Writing Papers with Graduate Students Who Don’t Want to Write Papers, Take Seven Gajillion

Over the past few weeks I have been working on papers with several students in parallel, and I am again pulling my hair out and wondering if there is a  way to get the writing done and the students trained without me going bald.

Reporting science in written form is an inherent part of doing science. If you don’t publish your work, it’s as good as nonexistent. But, even more generally, scientists and engineers with advanced degrees will likely have to write technical texts one way or another, regardless of where they work, so it is important to train graduate students to write.

To me, writing has always been the easy, enjoyable part of every project. Sure, literature survey for the introduction is a bit of a pain the butt, but starting to write a paper means that the technical hurdles have (mostly) been overcome, that we have done the hard stuff and now it’s time for the frosting on the cake. Getting to write the paper has always been the reward part for me. Also, writing helps me distill my thoughts: the process of trying to explain what was done and how the reasoning went in a coherent, fluid form, often helps me understand the problem even better than before.

In contrast, I find that most of my students dislike writing. While for international students it may be the insecurity about their command of English, I find that even native speakers and non-natives with excellent command of English would largely still rather not write than write. Even students who may be very good and engaging presenters are often surprisingly lackluster writers or just horrible procrastinators when the time comes to start putting words on paper. “That’s because they are novice writers,” you say, “surely they will learn with practice, and writing will become easier;” that’s true, but only to a degree. Many simply really, really don’t want to write, don’t want to learn how to write, and would rather I left them to do their reading, derivations, and coding. They love being immersed in the technical nitty-gritty of their projects.

Writing is to science what eating fiber is to diet: necessary to keep things moving.

When you were little your mother probably bugged you about getting fiber through fruits, vegetables, and grains. Once you are all grown up, you probably understand the importance and include it in your diet, even if you don’t really like eating it. With my PhD students, I definitely stress very strongly the importance of technical writing. I used to iterate ad nauseam with each student until each paper was perfect; that took forever and the process often didn’t converge, so I had to take over. Right now, after the framework of the paper is agreed upon, I have a policy of 3 back-and-forths with edits before I take over and do the final rewrites; I ask the student if he or she wants to iterate more, as occasionally I do have a student who does want to keep going a little more to perfect their craft. However, most students are very happy when I take over; some procrastinate endlessly with their edits, some will tell me that they hate writing and don’t want to do it, or that it’s just really hard and they would rather I did it.

You know, it’s my duty to emphasize the importance of technical writing to students and to offer them the opportunity to learn. But do I actually have to shove the writing down their throats? I mean, if they are resisting learning, is it really my duty to force them to learn to write? We are dealing with young adults, but adults nonetheless.

I am wondering if I should reduce the mininum technical writing requirements to “full drafts for those who want to learn how to write, figure and figure captions for those who decide they don’t care to learn how to write,” or some similar scenario. Basically, when I see someone is fighting me and just does not want to write, perhaps it is OK for me to say “Fine. You supply the figures I tell you to make, I will write the paper. But don’t tell me that I didn’t tell you it’s important to learn how to write, and if you ever want to have another crack at it, let me know. In the meantime, you are relieved of this ominous duty.”

What say you, blogosphere? Is it OK to relieve the suffering of both myself and the students who really really don’t want to write?  Sure, that will leave them scientifically constipated, but I’m tired of having to chase them in order to force-feed them professional whole grains. I am not sure it’s in my job description or in anyone’s best interest.

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22 comments

  1. If I may proffer a suggestion, maybe you need to break it down for them. Writing is intimidating for a lot of people, even if they enjoy it or are good at it. Maybe if you say, “Why don’t you write up a methods section for that paper?” and keep asking them for small bits, then it’ll be less daunting. I suspect you’ll have more luck, too.

  2. I have wanted to do that with some of my students. I think most of them know they need to learn, it just seems very hard to them. If I get writing from someone that is just beyond fixable, they come into my office and we sit down and write together. We decide on a topic sentence, we decide how to craft content and we think about how to carefully write our interpretation of our data. Paragraph by paragraph. It is painful for me (and likely for them too) but for the reluctant writer, I find that method gets the paper done faster. Hopefully they learn something from it.

