Creative artists and the writing of scientific manuscripts

February 15, 2018

I am a consumer of the creative arts and, really, have always been in awe of creative artists. Looking back chronologically over my lifetime, my greatest consumption and appreciation has been fiction writing, music and cartooning (particularly the political variety). I’m not a big fan of flat art (sculpture speaks to me much more) but I am definitely amazed by what some people can paint, draw and the like. I do like moving picture arts but I don’t think I have any particular sense of awe for them as a craft and certainly not for the participants as creative artists*. I get that others can see this, however.

Anyway, the creative artists are amazing to me.

A couple of days ago it occurred to me that understanding the process of creative arts might help cross what I find to be a somewhat frustrating bridge in training other people to write scientific manuscripts.

Sidebar: I am pretty sure we’ve discussed related topics before on the blog, but I can’t remember when so I’m probably going to repeat myself.

When I first started to write scientific manuscripts I quite reasonably suffered the misunderstanding that you sort of did the experiments you planned and then wrote them (all of them) up in chronological order and badda boom, published it somewhere. That is because, I assume, many scientific manuscripts read as if that is how they were created. And there are probably some aspects of “Research Design 101” instruction that convinces young scientists that this is the way things work.

Then, when it is your own work, there are two additional factors that press down and shape your writing process. First, a sense of both pride and entitlement for your effort which tells your brain that surely every damn thing you worked on needs to fuel a publication. Second, a sense that writing is hard and you want to know in advance exactly what to write so that no effort is wasted.


And this is where the creative arts come in.

Now, I’ve never lived cheek by jowl with a creative artist and I am only superficially familiar with what they do. But I am pretty convinced it is an iterative, inefficient process. Flat art folks seem to sketch. A lot. They work on an eye. An expression. A composition. A leg. Apple. Pair of shoes. Novelists and short story authors work on themes. characters. plot elements. They write and tear their hair out. Some of this is developing skill, sure, but much of this for a reasonably mature creative person is just working the job. They create copious amounts of material that is only leading up to the final product.

And the final product, I surmise, is built from the practice elements. A plot or character for a story. A curve of a mouth for a portrait. Melody. Chord progressions. A painted sunbeam. The artist starts stitching together a complete work out of elements.

I think you need to get into this mode as a scientist who is writing up manuscripts.

We stitch together a work out of elements as well. Now in our case, the elements are not made up. They are data. That we’ve collected. And we spend a heck of a lot of time on the quality of those elements. But eventually, we need to tell a story from those parts.

N.b. This is not storyboarding. Storyboarding is setting out the story you want to tell and then later going out and creating the elements (aka, figures) that you need to tell this particular story. That way lies fraud.

The creative process is looking at the elements of truth that you have available to you, from your labors to create good data, and then trying to see how they fit together into a story.

The transition that one has to make as a scientist is the ability to work with the elements, put in serious labor trying to fit them together, and then being willing to scrap the effort and start over. I think that if you don’t get in there and do the work writing, writing, writing and analyzing and considering what the data are telling you, you make less progress.

Because the alternative is paralyzing. The alternative is that you keep putting off the creative process until something tells you how to write “efficiently”. Maybe it is that you are waiting for just the right experimental result to clarify a murky situation. Maybe you are waiting for your PI or collaborator or fellow trainee to tell you what to do, what to write, how to structure the paper.

I suppose it may look like this to a relatively inexperienced writer of manuscripts? That its a bit daunting and that if only the PI would say the right words that somehow it would be magically easy to “efficiently” write up the paper in the right way that she expects?

When I hear generic muttering from trainees about frustration with insufficient feedback from a mentor I sometimes wonder if this is the problem. An over expectation of specific direction on what to write, how to write and what the story is.

The PI, of course, wants the trainee to take their own shot at telling the story. Whereupon they will promptly red pen the hell out of all that “work” and tell the trainee to rewrite most of it and take a totally different tack. Oh, and run these two more experiments. And then the trainee wonders “why didn’t my PI tell me what she wanted in the first place instead of wasting my time??? GAh, I have the worst possible mentor!

I realized within the past year or so that I have the same problem that I have criticized on the blog for years now. I tell new professors that they need to get away from the bench as quickly as possible and that this is not their job anymore. I tell them they have to find a way to get productivity out of their staff and that doing experiments is not their job anymore. I never had this problem as a transitioning scientist…I was fine getting away from the bench**.

