What I wish people understood
about writing and editing

Published March 01 2019

Writing is hard.

No. Wait. Think about it. Is that true?

Writing well is hard.

Make a statement. Investigate it. Poke and prod it. Render it perhaps less graceful but more honest. That’s writing and editing. (See what I did there?)

Most of us can put some words on paper or a screen with a minimum of difficulty. If pressed, many of us even can make sentences and paragraphs. But writing in a way that makes your reader think and feel? That’s more of a challenge.

I believe we all are up to the challenge.

Each year, ASBMB Today suggests an essay topic or two. These topics are prompts. Our goal is to tickle your mind and get you writing. We want you to share something about your life as a person living and working in the life sciences. We want to read your stories.

I’m sure you can think of a story. If I gave you the topic for this essay, “What I wish people understood about ___,” you could fill in that blank with something. If I prodded a bit, you could tell me a story or two about that thing you put in the blank, the thing you wish people understood. For me, that thing is writing. I’ve worked with lots of people who write for a living (or want to), and I know a boatload of reasons why it’s both easy and hard.

I had a roommate in college who could write a paper only if she tape-recorded what she wanted to say and then transcribed it — or dictated. She could think and talk lucidly, but she had been raised to be a beauty queen, and she didn’t believe she could write. The prospect terrified her. Sometimes I wrote for her; I just put her words down and added some punctuation.

I worked with a reporter who wrote confidently. She used such big words and wrote such clever first paragraphs that some people never noticed she didn’t bother to talk to people or tell a story. I do not consider that good writing.

As for me, I have this lurching process that involves coming up with themes and phrases in the shower or when I’m driving, then forgetting them before I can jot them down. Then I sit down in front of the computer at the last possible minute and type out what I’m sure will be the perfect first sentence, but it usually gets deleted before I’m done.

I never took a writing class or a grammar class or an editing class. Everything I know about writing I learned on the street. Or, more precisely, in books and magazines. I’ve always read a lot, and I’ve had the good fortune to be steered toward good writers. This is especially important in childhood. If you have young and impressionable children, steer them toward Maurice Sendak’s “Where the wild things are” and away from the Berenstain Bears. A difficult task, but worth it. Once you get a good writer’s rhythms in your head, it’s easy to dance to them.

When my sisters and I were in elementary school (and well beyond), we had to write thank-you notes. I think this is a fine habit, but my mother gave us fancy writing paper and told us we should not make any mistakes. We should write scratch copies to get everything perfect and then painstakingly rewrite the whole thing in ink on the fancy paper. Needless to say, this level of effort inspired a lot of resentment and some pretty stilted writing. Perhaps as a result, I’ve always had a hard time letting my thoughts flow onto paper.

But, that said, once you get the words down, it can be so satisfying — and I urge you to give it a try. Try writing an essay for ASBMB Today.

Here’s a game plan:

First, think about what you want to say. You might want to use one of our suggested topics to get the juices flowing. Mull it over a bit, but not for too long. Maybe a day. Then sit down at your desk. Jim Lehrer (a PBS journalist who also writes novels) once told an interviewer, “The secret of writing is to keep your butt in the chair.”

Set a timer. (I suggest 20 minutes if you’re new to this.) Don’t try to think of a perfect first sentence. Just start telling your story. Don’t try to get the order right. Don’t check your spelling. Just keep going. When your time is up, stop, save what you’ve written, and walk away. Clear your head. Come back in about a half-hour and read it.

Ask yourself a few questions: Is this the story I want to tell? Does this sound like me? Does it make sense? What else does this make me think of?

Then get back into the chair for another round. This time, do some adding, fiddling and rearranging.

Don’t aim for perfection. Aim for truth. And when you can’t stand looking at it anymore, send it to me. I’ve been an editor for a few years now, and I have a pretty good idea of what to look for when I read an essay. I’ll be your second set of eyes. If I can’t tell what you’re trying to say, we’ll work on it. If I can tell what you’re trying to say, I might be able to help you say it better.

The New York Times columnist Russell Baker once said that writing is work, “but it’s the kind of work you enjoy having done.”

I encourage you to give it a try. I’m right here to help you do it well.

P.S. Full disclosure — My boss, Angela Hopp, edited this essay. Everyone needs an editor.

Some rules

Most of you reading this have written scientific papers. I have never written such a paper, but I’ve tried to read a few, and I think the kind of rules that govern those papers can also guide you in writing a news article or a personal essay for ASBMB Today.

Here are a few:

Only write what you know is true. Don’t make things up unless you are writing fiction. (ASBMB Today does not publish fiction, but other magazines do.) That said, you can arrange and prioritize your facts to make them interesting. You need to know what’s important to get your point across. Leave the rest on the cutting-room floor.
Be specific. You don’t need to include every detail, but details bring writing to life. Think about a photograph; not every inch will be in focus, but the important stuff needs to be clear and precise.
Defer to others (at least sometimes). If you are writing about an event, this means talking to other people involved and putting their perspectives into your story. Even if you’re writing an essay, it might mean going to the well of poets and philosophers, just in case they’ve said beautifully the thing you struggle to convey.
Think about structure. You don’t need abstracts and methods, but you do need some kind of a plan. It doesn’t have to be intricate, but at least let the reader know what you’re going to tell them at the beginning and then provide a conclusion at the end. It’s easiest to do this after you’ve done some initial free writing.
Use only words you know. A thesaurus can be a dangerous tool. If it’s not a word you’ve ever said in conversation, please don’t put it in your writing. Your writing should sound like you.
Show your mistakes. You wouldn’t manipulate your results, would you? Writing an essay is not about making yourself look good. It’s not a cover letter. The best stories are about internal struggles. People will trust your writing if they see your humanity.
Comfort Dorn Comfort Dorn is the managing editor of ASBMB Today. Follow her on Twitter.