Snack Writing

I was reading this Nature article by Kim Gardiner and Hugh Kearns on snack writing.  Their argument is that scientists who write in a small, fixed window, 45 minutes a day, every day, write more than “block writers” who blackout entire days for writing.

I’ve been a block writer my entire graduate career, that’s for sure.  But I can see the merit of snack writing, especially when it comes to methodology.  The worst feeling of writing a paper is digging through stacks of ancient data from experiments you don’t remember doing, trying to remember which of the six primer pairs you designed actually worked (let alone what annealing temperature they worked at.)  Writing up results as they are generated is a Godsend, especially when things don’t work out.

I have a tendency to bury things that don’t work: and why shouldn’t I?  Inconsistent, unclear, unexpected: we scientists are storytellers, and “bad” data that doesn’t fit the tale makes us feel uncomfortable.  We don’t know what it means- is our methodology flawed, or is there a fundamental misunderstanding in our thinking?  So instead, we are encouraged to focus on experiments that do work, and build our story from there.

But you never know when you will double back, and find yourself facing the ghosts of unpleasant experiments.  Even if you keep a meticulous notebook, data without the narrative can be confusing.  So spare yourself the trouble, and set aside a time when you generally aren’t very productive, and regularly wrap up what you’ve done and why you did it.

Having trouble learning? Get some rest

Do you schedule breaks and rests during your working, writing, and learning?  Do you make time for sleep in your life?   A new article by Ingrid L. C. Nieuwenhuis et al., published June 5th in the journal PLOS ONE, provides another piece of evidence that you should.

Sleep is an important step for proper learning.  Photo source: Wikipedia
Sleep is an important step for proper learning.


The details of the study involved exposing participants to complex strings of letters that followed unknown rules, and then teaching the participants the rules.  They would then leave the lab and come back 15 minutes, 12 hours (sleeping), or 12 hours (awake) later to retest.  The authors found that the group who slept  performed better at classifying the letter strings upon their return- sleep played some role in understanding the grammatical rules they were taught.

This is one piece of information in a body of literature that suggests we make information network connections in our sleep.  Learning can be thought of as a web- every fact is connected to another, and another.  Understanding how things are connected is a powerful way to learn.  For example, in Biology, we often classify organisms according to Kingdom of life.  We then learn what attributes plants and animals have in common, and what traits separate them.   This study shows that sleep may be an important part of processing, and connecting, such information.


Here at Cornell, the all-nighter is an all too common occurrence.  This may be fine for simply retaining facts, but if your exam challenges you to make connections between your information, or demonstrate higher learning, you might be better off getting a good night’s rest.


Article source:

Nieuwenhuis ILC, Folia V, Forkstam C, Jensen O, Petersson KM (2013) Sleep Promotes the Extraction of Grammatical Rules. PLoS ONE 8(6): e65046. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0065046


Photo source:

Four ways to get writing

I am trying to write my PhD dissertation.

It’s going OK, thanks for asking.  But it’s not going OK all the time.

Some days, I can spend an hour in front of my computer and have nothing to show for it but a lot of purple links on Reddit.

Surfing the web instead of working? Sounds like time for a run to me.

Other days I can literally write, almost nonstop and without distraction, for epic 10 hour sessions.  

So what’s the trick?  Here is my experience.

#1.  Deadlines.

If you are writing your dissertation, then it’s a safe bet you can meet a deadline.  Be it a term paper, grant application, or conference abstract, my life is littered with deadlines.  And, the week before a deadline, two things happen.  I put down other interesting projects, and I write productively because it has to get done.

But the problem is that a dissertation is such a huge task that it inhabits its own epic time frame.  It will be finished when it is finished, it won’t be shoved out in a week or a month.  But setting reasonable, artificial deadlines for small pieces of my thesis has allowed me to step out of the lab, enjoy some of that deadline-induced focus, and put digital ink to screen.

#2.  Write when you can write.

Why fight it?  I can’t always write.  If it’s a nice day out and I can’t concentrate, I go out and play. If I can’t write because I’m thinking about my sister, I call her.  If I’m hungry, I eat.

By the same token, sometimes I can write.  On these days, I cancel commitments and appointments.  I live that day as if writing were the only task on my desk.

Rather than seeking to control my productivity, I work with it.

#3.  Write the shitty, plagiarized first draft.

I am not  a perfectionist, really.  I’m not even a details person.  But when it comes to writing, it’s really tough for me to get going.  Oddly, the toughest section is writing the introduction (more on that later, perhaps) where what I need to say has already been written, a thousand times.

It’s perfect, because I didn’t write it! And for right now, that’s OK!

By blatantly plagiarizing whole sections from other people’s reviews and my own writing elsewhere (and highlighting the sections so I don’t forget, of course), I can move on, revise, and build off of what’s on the page.  I no longer try to rewrite what has been said again and again (a more unpleasant task, to me, than blazing a new trail with new data)- I go with what’s been said, and after things are in place, I reshape it to my needs.

#4.  Get active.

Seriously.  Go to the gym, go for a run, shoot some hoops.  Sometimes I just clean my house for an hour (in fact, I think my apartment is only clean when I have a deadline looming.  This may not be for everyone, as it’s a trait I share with my mother, but not my father.).  I leave the music at home, and busy my body while clearing my mind.  When I return to my desk, I’m often reset and ready to work.

If you are reading this, then I wish you the best of luck on your project.  Get back to work!  And if you can’t, and you don’t have a real world deadline breathing down your neck, go take care of yourself!  Because you deserve it, and you’ll function better if you aren’t burnt out.