But my equivalent is data analysis. And I’m not talking high falutin’ stuff that only I can do, either. I want to see the data! Study by study. As it rolls in, even. I want to examine it, roll it around in it. Create graphs and run some stats. Think about what it means and how it fits into my developing understanding of a research direction in our laboratory. I can’t wait to think about how this new figure might fit into one of our ongoing creative works…i.e., a manuscript.

I cannot give it up.

I create a lot of sketches, half plotted stories and cartoon panels. Elements. Themes. Drafts.

Many of these will never go into any published manuscript. If lucky some of these building blocks will make their way into a slide presentation or a into a grant as preliminary data. I never feel as though the effort is wasted, however. Making these bits and pieces is, to me, what allows me to get from here to there. From blank page to published manuscript.

Ideally, as I am supposedly training people to become independent scientists, I would like to train them to do this in the way that I do. And to get there, I have to get them across the hurdle of the creative artist. I have to get them to see that just rolling up your sleeves and doing the work is a necessary part of the process. You cannot be told a route, or receive a Revelation, that makes the process of creating a scientific manuscript efficient. You have to work on the elements. Make the sketches. Flesh out the plotlines.

And then be willing to scrap a bunch of “work” because it is not helping you create the final piece.

*I have a friend that is behind the camera on teevee shows. Big name teevee shows that you’ve heard of and watch. I see his work and I’m not really Seeing. His. Work. But this guy casually takes a few vacation pictures and I’m amazed at his eye, composition, etc. He doesn’t seem to even consider himself a still camera artist, acts like he considers himself barely a hobbyist at that! So clearly I’m missing something about moving picture photography.

**I’m not actually a bench scientist, the ~equivalent.

8 Responses to “Creative artists and the writing of scientific manuscripts”

  1. Microscientist Says:

    To agree with you, I would say that one of the key starting points for this is the weekly lab meeting presentation. It forces the person to take the experiments they have been so focused on for the last 4 weeks or however long, and build them into a story. I always found this really helpful because I started to notice where the holes in the story were, or made connections I hadn’t thought about before. And then of course you get the input from others.
    I also found those lab meeting PowerPoints to be a much better reference of what I had done later on than my lab notebook. Just this week, I dug up a set from 2009 to help teach a student how to do an experiment.


  2. xykademiqz Says:



  3. qaz Says:

    I was originally trained as a “creative artist” writer. The most important lesson that I learned as a professional creative writer was that you are only seeing about 10 percent of the actual writing output (if that!) of any writer. The key message I was told (and tell my students) is “never edit in your head”. Always edit on paper (or on a computer – yes, I’m old). I tell my students that they need to get to the point where writing is easy enough that they can write 10 pages, look at it, decide it’s not what they meant, put it aside, and rewrite it from scratch (using what they’ve learned in the original writing). Even writing that you do not keep was a worthwhile exercise. Nothing is ever “wasted”.

    Writing a scientific paper is much like writing a poem or a novel – it’s about being clear and concise in your communication of a difficult and complex idea. The techniques transfer over very well.

    Furthermore, you are absolutely correct about sketching. A lot of success in the creative arts is being in good enough shape that when they leave a pitch over the plate (when you are “struck by lightning”), you are ready for it. I find science is like this too. (“Luck favors the prepared mind” and all that.)

    I also like your point about data analysis. It’s about swimming in the data until you understand it. Then you start to see the shape of things. Notice how problematic this is with the new preregistration and “no exploratory analysis” push.


  4. drugmonkey Says:

    Do you feel that it is easy to transmit these understandings to your postdocs and students, qaz?


  5. David Says:

    I find the interim plots to be so invigorating. Does it show an an effect, no effect, does it show that you have a noise issue. It’s my favorite part of being a researcher.

    On the topic of appreciating moving picture photography, I’ve come across a few entertaining youtube channels that have opened my eyes to the crafts of editing, cinematography (such as blocking), and sound design. I mentioned it to a friend and I guess much of that is taught in an intro to film making class that everyone in my buddies forestry department took, but no one in the engineering department likely did.


  6. qaz Says:

    Yes, I actually do. In part, because of my cred as a writer, they tend to listen to me about it. But I also model this for them in my own work and they also see the success of the older students. And, I suppose, in part, because I am very intolerant of that kind of “I wasted all that time because you didn’t tell me what to do” complaining, but very supportive of the “I [student] looked at it in this new way and you [qaz] are wrong about how you’ve been thinking about the problem, so now we have to redo all our analysis differently”.


  7. Morgan Price Says:

    at the elements of truth that you have available to you, from your labors to create good data“ Often I find that the most interesting and simple claim that I am confident of is not quite what my first analysis tested and I need to redo the analysis…


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