girl in blue sweater sitting at a computer with documents open

A problem with writing

Writing without getting feedback is great. You're writing. That's good.

Writing with feedback is even better.

The biggest problem students tend to have -- whether or not you are one of these people -- is getting feedback on their writing. You need feedback to improve. You need to see what good writing looks like and what bad writing looks like. You need to how other people would say the same thing differently, and why.

(This isn't a problem only relevant to students. It's relevant to most people who write. 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.)

As it turns out, this whole feedback thing is actually several problems.

#1: Get feedback

First. You need to get feedback on your writing. Sometimes this is hard, because everyone is busy and may not have time to comment in detail on your paper drafts. But it's really, really important.

It's something we should all do for each other.

Send your paper drafts to the other students in your group. Ask them for feedback. If we all have the mindset that we can help each other out, then it's a reciprocal process: you give feedback on their papers, you get feedback on yours.

When you ask other students for feedback, respect their time. Try not to send them a paper to look at last minute, unless you ask them if it's okay first. That said, pretty often they're willing to help you at the last minute because we all know how deadlines are and what it's like trying to finish a paper. (At least, the students in my lab are like that. We try to help each other.)

You can also get other friends, students, family, whoever to look at your paper. Getting someone who's in your field to look at the paper is great, because they know the conventions for how papers are written and organized -- what's expected in your field. Getting people outside your field to look at your writing is also great. You get to learn whether you're understandable to someone who's unfamiliar with your work already. It's really easy to forget to explain things that seem straightforward to you but really aren't, because you think about them all the time.

#2: Give feedback

Second. You need to give feedback on others' writing. Reciprocally, when other students send you paper drafts, give them the kind of feedback you'd like to get. Be friendly, be helpful, be detailed when you can, but be critical. The goal is to improve their writing. Critiquing other people's writing helps you see what you think is, and is not, good writing. It helps you see how writing is done. It helps you realize that when you get feedback, the other person is trying to point out stuff you might've missed the first time around, not trying to be mean...

#3: Don't take feedback personally

Third. When you get feedback, don't take it personally. Or put in the positive, do remember that your writing is not you. You're still practicing. Still getting better.

When you get a critique on a draft, or when you get back the reviews of a paper submission, the first thing you do is briefly skim it. Say to yourself, okay, this person read what I wrote and thought these bits could be better. They are not trying to be mean. They are not saying that I am a terrible writer. They are trying to help me express my ideas more clearly and coherently. They probably have more experience doing this than me, so I should probably pay attention.

You don't have to pay attention right away. Take a step back. Set the reviews aside. Get a cup of tea. In a little while, after reminding yourself that reviews and critiques are, almost always, intended to help you be better at writing, go back to them. Tackle them head on and revise that paper. Remember that since people are busy, comments they write on your drafts may be terse. That's okay. They're just trying to be efficient. Revise that paper anyway. Remember that you don't have to accept all the feedback and make all the changes they suggest--some things are absolute (like spelling), some things are opinion (like how to best phrase a sentence). Sometimes people are unhelpful and sometimes their comments don't make sense.

If you're revising a paper for a conference or journal based on reviews you got, definitely get help from people who've done these kinds of revisions before--other students, postdocs, and professors! The way I learned how to politely and completely respond to reviews on a journal submission was by seeing how the professors I worked with phrased things and told me to write things. I was given copies of past cover letters and response letters as examples.

Revision is part of writing

In summary: Get feedback. Give feedback. Writing is practice. Revision is part of the writing process. You have to write and fix what you write to get better.


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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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I wrote the following for the Vassar memories portion of the sesquicentennial website. You can find it there, or just read it here:

_a pair of windows with dark outlines, bright green and sunlight through the glass_

The Start of Whatever Happens Next

I sit by the glass pane in my room, my bed lofted up to window-seat status. The late afternoon sunshine sends long shadows across the central TA quad, grass sliced by dark grey pavement paths and thin strips of light that make it past the apartments in the west. Most of the trees are bare-limbed yet; I'm still not used to the long winters, keeping the popcorn of apricot flowers at bay until well into April. I can see an evergreen or two from here; I saw turtles in the Casperkill yesterday, and my housemate exclaimed over a robin hopping down one of those paths just this morning.

If spring is only now tip-toeing out into the open, with warmer breezes and longer days, why does summer feel so close?

The past few weeks have been full of endings. My last end-of-season meetings, evaluations, and dinners with the fencing team. Writing the last pages of my senior thesis. Ignoring the emails about preregistration, housing draw, and next year.

