bookstore. Take pride in Indian authors who work hard to write for Indian children! Encourage them by buying their work and talking to others about how much you like their books!

9. You are a marine scientist. Would you tell our readers what a marine scientist studies and works at?

I’m an oceanographer (marine scientist), who specializes in environmental chemistry – that means physical chemistry, really, with aspects of environmental engineering. Unfortunately, when people hear the word marine, they automatically think it goes with biology – but it doesn’t have to. In my case, it doesn’t work at all – I’m about as far away from biology as I can be – and not a biologist by any stretch of the imagination.

Oceanography is the study of the oceans. It is a really exciting field, which combines physics, chemistry, biology and geology. The “distinct” areas of science are linked and oceanographers have to be able to understand and make connections among the different disciplines. You can’t ignore any of these fundamental sciences if you are an oceanographer. For example, if you want to study what happens to an oil spill (chemistry) in the oceans, you need to know about water movement (Physics) as well as whether or not bacteria can chew up some of the chemicals (biology) and so on. Oceanographers often go on ships to gather data. Some of them dive or study the ocean in underwater vehicles. If you don’t enjoy working outdoors, you can still become an oceanographer, and work in the laboratory or use remote methods to study the oceans or do computer models – but I think working on (or in) the water, is one of the best things about oceanography.

10. Do you have one (or more) favourite title(s) in 'The Amazing Animal Kingdom' series? Why?

I enjoyed writing each and every one of them. I guess I am a little partial to Balan, Farida and Bharathi. Balan, because I wish he would walk off the page so I could stroke his fur! Farida and Bharathi, because the stories came into my head so easily. Those stories wrote themselves effortlessly. The science and the story just fit in perfectly. I do like them all, though. When you write a book, even a little tiny book, the characters become real in a way, so I don’t enjoy picking favourites!