Hard is Good: Resistance and Science Writing

Communicating is easy.

Communicating well is hard.

Think about a little kid, learning to speak, looking around as she tries to come up with the right word to describe the situation. We’re no different when we sit down to talk about our science.

It’s a frustrating process, trying to come up with the perfect handful of words that will get our point across in a way that also makes people care.

We focus so much on picking the right words and explaining our data (ALL of our data, because we collected it and we’re going to show it) that we get emotionally involved with our work. We get emotionally attached to a table or a plot or a paragraph like it’s a pet.

At the same time, we get frustrated.

We get frustrated with ourselves for not being able to quite get it right. We get really frustrated with our PI or boss for…well, kinda everything, but especially for knowing that, when they finally get around to reviewing whatever it is we’re working on, they’re going to rip it to shreds.

We get frustrated with the post-doc in the next bay who, to our eyes anyway, makes putting manuscripts and posters together look easy.

We get flat out angry with our competitor lab, who just published on the same topic and if they hadn’t, how much easier would it have been to present our work the way we want instead of having to spin it around their kinda-almost-scoop.

As a result of this frustration, we let ourselves get distracted. We go get another cup of coffee, or wander over to another bench to talk, or set up an experiement we’ve been wanting to try but that shouldn’t really be a priority right now. We delay the work that needs to be done.

This is what Steven Pressfield calls “The Resistance.” In his brilliant book The War of Art, he describes it as an “internal self-sabotage that we all face” and explains why people start projects that they soon drop, or sign up for the gym but quit going after a month.

Scientists battle Resistance constantly. What’s great is that scientists are also some of the best people at overcoming Resistance.

Why? Because when you walk into the lab and commit to becoming a scientist, you become a professional. Back to The War of Art:

The artist committing himself to his calling [one who is becoming a professional] has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.

Sound familiar? (And before you point out that he’s talking about artists, I’d argue that scientists absolutely are artists and even if they’re not, Pressfield’s words idea still applies.)

That’s good news. We’re already being trained to deal with all of the insanity. So when it comes to writing up our work, it’s just a matter of sitting down and doing it. Saying no to all the other stuff until the job is done. We, as scientists, are well equipped to do that because we already know we’re going to have to fight Resistance, that diet of junk described in the quote above.

Pressfield again:

There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.
The most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.

While I was writing the blog post, I hit Resistance. I let my mind wander to the huge bush outside the house that needs to come down and, within seconds I was on the Home Depot website looking for compostable bags to haul the peices to the composting center in. And then I went to Home Depot to buy those bags. Because sitting down — and staying sat down, in my case — to write is hard.

I’m encouraged, though, by more from the book:

The more Resistance you experience, the more important your unmanifested art/ project/ enterprise is to you — and the more gratification you will feel when you finally do it.
Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us […] That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.

Again, sound familiar?

Struggling to sit down to write that manuscript or conference presentation or, especially, your dissertation? Of course you are. Because that dissertation is one of the most important documents you will ever produce. So it’s going to be damn hard.

So that’s my mini-manifesto. My encouragment to you (and by you I mean me) to sit down and do whatever it is that’s really important right now to drive your scientific career forward. There’s no big lesson about productivity hacks to write better, faster. We’ll have a lot more about writing and communication technique in future posts.

For now, though, acknowledging the problem and its source is a good place to start. By pointing out the presence of Resistance, we can begin to take steps to push through it. Only then will all of the tips and tricks be worth learning.

Oh, and that post-doc who you’re so convinced finds writing easy? She’s staring down the Resistance every day, too.

Originally published at www.filamentcommunications.com on June 29, 2015.