  3. As a lowly postdoc who still struggles with writing (slowly getting better), I would argue for a little further force feeding… I agree that we’re all adults and it’s our own responsibility to want to learn. But sometimes the problem is not a lack of interest, but more like a passive avoidance. It is intimidating. For me, the difficulty is in the starting of the writing process, not so much the actual writing. Once I get going, it’s productive. So it usually only happens when I have an important deadline or when I have absolutely no other choice. This is why I would argue for a little force feeding. But you’re right, at the end of the day, these are our careers and if we want to progress (in academia or not), we have to be interested in learning those skills, and not waste our mentors’ time. I would suggest using the three strikes rule with strict deadlines, but make it cost something (first authorship? I don’t know…). Maybe that would be enough of a push to make them at least give it a couple of good tries.

  4. Don’t back off! Even it feels like shoving it down their throats, keep doing it. Writing is important, and it shouldn’t be made optional based on likes. Your analogy is perfect: A good parent wouldn’t allow a kid to evade sufficient fibre; a good advisor won’t allow a student to evade the writing task. What a good advisor may do when frustrated is rant about it, and we’ll listen to the rant :-)

  5. Are you going to write their dissertations for them? Because if their dissertation is essentially their 1st author papers, and you write those, then you are, basically, doing just that. And that is most definitely against the rules! Though some advisors do take the easy way out and do just what you’re thinking of. But I always thought you were better than that!

  6. @Eli: Some are, some aren’t. I am actually quite understanding with non-native speakers who are on their first papers. The best and fastest student writer I have had thus far was from India (I think that makes him a native speaker); it’s not just the command of English, but the attitude towards writing, ownership of work, ability to articulate the main points, and drive to do it in time; he was very good from the get-go, and with practice became superb. I currently have a non-native speaker whose English is excellent and he’s doing very well in the writing department. In contrast, the writing one of my American students was lackluster and he was procrastinating with drafts way more than I expected.
    In my experience, whether or not English is the mother tongue does not seem to correlate very strongly with the attitude towards scientific writing.

  7. It should be noted that extreme procrastination and waiting until the last minute aren’t by themselves indications of unwillingness to write– I’ve always been a reasonably good writer, and spend a lot of time writing things online, but even I find it hard to start certain kinds of projects until the looming deadline begins to block out the sun. But you know your students well enough, I’m sure, to distinguish between “Deadlines focus the mind” and active antipathy to writing.

    I agree with the first comment from mareserinitatis, that breaking things into smaller pieces might help. The ordering of the pieces is also important– I find writing introductory sections excruciating, and a lot of students do as well, so it’s often easier to get started by typing “Introductory bullshit goes here.” then hitting return a few times and starting from the technical discussion of the procedure and so on. Lots of students will get hung up on the idea that they need to begin at the beginning and work straight through to the end, and then just can’t get started.

    (This method does often require some re-writing down the line, to integrate all the references and stuff that belong in the introductory sections. But it gets past the “staring at a blank screen” stage of the process, and that’s the important thing.)

    Another option is to start with an outline, but that’s kind of a lost art, maybe even more so than writing.

  8. Because writing comes easily to you, I think you underestimate how painful and challenging writing can be for those who are not gifted in that area. Yes, students need to learn to write and need to get their results out, but it isn’t always just a case of applying more will: stating that students just don’t want to write is simplistic.

    I don’t know what to say about who does the writing. Grad students are being trained and absolutely should be writing their own papers, but you need to show progress on grants to be successful so…

    I think you do have to shove it down their throats. If they can’t write up their own results, they are not doing the work required to get a degree. First authorship on a paper also implies ownership of getting the results out, so I think you should definitely resist the urge to take over too soon. It may be frustrating, but it’s part of the apprenticeship process. They are students, not just employees.

  9. I was an international graduate student (very young for my peers) but I learnt how to write. So being an international student is not an excuse if you want to learn.

    For those who dont want to write. I can see your point since you have to report science and have funding etc. etc. but you cannot write your students papers. I wrote one paper for a student who didnt wanted to write but he was a middle author in the paper then.

    Writing is part of doing science and PhD is getting trained at doing science. If we do the writing part we may as well do the coding part for the students and let them procrastinate and then give them a PhD after 5 years. Part of the problem might be that these students think that you are going to take over the writing part anyway, so why bother and put an extra effort.

    Tell them if they dont do the writing part, then they dont publish papers and if they dont publish papers they wont get their PhD. I have seen this work. I dont know if it will work for you.

  10. missmse, I think you need to come work in my group!

    I spend a lot of time talking to my students as a group and working with them individually on the writing. In the group meetings, I periodically go over how papers are structured (letter versus comprehensive paper), we go over sample abstracts, introductions, and conclusions to see what works and what doesn’t.

