I recently chatted to Dr Laura Rossi, Assistant professor in the area of colloidal engineering and materials design at TU Delft. Laura shares both her struggles and the techniques she has learned to get her scientific writing done productively — for example by protecting her writing time and hiring a coach. We also talk about the importance of getting feedback from peers and the particular challenges when writing papers.
Hi Laura, do you want to start telling me a bit about your research?
I work in soft matter, specifically on the synthesis of magnetic colloidal particles. These are little particles, usually of the size of a few nanometres to micrometres. They undergo phase transitions, crystallisation and melting as we find in atomic and molecular systems. We’ve published work on synthesising cubic particles, and now I have the means to make them in many other shapes. We are working on combining shape and dipole moment, so using magnetic properties to direct the assembly of predefined structures.
Basically, the ultimate goal, the dream is to imagine one structure because it has a specific mechanical or optical property and then go to the lab and make particles that will automatically form those kinds of structures. But we're still trying to understand how we can even reach that goal.
It’s a fascinating topic! When did you start as a PI, set up your own research group?
Last August (2018), so not too long ago.
How does it feel?
I love it. I think I was meant to do this job. I read on a lot of platforms and a lot of people are complaining about, ‘oh I have to do so much teaching’ or ‘oh I have to keep writing grant proposals’. But that's part of the job, right? Of course, you have things that you like more than others but if you hate teaching, if you hate writing grants, if you hate writing papers, this is going to be a very tough job.
I completely agree. So, I gather you don’t hate writing?
No. I just wish I had more time to dedicate to writing. Therefore, I now work with a job coach who’s giving me some tricks on how to carve out the time to write.
Oh, that's amazing!
That's my main problem in terms of writing. Of course, I'm writing lots of proposals because I just started. And I think it’s a good thing because it makes me really think about the research and what I want to do in the future. Especially for grants of millions of Euros, you have to think about the big picture, and how the research fits into that. So, I know it might be a cliché and I'm definitely going to be disappointed if I don't get a grant I applied for, but it's not per se a useless thing to have written the proposal even if you didn’t get the grant.
So true! When you write a grant, it forces you to think through your research question and idea. Would you say your biggest struggle with writing is to find the time to write?
Yes, that’s my major problem. I also have a little baby at home. So, I can't dedicate time in the evenings or in the weekends anymore, as I did when I was a postdoc. It's much harder now. If I really have to, I can get a babysitter but I'm trying not to unless absolutely necessary, which means that everything I do has to be done within the working hours. Sometimes if you think ‘okay this morning, I'm just going to write’, and then you get interrupted by people asking questions or checking in on you. It's totally fine, maybe in five minutes they're out but by the time you get back to what you were doing, you think ’oh what was I writing again?’. That’s such a waste of time. So, now I've started to put a note outside my door when I’m writing that says, ‘please don't interrupt’.
That's a good idea. One really needs to protect one’s writing time and space, I think.
I don't do that every day because I also have other meetings and things to do. And I can come here early in the morning when no one is around, so I usually have from 7:30 to 9 AM to write and then if I need some extra time, I might put a note up between 9 and 10:30 AM.
Yeah. I know some academics decide to not be in their office to write at all. They can focus better at a café or in their home. How often in a week do you sit down to write? I guess it changes a little bit?
On average, I try to write for two full mornings. And morning for me is the most part of the day because I arrive here at 7:30 AM. So, on those days I write from 7:30 to 12 AM. In the afternoon, I do tasks that are more flexible, like making a figure, which I can pick up more easily when I get interrupted.
I see. Do you write two full mornings a week all year round?
Since I started, basically yes, unless I have teaching. During term, 10 weeks at a time, I have full-time teaching, so in these periods I cannot write. I'm sure that when I have taught the same courses for say, five years, I'll have some more time for writing even in these periods.
In contrast, in the summer when I don't have meetings scheduled, like staff and department meetings or tenure-track interviews, then I can write more or I can dedicate more time solely to writing but on average, it’s these two big mornings.
Are you happy with your writing routine as it is now?
I still do struggle with not feeling guilty when I spend time on things that are necessary for writing papers and proposals but that don’t feel like actual work. My job coach is helping me a lot with this. For instance, it drives me crazy when you set out to write a paper, and you open your text file and then you cannot even start writing the paper because you still have to work on the figures. Then, if they’re big figures, where one figure is actually composed of ten images, I might work on them for two weeks. Somehow this doesn't feel like working, because I was planning on writing the paper. I know it’s stupid because you need the figures to submit the article.
Yeah, the figures are a big, big part of a paper. And they are often very time-consuming.