I have a plaque propped up at the front of my cube-box bookcase: "Vassar College Women's Fencing Team, Captain 2010-2011." Is that really what all this time comes down to? A plaque, a pile of textbooks, a sense of nostalgia now that it's almost over?

I pulled out a new notebook today. Some people measure their lives in chapters, or by photo albums and video clips. Sometimes, I think I measure mine in journals. Today, it felt wrong to keep on in the old notebook, plastic pink cover and pages three-quarters filled, loose sheets of notes slid in the back and beneath the front cover, a notebook I bought in an office supply store in Sydney, Australia, for one of the classes I took there (and later re-appropriated). It was a college notebook: wide lined pages, a spot at the top for a six-digit date, perforated pages and a cut-out slot on the cover for storing a pen. It was a journal of uncertainty; it held the worries, fears, and dreams of a student far away from the familiar. It held beginnings, endings, reconciliations, the wonder of realizations and the hope that every next step would be just as exciting, thrilling, amazing.

I pulled out a new notebook today, fished it from the big plastic storage bins under my bed, and when I opened it, a silver piece of foil fell out. It had been tucked just inside the front cover, a Dove chocolate wrapper, the kind with little inspirational quotes printed on them. It said, "It's never too late for a fresh start."

_big brick building in the sunlight, framed by dark thunderclouds and bright bits of green foliage_

This, it's a notebook for the start of whatever happens next.

With summer coming fast, I'm paying more attention than I ever did to all the little things around me that I love about Vassar. The green floor in Walker Bay 5, where I've spent more hours than I'll ever count training with the fencing team. The way a sunset looks across Ballentine field. The sound of Barefoot Monkeys calling "boo-a-woop!" from distant parts of campus, with similar cries echoing in return. Even the weird patterns painted on the ceiling in Main's front lobby -- have you ever looked up at them?

Four years of my life.

Seven semesters and two summers at Vassar. One semester abroad. One summer in Virginia.

People. The adventures we dreamt up. Favorite haunts, favorite classes, clubs and sports, lectures and workshops.

So many moments. All it takes is one minuscule event -- a flip of bits, a neuron firing, a butterfly's wings in South America -- to start a change.

Descartes' mechanical baby in white on blue

Taking Introduction to Cognitive Science with Ken Livingston freshman year. I took it because I'd read a book on consciousness, because when I'd read a book about dreaming I found out that no one really knows what goes in our heads, because I realized there's still more to learn, and I'm nothing if not fascinated by the unknown. The final paper in that class was to pick a chapter of Paul Thagard's Hot Thought, in which he presented models of !emotional cognition and applies them to just about everything (one phenomenon per chapter), and elaborate on it. I picked the chapter on the emotional coherence of religion. After reading those twenty-two pages, I realized I'd never learned how to bullshit a paper, and thus, that I knew far too little on the subject to even scrabble together a rough draft. I promptly checked out a huge stack of books on cognition and religion from the library. I supplemented these with a whole bunch of pdfs from journal databases online. I remember my roommates being a little confused, or maybe concerned, at the amount of effort I put into that paper.

I remember, mostly, being absolutely certain that I had to keep reading if I wanted to know enough to write a good paper on the emotional coherence of religion.

I declared myself a cog sci major early sophomore year.

Some moments were mundane: Laughing at the "Dead End" sign hung up on the end of Collegeview Age where the road met the cemetery. Taking photos of the magnolias in bloom. Staring up at little flakes of snow, floating down in front of a street light. Chasing after womp-womps and squirrels and deer.

Simple long-lasting jokes. One came out of the very first cog sci program party I attended. I was a freshman; I didn't know anyone and I was one of maybe two freshman there -- everyone else was familiar with the lay of the Kenyon Club Room, its lack (and great need) of a giant moose head hanging over the fireplace, the fact that Gwen Broude always brought cookies and Ken Livingston always brought thick-crust pizza from Uno's. I was introduced: "Hi, have you met Jackie?" I was re-introduced: "Hi, have you met Jackie?" and re-introduced again, enough times that it became a thing. Every cog sci party thereafter, this particular group of 2010s and 2009s reintroduced me to each other.

Some moments defined the rest of my college career.

_green trees and a hill across a lake, reflected in the water_

Sitting cross-legged in an armchair in the Kenyon Club Room. I was wearing a bright orange skirt. The cog sci faculty had just had a debate on consciousness, and I hadn't stood up to leave yet. Ken Livingston asking me whether I'd like to be one of his URSI students for the summer.

