Monday, May 13, 2013

What Strunk and White has come to mean to me.

Recently I was offered an excellent post doc position in the lab of Prof. John Silander at the University of Connecticut. This is big for me - it means my years as a grad student (6 so far) are coming to a close, I'll be working in a lab whose research I've been following for many years now, I'll continue to work in plant systems, I'll be applying and greatly expanding my analysis and programing skill set, and on a practical level, I can work in this lab and continue to live on Long Island, where my wife has a good job as an Assistant Professor at Hofstra Medical School. The logistics of my position are bit complicated, but all setup. Those are some of the good things. The challenge has been wrapping up my thesis. You would think that after 6 years my manuscripts would be mostly complete, but reflecting back on my experience, I have begun to realize how little time I spent on my thesis compared to all the other things I've done in grad school. Having not taken any biology since high school, I spent a lot of time taking classes. I also took a lot of classes focusing on math and statistics in ecology. I've done a lot of departmental service related things, which has led me to believe that receiving a Departmental Service Award is both a good and bad sign. And I've been involved in, and continue to be involved in, side projects. Add in TAing, peer reviews for journals, etc., etc., - you get my point. This all adds up to the last few months and next few weeks as being a crunch time for writing, and through this time I've been keeping my copy of William Strunk and E.B. White's The Elements of Style close at hand.

Why the Elements of Style? It is not the book that was used in my college writing class (that was The Bedford Handbook). It's not about scientific writing. For all I know, it may not even be what my writing friends would recommend. But it is highly recommended by many professors in my department,  which is why I picked it up in the first place. Regardless of why I began using this book, it has become quite important to me as a writer. In particular, it has two meanings for me. One, contained within its short descriptions of the rules of writing is the promise that I can become a better writer. I read one of the 'Principles of composition' and think, 'Yeah, that does sound better. I can do that in my writing.' Or I can look at the one of the 'Elementary rules of usage', and then go back to my manuscript, search for instances in which I break a rule, and fix it. I can make my writing cleaner, clearer, and more concise. The second meaning is a bit more symbolic. I like to read a bit from this book before I start writing for the day. I don't necessarily set out to apply what I read, I just find that it puts me in a writing mood. So at the end of a long day of grading problem sets or writing R code, if I look at my copy of Strunk and White, and I know that I didn't crack it open that day, I know I probably didn't do any writing. Sure, this is followed by a pang of guilt, but it also comes with an increased motivation to get some text down the next day, which is ultimately going to get me through writing my PhD.

And that's what Strunk and White has come to mean to me.