How Chemists Write

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

How an Attorney Writes

Dave Tuason ’03, J.D.
Villiger Speech and Debate Coach

Quick Facts

Favorite place to write?

Favorite punctuation?

Favorite word?

Oxford comma or no?
No Oxford comma

SJU WRITES: What kind of writing do you do for your job?
DT: I’m an attorney, so I litigate cases. I write a lot. I actually have to do briefs. I manage a case of 50 or 60 cases. For many of the cases, I have to write briefs for the court—full of motions, precedents, questions for summary judgment. I also have to write memos to my supervisors for certain things or case evaluations to get cases out, so writing is probably 90 percent of my job now.

SJU WRITES: Typically, how long are your arguments going into a case?
DT: It would depend on the case and how many arguments we have. You want to keep things to maybe 10 pages or 15 pages because you don’t want the law clerk that will be reading the brief to fall asleep. I really find more succinct arguments are the ones that work, so I try to keep it as short as I can. Eliminate unnecessary words. It’s really key to that.

SJU WRITES: Do you have a set revision process?
DT: I’ll try to shorten sentences and cut out unnecessary words, and then it will go through my supervisor before I follow up with the court. I’ll read his revisions, and then I’ll submit it to the court. But because we have such a high-volume practice, it’s hard to really get the nitty-gritty of things.

SJU WRITES: Do you write with a certain thought process or is it more a matter of checking boxes to finish what you need to tackle?
DT: When I do have time, I will try to make an outline first, just to understand the big picture of what I’m trying to accomplish. The misconception for writing is that a lot of people think that writing big words is the best thing to do, but in the legal profession, it’s best to simplify things so anyone can understand it, so really a fifth grader could understand it. It allows you to skim it and get what they’re trying to say where if someone uses big fancy words you wouldn’t use in everyday language, it’s confusing. That’s definitely been part of my development as a writer.

SJU WRITES: Is there any writing you are expecially proud of?
DT: My latest brief that I won in federal court. It was a constitutional issue, a 14th amendment challenge. I was really proud because I did a lot of research for it, and it took a lot of days to do. Without the assistance of my boss, I was able to prevail in district court. It was also a culmination of my writing.

—Christopher Pendleton ’20

How Golf Writers Write

Tom Coyne, M.F.A.
Associate Professor of English

Quick Facts

Favorite word?

Favorite music to write to?
None. Silence.

Favorite place to write?
Coffee shops in Europe, but I hate how pretentious that sounds.

SJU Writes: How do you start your writing process? How do you get into the mindset?
TC: The way I start any writing session is just going through yesterday’s work and cleaning that up a little bit which leads me into what I want to do today. But in terms of timing and when, I’ve had to get a lot better at just starting whenever I have a moment because now I have kids and a family. Staying up all night and waiting for inspiration doesn’t fly anymore. It was a great luxury when it did.

SJU Writes: How do you overcome things like writer’s block?
TC: Writer’s block is funny. I’ve never really had experience with this thing where I sit down and can’t write anything. Touch wood. That’s never been my experience. I’ve had good writer’s block, where I’m just writing crap or things that will never see the light of day or things I’m not happy with. In terms of just sitting down and not writing, that’s just never really felt like an option to me.

SJU Writes: What do you mean by good writer’s block?
TC: I’ve been blocked from writing anything that I feel is going be good. I’ve certainly experienced that where I feel like I’m in a rut just spinning my wheels. Or I’m just working on something that I know is going nowhere. I’ve experienced that, but at least I’m still writing. At least I’m still getting something on the page. Even if I just find a sentence or two that’ll be part of something else, or will lead me off into another direction. The idea of sitting there and saying ‘I have writer’s block, so I’m not writing’ is a cop out. Writing is work, and other people don’t show up to their job and say ‘I just can’t work today.’ You just slog on. If we all sat around and waited for the perfect story, the perfect sentence or the perfect paragraph or the perfect chapter, if we’re not going to write till we have that, we wouldn’t write at all.         

SJU Writes: You just have to keep at it?
TC: You just have to keep at it. The writers who’ve ever taught me anything, or that I really admire, are writers who always kept at it.

—Rob Roy, ’19