Exchanging emails with a friend over my first URSI summer: trading book recommendations, discussing relationships and research and brains. Returning to campus: "Would you mind terribly if I kissed you?" Meeting another new friend as a result of Vassar, back home before the start of another semester.

Sophomore year was an awesomely social year, full of exciting people.

Backstage waiting for the far-too-familiar opening music of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. An airplane to Colorado for the Grace Hopper Celebration. The trek between Main and Cushing, the tower room where my friends and I gathered for homework parties.

Sophomore year was the year I didn't spend Thanksgiving with my family. I'm from across the country; that break is short in comparison to the amount of traveling. A senior on the fencing team invited a couple of us far-from-home friends over for the holiday -- he spent time growing up in Australia, and one of his friends was Australian. The other girl was Greek. I was the only American tagging along on the adventure.

Deciding, after that, (with a scant week until the application deadline) that I wanted to go abroad.

_a robot, a pile of legos and wires, held up next to a paper sign depicting said robot_

Late nights in the IRRL. One Thursday, when my robot competition team's microcontroller fried and we spent the night frantically googling possible fixes.

Papers and books and highlighters spread out across a dorm room floor, three of us staying up past 2am pounding out the last pages of our ant papers.

Evenings in the Main kitchen, making macaroni and cheese or curry or trays of almond cookies.

A second URSI summer, cut short because the Australian semester starts at the end of July.

Many moments were at Vassar, but not all. One fine spring night in early November, I ate at a Turkish place in Newtown, Sydney with some of my international friends. Australian, Philippine, Japanese, Mexican, Russian. One of them handed me a US penny, saying, here, a little taste of home.

Tuesday morning Coffee and Cakes in Sydney, standing in the grass by a table of orange juice and tea and cookies, chatting with the rest of the Unimates. Knowing that when any of us traveled the world, we would have friends in nearly any country we visited.

A summer in Virginia. Showing my badge every morning to get into NASA Langley, working in an air-conditioned building-inside-a-building. Quadcopters, open source flight simulators, the Parking Lot Exploration Rover, a pirate festival, Wednesday evening volleyball, roller coasters and fireworks.

_blue skies and clouds above the Sydney skyline_

Back at Vassar, senior year, I was utterly delighted that I had to buy fourteen plus books for my cog sci and computer science classes. The first day of the Things in Context seminar, Gwen Broude announced that everything is context and context is everything, and how it was hard to teach a class on everything, but she'd try. I'll forever look at the world as a dynamic system, in terms of context and embodiment, in terms of correlated sensorimotor and subjective experience.

Long hours in the Neuroscan Lab, re-dubbed the EGI lab after the equipment got replaced, typing line after line of text for our stimulus set or squeezing in another participant run. Wanting clean data and results out of that EEG study; finally re-running the whole thing nearly two years later.

Some moments were about my life as a cog sci major, but not all.

Swinging an axe at a candy-filled computer hanging from a tree; laughing as all the computer scientists ran to scoop up tootsie rolls and jolly ranchers.

Turning down invitations to dances and parties, hours spent at my laptop or in the OLB computer lab, trying to finish assignments before the weekend's fencing meets.

Playing frisbee in the parking lot outside Walker. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The morning the bus broke down, 5am and probably negative degrees outside. The van safety course, and the nutritionist. My fencing girls, making up new lyrics to currently popular songs: "We're on a bus!" "All the sabre ladies..." "Just fence!"

Making history. Singing Queen's "We Are The Champions" on the way back from Wellesley: the Vassar Women's Fencing team won our conference for the first time ever. Ice cream socials and picnics on graduation hill.

spiral bound periwinkle-blue notebook, photo on the front and the words "DREAMS: Build a dream and the dream will build you"

So many moments. So many memories.

Realizing, again and again, that there's just enough time to know that there's never, never enough time.

As I write this, middle of April, glass pane separating me from the sunlight and the squirrels bouncing through the grass, I hold a new notebook in my hands. It's white and periwinkle-blue, bound by a silver spiral. A photo is printed on the front in grayscale, framed by thick blue lines: a man silhouetted at the end of a wooden pier, staring out across a shining ocean. He can see the horizon, I think. Below the photo are written the words "Build a dream and the dream will build you."

This, it's a notebook for the start of whatever happens next.

I loved my time at Vassar. It'll take a long time for these patterns of neural activity to fade.


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