I am writing this on a plane. I’m not literally spray painting this on the hull of an aircraft, but you know what I mean. Written language is a tricky thing, and I’m rusty. It’s been a long time since I’ve written for pleasure and it doesn’t come as easily as it once did. Five years in grad school will do that to you. It reminds me of something I learned back when I worked in healthcare. One of the doctors with whom I worked also happened to be a Tae Kwon Do master (because lecturing at Harvard, editing his own small medical journal, breezily putting in twelve hour days, and saving lives wasn’t making the rest of us look bad enough). Having specialized in both rehabilitation medicine and the martial arts, this doctor decided it’d be fun to scientifically answer the question of which fighting style delivers the most powerful and efficient strikes. He wanted to know, once and for all, whose Kung-Fu is strongest.
So he got a bunch of masters together, hooked them up to some specialized equipment, and analyzed their forms. He found that many of the masters’ styles had been subtly affected by life on the tournament circuit. They were delivering the most “correct” kicks as defined by their own professional standards, but not necessarily the strongest kick. The doctor very politely informed the masters of their flawed techniques via microphone, from behind a locked door.
It’s much the same with my writing. I’ve become very good at writing in a particular style for a particular audience, easily throwing around words like “psychophysics”, “subtending”, and “non-parametric”. This made for a great dissertation (trust me, it was awesome), but it’s been ages since I’ve written for a non-scientific audience, and I can feel it.
My new job is in a much more applied field and we produce content geared toward a much wider audience. One of the first things I did on the job, aside from gleefully order a $3,000 work computer, was to write a white paper. White papers aren’t like peer-reviewed research articles. I wasn’t beholden to the style or conventions of a particular field or journal, and I had tremendous flexibility while writing it. It was difficult at first; no standard definition of the problem to fall back on for a first sentence, no literature review to slide into, hardly any methodology to eat up space. But gradually I began to lay the words down. One thought followed another, things started clicking, and most comforting of all, as I began to write out my initial ideas, new ones emerged.
The draft was well-received. “It was a pleasure to read, seems like you had a lot of fun writing it,” said my supervisor. A few days later, as we were editing a draft of a different project, he said, “Don’t be afraid to shoot down my edits. You’re a better writer than me.” It was nice to hear, but the truth is that I don’t feel like I’m writing as well as I was five years ago.
If my graduate education taught me anything, it’s that the best way to improve is to do. It also taught me that the much-vaunted flexibility of the academic schedule just isn’t for me. My days had too little structure, my workload was too erratic, and I never seemed to find time for things like writing. Now that I’m on a more standard workday I find that I really like it. Far from being constrained by the standard workday, I’m more productive than ever. So here’s hoping that I’ll find the time to do more things like this.