The privilege of writing

Apologies to my few regular readers for my sparse posts in the last few months. In addition to concentrating on actual PhD work, I’ve been doing a bit of other writing. I’ve started dabbling in science communication, mostly because it’s cool and a good thing to do and partly because I need the practice. As far as I’m concerned, any writing I do is useful training for the thesis-writing marathon I need to complete. Coming up with interesting ideas for this blog (though my success here is arguable) and phrasing things coherently (again, an arguable statement) helps get me in the habit of phrasing thoughts into sentences and writing. It’s also kind of fun and vaguely cathartic to chronicle my first forays into academia like this.

The style I use here is pretty casual and writing blog posts is substantially easier than writing scientific papers. The writing style needed for science communication is very different from both of these. I’ve recently written a couple of posts for the Mental Elf blog and also a guest post about my first PhD paper at Counterbalanced.

Most recently, I’ve poured quite a lot of time and energy into an attempt at an entry for the Max Perutz Science Writing Award for MRC-funded researchers. The competition has 3 parts: answering the question “why does my research matter?”, imagining what advances might occur in your area of research in the next century, and coming up with a good title.

I found this competition so difficult I nearly gave up about a dozen times, only to start from a completely different angle and delete loads of stuff and carry on. I’m not entirely sure why or how I persevered, except perhaps through sheer stubbornness; I had already put in so much time that I needed to somehow justify this to myself. The only way to do so was to actually see it through to the end. Suffice it to say that I doubt my entry will be selected but I am glad that I went through with it. And I learned some useful things about writing in lay language in the process.

Possibly the trickiest part of the competition was coming up with a good title. There is a £100 prize for the article with the best title, which was sufficient to motivate me to make an attempt at something that wasn’t the world’s most boring and generic 3-word title. I sought the advice of the internet. Unsurprisingly, everyone writing on the matter agreed that article titles are really important. They are the first, and often only, thing a reader will see. No matter how amazing an article is, the title needs to instil at least some sense of curiosity or interest in a reader to attract their attention. This is equally the case for newspaper headlines, books and blog posts as it is for academic journal articles, conference talks or posters.

I have an issue with titles. I always leave them till last when writing a blog post or other article, though I often have a “working title”. I’ve seen some advice which recommended spending as much time working on your title as you spend on the main article, which frankly, seems a bit like overkill.

I can just about briefly and accurately convey the gist of an article in a handful of words but how do you make it exciting, curiosity-piquing or fun….without making a terrible, cheesy or lame pun? There seem to be a fair amount of the latter out in the world of academia – see some amusing examples of fake psychology titles here. You can normally forgive these if the title still makes some kind of sense and gives you an impression of what the article might actually be about. Many academic journals make things more difficult by restricting your word or character limit, while also demanding that you use no acronyms. Some academic journals also make further restrictions by explicitly forbidding you from giving away the results in the title.

Some options for reasonable titles are using questions, clever cultural references or double meanings. But this is easier said than done and requires a bit of creativity. Sometimes you just need to give up and stick with what you’ve come up with, hoping that an older, wiser you would not cringe too much (something I may have failed at). I spent far too much time trying to come up with a title for my competition entry. In the end, I hope I struck a balance between accurately representing the article and not putting the reader to sleep on the spot. I doubt it’s a winner but I gave it my best shot. I also seem to have spent far too much time reflecting on the importance of titles.

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