white laptop with printed papers and books

Writing is not a chore

Many students see writing as a chore. I finished this study and have great results, now I have to write up the paper, boo. I want to attend this workshop, but oh drat, they want me to write two pages about something relevant to the workshop.

Repeat after me: Writing is not a chore.

Writing may be difficult. You may struggle to explain your ideas coherently and concisely. You may be in a never-ending battle with proper English grammar.

Writing may be time-consuming. You may spend an hour agonizing over one paragraph. You may stay up all night trying to finish a two-page paper (not counting the hours spent trying to get the Latex formatting to work or wrangling Word).

Writing is not a chore.

Writing is practice

Writing is practice. Writing is a key means of communication -- in academia and in the rest of the world! Learning to write well will never hurt you and only help you.

Writing is planning. Writing is thinking. Writing is synthesizing.

Writing your ideas out with an eye for communicating them to others can help you see the flaws in your arguments, come up with new connections between ideas and fields, or generally help you organize your thoughts on a subject. Introductions and discussions are especially great for this, since these are the parts of a paper where you connect your work and your ideas to everyone else's.

But not all writing has to be super academic or for a specific purpose. Journals, notebooks, text files: you can jot down ideas about what you're reading and thinking about. Whatever that is. Review your notes periodically. You may see patterns. You may develop new research ideas or figure out themes in your interests.

Write a lot.

It isn't just me saying this. Multiple advisors have told me: Papers become chapters in theses. The act of writing can add rigor to your thinking. Write as you go. Don't just write it all at the end!


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a pen sitting on a pad of paper with two extra pens beside it

Communicating ideas

As a student, you need to learn how to explain your work to others.

Which is to say that you need to convince other people that they should care about what you do.

And that's all about the story you tell.

(This isn't a skill only relevant to students. It's relevant to most people. But I'm a student, and a lot of the people I interact with on a daily basis are students, so this is advice targeted at us.)

Tell a story

When you share your ideas and your work with others, you are creating a narrative. You are telling a story. The key thing is to tell a compelling story about your work and to frame your work so that it means something to your audience.

Start big. Situate your work in the larger context. The question you should answer is not what are you doing? The question you should answer is why should anyone care?

Find a big important thing people care about. Tell them how it impacts their lives. Then explain how your work is related to that big important thing.

For example. Say you are working on a robotic language learning companion for preschool kids. The robot is supposed to help them learn new words. Why do we care? Well, language and literacy are important for everything humans do. It's the primary means of human knowledge transfer! Language is super important. Plus, there's research showing that if we don't get enough language exposure early on (e.g., ages 3-5), it'll be hard to catch up in school later. Oh no! Language skills are important for academic and life success! But not everyone has those skills! Enter robot. This robot can help young kids develop language skills at a critical time, thus saving them from a life of misery and pain!

Or, you know, something less dramatic. But you get the idea. Situate your work in a larger problem. Then dive in and explain how what you're doing fits into the larger problem, even if it's just a tiny little piece of that larger problem.

Make your audience care. Tell them a story.


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Occasionally, I come up with new lyrics for existing songs. Here's some I recently wrote for my husband, Randy Westlund, about his favorite operating system:

BSD

(to the tune of Let It Be - The Beatles)

When I find Gentoo is too much effort
And Linux uses systemd
It's time to reconsider, which OS for me
And when Windows goes to blue screen
Allan Jude stands right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, install BSD

BSD, BSD
BSD, BSD
Which OS is better?
BSD

And when the broken hard drives fail
There's no quick recovery
There will be an answer: BSD
Though data seems corrupted
It's not 'cause ZFS can guarantee
Your files can be saved by FreeBSD

BSD, BSD
BSD, BSD
If you hate closed software, try OpenBSD

BSD, BSD
BSD, BSD
If you have a toaster, there's NetBSD

BSD, BSD
BSD, BSD
It's more user-friendly with PC-BSD

You wake up to a big new update
Rebuild packages throughout the tree
Compile until tomorrow - BSD
And when you run your own homeserver
Focus on security
Set up jails for your users with BSD

BSD, BSD
BSD, BSD
Which OS is better?
BSD

BSD, BSD
BSD, BSD
Which OS is better?
BSD

Creative Commons License
BSD (Let It Be) by Jacqueline Kory Westlund is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


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question marks on a purple background

What are you doing with your life? Why?

