Why I write my NSF preproposal by hand and to a lay audience

18 Jan

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Susan Holmes suggests (here) that it’s best to write your first draft of anything on paper, with an old fashioned pen, rather than on your computer. She believes
that the process of writing by hand helps us clear our thoughts. l think she has a point. So, I am writing this blog post on paper.

I would like to add my own piece of advice for better writing: l like to write my first draft as if I am writing to a friend or family member. For me, this strategy helps to remedy some anxiety I have thinking about the colleagues who may ultimately read my manuscript or proposal, and who may be harsh and skeptical. Writing with a lay person in mind also helps me to use simple words and to get to he point faster.

Years ago, l was struggling with the introduction chapter of my PhD thesis. The audience for this chapter would be my advisor and the other committee members. They were all well established and accomplished researchers in the field of population genetics. I was completely writer’s blocked. What could l write that they didn’t already know? l guess the only real information they were going to get from this chapter was whether I had mastered the material, but I had no motivation at all to write the chapter as a test of my knowledge.
l don’t remember who or what gave me the idea, but I decided to write the chapter as if it was meant for a lay audience. I actually didn’t think that my committee cared about the chapter much anyways, so I imagined an audience of friendly lay-people and students who were interested to enter the field., and I started to write for them.

This change of perspective made a huge difference to my writing. Suddenly, I was eager to write and I enjoyed the process. I had no more fear and a clear goal. (If you’re interested, you can download the introduction of my thesis here:  2007_Pennings_Pleuni_ThesisIntroduction).

This week, I am working on an NSF proposal. This is just as daunting and possibly nearly as futile as writing an intro chapter to my thesis (OK, not really). I therefore decided to try the same trick. I will write my first draft as if I’m writing to a friendly lay person, not the NSF committee that will ultimately read and judge my work. In addition to writing to a lay person, I will write my first draft on paper, following Susan Holmes’ advice. Clear thoughts and sentences, here I come!

 

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