I’m very excited about today’s blog post because it is the first of a series of interviews with researchers about their scientific writing. Dr Karrera Djoko is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Biosciences at Durham University in the UK. She has co-authored more than 20 peer-reviewed journal articles, published in PNAS, JACS, Metallomics, ACS Chemical Biology and others, and contributed to three book chapters. She currently supervises two PhD and one master students. We talked about her unique writing process, a tool she uses for her lab members to practice writing and the key component of well written papers and proposals.
Hi Karrera! So, you became a PI in September 2017. What is your research about?
My group studies metal homeostasis in bacteria. Nearly half of all proteins inside a living cell contain a metal ion. Therefore, cells must take up enough metal to grow and proliferate. However, too much metal is toxic for the cells, so they must have ways to remove it. We study how cells manage their metal requirements and what happens when this system is not optimal. Our focus is on infectious bacteria and our ultimate aim is to use this knowledge to understand how bacteria cause diseases.
As a group leader, you probably have to do a lot of writing. Is that something you enjoy or dislike?
Let’s say I don’t mind it – I neither love it nor hate it. It requires quite a lot of discipline for me and I wish I was better at it and more efficient. English isn’t my first language, so that can make it more time-consuming. But I do find that it helps me crystallise thoughts and ideas and see where a project is going or can go. I admit that I find it very satisfying when I see the finished product – be it a paper or a grant.
I totally agree! I think this is one of the reasons I chose writing and editing over research: You always have a tangible output. Do you do any other writing than for papers and grants, for example writing for a blog?
No. I once wrote a blog post for WeTalkScience.com and enjoyed the experience but writing for the public is orders of magnitudes more difficult than writing for an expert audience!
Yeah, it does require a slightly different skill set. So, how do you go about writing papers and grants? Do you have any system in place?
I keep a running Word document for each separate project. In this document, I write down experimental observations, results, plans, questions, and ideas as they arise. I usually set aside an hour(ish) on a Friday afternoon for this exercise. Or at least I try to! I start the document with bullet points. Over the course of the project, I flesh out these bullet points into text that can be used later as “Materials & Methods” or “Results & Discussion” in a paper. Once I feel that a project is well underway and/or once I can see (or imagine) how it might finish, I copy and paste relevant bits of text along with figures into a formatted manuscript document. This allows me to see a potential overall structure for a paper. When a project is near completion, I dedicate a few solid days for working on the first full draft.
I like that! I find Friday afternoons are perfect for reviewing what’s happened in the week and what ideas have come up – I do the same for my business and writing projects. When do you involve your co-authors and collaborators in the process?
I always get my husband, Dr Robert Borthwick, who has a PhD in Chemistry but not from within my subfield, to give the draft a first pass. He will check if the structure of the paper is clear, if the arguments are logical and easy to follow, and if the figures are understandable. Once he gives me the OK, I usually involve collaborators and/or get feedback from other co-authors.
When I feel that the project is complete and that the manuscript is ready for submission, I dedicate a couple more days for polishing the manuscript, obtain final feedback from co-authors, and finally submit!
I write grants the same way. I take bits and pieces from the master Word document, start with bullet points, spend a few solid days to generate the first full draft, get my husband to read it first, send it along to collaborators, and spend a couple more days to polish the proposal.
Sounds great! What does the process look like when a PhD student or Postdoc in your group is leading the project?
Then it looks a bit different. I encourage trainees to come up with the initial structure of the manuscript. Once we both agree on a structure, the trainee writes the full first draft. Hopefully, they already have the bulk of relevant text from their weekly reports and other documents, for example thesis committee meeting reports, literature reviews etc. The drafts typically go through a couple of rounds of feedback and revisions, in which I provide mostly comments on how to edit, rephrase and improve the text. I will usually go through and edit a mature draft once before sending it to co-authors. The trainee and I will discuss feedback and edits from co-authors together but the trainee will be responsible for incorporating them into the draft. I will then set aside a couple of solid days to finalise and polish the manuscript before submission.
Tell me more about these weekly reports that your trainees are writing!
I stole this idea from my previous mentor’s group. I’ve started to get my students to write these weekly reports, which consist of 1-2 paragraphs describing a paper they have just read, or an experiment they have just done or are planning to do. The paragraphs are in the style of the “Introduction”, “Results & Discussion”, and/or “Materials & Methods” sections in a paper. Figures also contain manuscript-style figure captions. I provide feedback on their writing style and hope that they improve gradually over time!
That sounds like they are getting plenty of writing exercise even before they are starting to draft a paper. What do you find is the most effective way when you write a manuscript together with a collaborating group?
For work where I (or my group) am the lead, I (or my group) will write the first draft with a placeholder for the collaborator’s parts. We will send the draft and ask our collaborators to write up their parts and comment on the rest of the manuscript. However, we will be responsible for collating everything and ensuring that the writing “voice” is consistent throughout the manuscript.
Yes, making sure the manuscript and writing style are coherent is a step some collaborating authors overlook. What writing software do you use?
Microsoft Word! It’s occasionally clunky but it’s the one I have used forever and it’s the one that most of my collaborators use.
Totally agree. Some things in Word could be a little more convenient but I always use it to edit my clients’ manuscripts because it’s so easy to see the changes I made. OK, let’s talk about your biggest struggle when it comes to writing!
The energy barrier to start writing is huge for me but it’s mitigated largely by sticking to a regular writing habit (or at least I try to!). The real struggle is knowing when to finish! I need to remember that “Perfect is the enemy of Submitted”.
I love that! I’m definitely going to use this from now on!
There’s another mantra I go by: “It is less scary when the page is not blank.” Starting with bullet points and having old text that I can recycle or copy/paste to a new document really help with this.
Do you have any scientific authors you aspire to?
My PhD mentors, Prof. Anthony Wedd and Dr Zhiguang Xiao, taught me everything I know about scientific writing and communication in general. They (and their papers) taught me how to write clearly, how to write simply, and, above all things, to always think about the readers, your audience. What’s obvious to me may not be to others. This is partly why I get my husband to read first drafts! So, I aspire to write the way they do and to write the way they taught me to.
I couldn’t agree more about always having your reader in mind when you write a paper or proposal. This might be the most important thing of all and requires you to write both simply and clearly. Thank you so much for talking to me, Karrera!
What do you think of this new blog post format? Are you curious to hear from more researchers about their scientific writing processes and experiences? I’d love to hear your feedback. Please post a comment below!
ABOUT THE Interviewer:
I’m Dr Anna Clemens, a scientific editor and writing coach for scientists. I give workshops about scientific writing, offer strategy calls and edit papers and proposals. I’d love to work with you, please click here for more information.
I also regularly blog about scientific writing and write articles about science for magazines and websites. I hold a PhD in Chemistry/Materials Science.
When I’m not at my desk, I’m probably out and about with my dog and assistant Zuza.