In the majority of careers in research science writing and publishing technical papers, and contributing to technical publications regularly is a big part of the job description and a major indicator of career success. In a small minority of others, mostly industry and some public health tracks, it can viewed as beneficial or acceptable but not critical to success, or actively discouraged without a really good reason, and a not at reliable at all indicator of career success. However, even for the persons (like myself) that fall into that last category it is simply not possible to get a Ph.D., and have any sort of career in research in the hard sciences without a reasonable amount of technical writing activity.
In my case it has been quite a while since I have been instructed or asked to do any serious technical writing. Of course I have to do some technical writing everyday on an ad-hoc basis in day to day communications with colleagues, presentations, SOP preparation and editing, etc., but I can’t really remember the last time I was asked to contribute to an actual, honest to goodness technical publication. Recently I was asked to do this and agreed without a second’s hesitation. This will be a no brainer I thought to myself, with all the writing I have been doing on Medium I can bang this sucker out in a day or two, then just sit back and wait for the accolades to roll in.
Reality hit me in the face very quickly as I begun to work. Turns out, unsurprisingly you may be thinking to yourself, that writing a paper for a technical publication is a very much different thing from slapping together a silly take down on AI or machine learning or dreaming up a pseudo-philosophical ‘think’ piece on the Simulation Hypothesis. First, references suck. One of the beautiful things about Medium (and one of the most frustrating sometimes) is that you can basically say whatever dumb thing you want without any requirement to cite any authoritative source that backs up said dumb thing with actual data or hard facts. For an opinionated, know it all, ass like me it is a dream come true. This is not acceptable for many different reasons in scientific publications. What makes this case even more difficult is that I am being asked to provide an opinion of sorts, my views on certain technical areas of high interest in my field of expertise. However, unlike doing that here, I need to provide at least some level of evidence for those views i.e. what studies, data, etc. did I see that caused my opinion to harden into its’ current position. I talk to people everyday, see data everyday from my own lab and others, read things constantly, and it is all of these things over the course of a 15+ year career in research that have brought me to where I now sit. Long story short, half the time I can’t remember why I think what I do and spending the time doing the literature surveys to remind myself has been an absolute pain in my ass. Secondly, the tone is so very different in a scientific publication that what is typical here. My brilliant satire, hard edged wit (aka corny jokes and half assed asides), and outlandish assertions might fly here, but are just not acceptable for that format, where serious of tone and measured assertions are expected and required. I am having a devil of time remembering that and keeping it in check, though I have promised myself to work in at least one clever and hopefully funny nugget. I am finding that this is sucking a lot of the joy out of the writing process for me. This is probably what is depressing me the most about the entire thing. I always said I loved writing, but what I am finding out quickly is that I love writing here, and that is a very different thing indeed.
Anyone else out there experience anything similar? Would love to here your thoughts in the comments.