Saturday, September 06, 2014

Creative versus Scientific Writing

I listen regularly to a podcast called "Writing Excuses," about all sorts of aspects of being a professional author of fiction. It has the wonderful tagline, "15 minutes long, because you're in a hurry and we're not that smart."  Of course, the folks on it are pretty smart, but the 15 minute format does well for them I think, because it forces them to focus tightly on the key ideas that they want to communicate and think about, rather than allowing the meandering self-indulgence that I have encountered on many a longer podcast. I listen because one of my favorite authors is one of the podcasters, because I enjoy listening to the banter and their description of an alternate world they live in right beside my own, because it's precisely the length of one bicycle ride to work, and because I find it to be surprisingly relevant to my own professional life and identity.

As a scientist, one of the things I do is that I need to be constantly able to write.  Last year, for example, Google Scholar says that I generated 19 scientific publications, by its somewhat loose standards.  Besides these, of course, there's a number of white papers and proposals and reports and talks and all the rest of the miscellany that comes as part of professional communication.  Those documents span a surprising number of years as well, with the oldest amongst them having been drafted in 2008 and the youngest only a few weeks before its publication.

Together, those 19 publications comprise a total of 214 pages, of which 102 pages and 14 publications are ordinary scientific papers. The remaining five are standards documents or patents, which get rather inflated because they play by entirely different rules of what counts as a good document: a scientific publication must communicate, while a standards document is intended to constrain the bounds of a complex technical activity and a patent aims to noisomely mark the largest possible territory with legal spoor.  Estimating based on the typical density of 500-900 words per page in scientific papers, that's around 66,000 words of ordinary scientific papers (not standards or patents).  The papers average 3.6 authors each, or 3.1 if I exclude those authors who did no writing.  Interestingly, many of the higher-author papers are also shorter, so if I allocate pages by authors on a per-paper basis, I find that about 29,000 words of scientific publication are attributable to me in 2013.

Interestingly, that's actually much smaller than I would have thought, about 1/3 of a typical paperback novel.  When I compare it with writing that I've done in non-scientific contexts, it is actually surprisingly similar.  For example, the last major live-action roleplaying game that I ran---a 10 day long affair called "Harry Potter Year 7: Hogwarts Under Siege"---was about 490,000 words, according to a quick check of the LaTeX source in its repository.  That was written by six authors over the course of two years, meaning about 41,000 words per year are attributable to me.

Apparently, if I were a novelist, I would produce about one paperback every two years.  But I wonder if that's really a fair comparison or not.  It's tempting to say "No, because science..." but then I look at the roleplaying game number, which I had honestly thought would be much higher.  Even that roleplaying game is very dense with research and cross-links, but then, so are many novels.  I think about the authors on that podcast, who also do a lot of careful background research---one is known for his intricate magic systems, another writes fantastically precise period pieces, another does a lot of math in the course of producing good, consistent hard SF.

So honestly, I think that I should view myself as simply a rather pokey writer, by professional writer standards.  My favorite authors are probably all writing about four times as fast as me, if that comparison is something that is actually meaningful.

The real question is: should I care about it?  I'm not sure.  I do think that my writing is less efficient that I would like it to be, and looking at the numbers, I think that there is reason to expect that I should actually care to improve it, if only so that I can spend less time in my "frustrated" stages of writing.  In that sense, I spend a lot of time on certain sentences in a document, while other whole sections go much faster, and much of that time is spent in a certain type of paralysis, going back and forth between two or three ways of presenting the same idea, writing and erasing and rewriting and chopping it up and back and forth and so on.  I'm sure that there are cases where that level of precision can actually matter, but certainly not at the first draft stage.

The writers on the podcast that I listen to will often say, "Writing is what defines a writer. If you write, then you are a writer."  Just write.  Put it down, correct it later.  Some exercises for myself, I think... dear readers, I will let you know how it goes.

And, hmm. This was not the direction that I expected to go when I had started to write this morning.  I suppose that this is one of the charms of scientific writing, even in a casual and informal venue such as this.  No pre-publication peer review to put out these ~900 words, however, just the post-publication review of comments and who out there finds it actually interesting enough to spend their precious time to read.  And now, in honor of my drifting topics:
Harriet, already prepared for receiving scientific reviews.
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