    I also tell them periodically about some good practices to get over the barrier to writing.
    — For instance, staring at a blank page is universally scary, that’s why you don’t do it! Instead, open another person’s text file (in our case it’s a .tex file) or one of your old ones and start writing in the middle of it. It really helps!
    — Also, I told them that you just start typing, it doesn’t matter what it is, and sooner than you know you will actually write what you are supposed to write. For instance, you can start by typing “Today is Friday, it is a stupid day because my stupid advisor is on my case to get her the stupid draft on these stupid data that I got last week. The data show that the fart-rate of leprechauns who eat black beans increases cubically with the bean consumption rate, whereas the rate of those leprechauns who eat kidney beans increases exponentially, in contrast with existing theories…” And voila! You are writing.
    — A third trick is to separate writing from editing. When you hit your groove, just go. Editing of existing text is for periods when you are warming up to write or when you hit a lull or when you are nearly done and cleaning up.

    With each student, I have one or more meetings where we sketch the skeleton of the paper. When I say sketch, I mean literally, on the board in my office. We sketch the figures, the main bullets in the story, and we both take pics of the board for further reference. Alternatively, I type up the main things we agree on and send an email to the student. We meet about the story as many times as needed.

    I only sort of agree that writing the methods section should come first. If this part is boring or essentially removed from the actual paper narrative, then I would put it in the appendix (or the designated methods section). That still doesn’t help with the narrative.

    The way I write is I first sketch the abstract; it’s a crappy abstract, and it will be changed many times before it becomes final, but it means I put on paper, in short form, what I feel at that time the paper gist is about. Then I sketch very loosely and crappily a really short, bullet-like introduction, then go into the technical narrative (theory, simulation framework, results with figures and captions, etc.). This process is not linear and I go back and forth many times to touch up the abstract and flesh out the intro as I develop the technical narrative and tweak the figures. I don’t micromanage how the students partition their writing time, but we definitely iterate on the figures and the narrative. The finished product has to flow well, beginning to end, and the main story vein needs to pulse visibly through the whole paper.

    I offer plenty of help (I really think I am getting on the students’ nerves with my constant preaching and insistence on writing every chance I get) and I can offer more help to those who want it and who want to learn how to write. Technical writing comes easier to some than others, but the problem are not the people who are struggling but have the right attitude. What bugs me the most is apathy or, as Chad said above, downright antipathy towards writing.

  11. I recently showed a coauthor how to do an outline. Because our a much-rewritten paper section needed a new one. He was surprised at how useful the exercise was and is thinking of suggesting that the students in his writing-intensive class write outlines now. *faceplant*

  12. When you are able (i.e,, there are no looming submission deadlines), keep pushing. Writing is part of your job as a graduate student, even if you don’t like it, and/or it’s difficult. I find writing far easier than working through the mathematical processes in my area of study, but if I copped out of the latter, I’d be fired.

  13. Obviously if they weren’t terrified of the rules and labor required to draft lengthy complex stories or documents they wouldn’t have chosen fields that were, at the age they chose them ( high school and early college) the deliberate alternative to academic writing requirements.

    Personally I was flunking out of my junior year until the only person-professor or grad student, who ever gave a moment’s time or concern for me said “You do know you can draw pictures and diagrams on your exams instead of trying to describe everything”.

    I went from 3 Fs to 2 As and a B in a week. (And I realized that the fact no one ever bothered to look at why I was flunkng every strat section test left me faithless in academia unable to ever enjoy my lifelong passion for earth sciences. My last semester an English 101 grad student ( I had flunked or dropped English 101/2 repeatedly). Told me I was such a bad writer I must obviously be dislexic.

    Got a c from him, graduated Dean’s list, cum laude.

    Now I am a terrible writer and I love doing it.

    Undergrad Academia is a sadistic right of passage abuse mill, of disrespect and farcical requirement enact to write papers that every knows are never going to be published or respected or even in most case read by professors. Your students hate writing because they’ve never been offered respect for trying it and failing. Just let ‘em use drawings.

  14. They have to learn to write (and make good figures!). They will be significantly hampered in their career if they can’t convey scientific messages. The days of researchers sitting in the back of a lab crunching numbers and not talking are long over. I know it sucks but you will be far more proud of them and they will be much happier (even though they don’t say it) that you taught them to write, make figs, and gives talks like the pro that you are! :)

  15. I try to overcome this early on in the process with students. Basically, I have students continuously write summaries every month on their research. The point of this is to get them used to writing.

    Now, it is still like pulling teeth some times but this helps with some of the initial “scare” of writing a paper. Thanks for the “food for thought” on a post for me.

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