Yes, they are very important. So, what I'm doing now is breaking down the writing into tasks, very little tasks. It's like I visualise all the little tasks.
That's amazing you do that. Breaking down projects into small tasks is something I always recommend doing as well. And I really get a kick out of being able to quickly check off things from my to-do list. It creates momentum. And it doesn't feel like you’re working on a scary, big project that never ends.
Yeah. I just started doing that so let's see how it works for me. I’ve found so far that it really takes the pressure off.
I agree. I think when we say we are writing a paper, we need to realize that writing is not just the actual writing. There are so many steps involved into creating a paper or proposal: planning, making figures, editing… And we often call all this writing.
Yeah, and it's very frustrating when you have to read five papers only to put one citation in your sentence. Somehow, I don’t have this feeling when writing grant proposals and I can't figure out why. I thought a lot about it, especially now that I work with a job coach who makes me think about a lot of things.
Nice you’re working with a job coach. Can you tell us more about the work with them?
She's based in England, so I only meet online with her and the coaching is paid by the university, some money was allocated in my start-up package to do job coaching or training. She was recommended by a colleague so I knew I was making the right choice. I thought that I'd rather use this option at the beginning rather than maybe spend two years struggling. It would have perhaps been also a good option to start the coaching later when I have a bigger group but on the other hand, it's now that I'm struggling. When I started, I was sleep deprived because my baby was just five months old. So I wasn't sleeping at night. I felt like now was the right time and I can always learn many techniques that I can apply afterwards as well.
It sounds like a great strategy. Learning these routines and procedures ought to pay off in the long run.
Yeah, I hope so. Another thing that I experience especially for grant proposals is that… I want to say, I'm a perfectionist. But I don't think I am a perfectionist. I rather have a problem sending out a draft when the paper is not ready yet, even if I’m looking for feedback on the content, and not the writing. The content could have probably been understood even without all the references in place and or any fancy sentences – just by having a roughly written draft. So, I could probably spend less time perfecting all the text before I give my proposal to someone else to read it. Because after I received their feedback, I probably have to rewrite it anyway.
I guess I'm afraid that people think I'm stupid. We all know how bias works and how the brain works. If you're reading something that is badly written your brain doesn't perceive it as high-quality content. So, I’m thinking ‘at least they can't say it's badly written’.
I totally understand that feeling. What I do with my coaching clients is to create a document with certain key points important for telling the story of the paper or proposal. They then take the document to their collaborators, supervisors or other people who are involved and discuss it before they start writing the paper or proposal. That can save so much time editing and rewriting!
Yeah, I do that to a certain extent. With collaborators, I always agree on the story beforehand. However, that was not possible when I was a PhD student.
Sure. It's different when you don’t have the power to decide these things. Speaking of PhD students, how do you teach your trainees scientific writing?
Well, I haven't done it yet, but I can tell you what I plan to do. The idea is to have discussions on the projects weekly and to write a weekly summary. That’s what I’m currently doing with my postdoc. What I usually do when writing a paper – although some people disagree – is to write an abstract first. Then I continue doing the figures, including any supporting figures, before we get started on the text.
What I plan to do is to ask colleagues who are not involved in the paper or in the work to read the paper and to give feedback. Even to sit down and discuss the feedback. Something I certainly want to do within the group when we have more than two people is to read each other's papers. One day I would also like to discuss our papers in the group meeting and give feedback, like ‘okay, the abstract is not very clear’ or ‘the figure could be structured better’.
Amazing, that sounds like you are really prioritising the learning-how-to-write aspect!
I also think if you learn how to read papers properly then you can also write them properly. If you understand what the major points are that are important for you to understand other people's work, then you understand more easily what the most important points are for other people to understand your work. Sometimes it can help to present a paper to others to realise what's important and what isn’t.
I think for many students it’s extra difficult because not only do they not have the experience but they're also not native English speakers. And I can relate to that. In the beginning, I had to think not only about the content but also the language. It’s double the work.
Basically, what I'm trying to do as much as possible is to take everything that I liked from my previous advisors and implement it, and don’t do or do differently what I didn’t like. If everything works well, then I will be amazing because I have plenty of positive and negative experiences. But we'll see how it goes.
What would you say is the best advice you ever got about writing good papers and grant proposals?
I think the most important thing is getting feedback. Especially for proposals, because for papers you usually have more authors anyway. But for grant proposals, if you don't get feedback, you're doomed.
I think that’s a great take-away for all readers! Thank you so much, Laura, for talking to me and being so open about your scientific writing journey.
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 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 hiking with my dog and assistant Zuza or enjoying an oat flat white in one of Prague’s many cosy cafés.