Last year, I took a seminar for Media Lab PhD students. During one class, we pondered what questions we ought to be asking as we began our journey toward seemingly distant proposals and dissertations.

We asked questions about ourselves. About our research. Why we do what we do. How we can do what we do better. Who we care about. Our visions. Our passions.

We were given a handout with the following list to start us off:

13 Questions Every PhD Student Should Ask

compiled by Prof. Judy Olson, University of Michigan, for HCI graduate students.

  • What is the problem? What are you going to solve?
  • Who cares? Why do people care about this problem?
  • What have other people done about it?
  • Why is that not sufficient? What are the gaps and unanswered questions?
  • What are you going to do about it? (Approach)
  • What are you really going to do about it? (Methods)
  • What do you expect to find?
  • What did you find? (Findings)
  • What does this mean? (Conclusions)
  • So what? (Implications)
  • What are you going to do next?
  • Where are you going to publish?
  • What are you going to be doing in 5 years?

Then we had to brainstorm our own lists of questions. Here's what my seminar class came up with:

Questions from Media Lab PhD students in 2014

  • How are you going to use it in the real world?
  • How are you going to change people's lives?
  • Will other people use it?
  • What is the question or opportunity? Where have we not gone yet - where are the new frontiers?
  • What does your advisor think you should do?
  • Why is it not incremental? How are you changing the conversation?
  • What did you learn?
  • What do you want to learn?
  • Why would the world (or your grandmother) be excited about it?
  • How can other people build on your work?
  • How could you fail?
  • How do you define success?
  • What other skills should you be learning now?
  • How do you take in the right amount of criticism?
  • How do you work with others and collaborate?
  • Who do you want to share your work with?
  • Who should you interact with to learn more about your field?
  • What's the best way to share your research?
  • What's the best way to get media attention?

Then we got to see the questions brainstormed by students in previous years. Here's what they asked:

Questions from Media Lab PhD students in 2012

  • What am I interested in?
  • What do I want to learn?
  • How do I want to learn those things?
  • Why am I here?
  • Why me? What is my uniqueness to solve this problem?)
  • What special skills do I bring to this?
  • Why do this in an academic environment?
  • What is the solution (not the problem)?
  • What is my vision?
  • What is my passion?
  • Why now?
  • What are my "bets"?
  • Who do I want to work with?

Questions from Media Lab PhD students in 2011

  • Does a PhD enable me to accomplish my dreams? Is this what I want?
  • What am I passionate about?
  • How can I leverage resources around me?
  • What new activities can I enable (rather than problems I can solve)?
  • How can I most effectively impact the world?
  • Who should I choose as collaborators?

Questions from Media Lab PhD students in 2010

  • What is my field?
  • How can I balance my research with the rest of my life?
  • How do my strengths contribute to my chosen field?
  • Am I happy?
  • Do I have the right advisor to accomplish what I want?
  • Can I get this done in time? (Scope of work)
  • Do I have the right background for this - should I take additional courses?

Additional questions from Mitch Resnick

  • How will my work expand possibilities and opportunities for others?
  • What principles and values will guide my work?
  • Can I create a map showing how my work relates to what others have done/
  • Who could I collaborate with?
  • What are some compelling examples that highlight the important of this work?
  • What community do I want to be a part of?
  • Can I make progress on this problem through an iterative process?

A lot to think about.

Can you answer them all?


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If I had a blog...

Well, I do have a blog. But.

You know how there are people who are food bloggers, travel bloggers, fashion bloggers, research bloggers, etc., etc., etc.?

I was thinking, if I had to pick just one kind of blogger to be, what would I pick? What do I often notice about the world? What would I want to share? The problem I was having, thinking about this, was that I know that as much as I like baked goods (for example), I'd probably get tired of writing about the same thing all the time.

Then I had an idea:

I could be a color blogger.

I could share things that are interesting colors. Nice arrangements of colors. Interesting patterns.

Not like the design bloggers or interior decorator bloggers or crafty people who share how to pick colors that go together in quilts or anything quite as useful as that.

Just colors.

Here are my colors for today:

yellow leaves against a blue sky

(I'm not going to switch to only posting photos of things that are colors I like, mind you. This is a thought experiment. A thought experiment that might include more photos of things that are colorful in the future.)


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