How a Chemist Writes

Peter Graham, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Chemistry

Quick Facts

What are you reading now?
American War

Favorite word?

Favorite place to write?
Office on campus

Favorite punctuation mark?

SJU Writes: What kind of writing do you currently do?

PG: I do academic writing. I also write some for fun, some poetry, not really for general consumption, just for myself and sometimes my wife.

SJU Writes: When you’re tasked with a writing assignment, how do you approach it?

PG: If I need to think something through, I will just start writing stream of consciousness. That’s probably how I write anything. I just get my ideas into text. It’s probably unusable, but it makes sure I get my ideas out and that I’m thinking straight.

SJU Writes: Do you ever find that you write with the advice of a particular person echoing in your head?

PG: One of my friends who I went to graduate school with is a professor at Muhlenberg. We always help each other out, reading each other’s papers. He’s a really good writer and a really good editor. So, I’m always thinking, “Joe’s going to be mad if I leave this in here,” because he’s always going to read anything I publish.

SJU Writes: Do you find it more useful to go about peer revision through a more collaborative or directive approach?

PG: My Ph.D. advisor didn’t give a lot of feedback. He would just change it. So, it would come back, and you would kind of figure out what you did wrong. My post-doc advisor was really good for that stage in my career. He basically left my work untouched unless it was wrong. Then he would be like, “that’s not the best way to say that” or “can we rephrase that,” and it was a little bit more collaborative. I think it’s better to say, “I think this could use fewer words” instead of just correcting it.

I see this when I revise lab reports for students in Inorganic Lab. The first lab report, a lot of times, I just rewrite sentences or cross out three sentences and write one sentence to show them, this one sentence can say everything you said in three sentences. I’ll stop doing that, certainly, later in the semester. 

SJU Writes: What advice do you have for students trying to write in your discipline?

PG: I think it’s always good to learn the correct terminology and use it. When editing, be as concise as possible. You have to go back and cut it down. What distinguishes scientific writing is being very clear. When you can summarize a big idea in very few words, it’s like saying “E=mc2.” You have all of that information packed into a tiny little package. It makes it seem very powerful.

—Leslie Briggs ’17, M.A. ‘18