The seven habits of highly successful
scientists chemists authors, oh, who am I kidding? I don’t think there’s seven. There’s probably only one cardinal rule: observe everything. Watch, listen, read if you can, and once you’ve stashed all that information internally, you’ll be able to use it when there’s a call for it. The problem with this is that it leaves one modality of learning out, and that might just be the most important one. Kinetic learning, or hands-on, or whatever you want to call it. There’s a training mantra I’ve seen attributed to the military: See one, Do one, Teach one that is actually very very useful when it comes to learning how to do a task, and in teaching someone else how to do it, you come (usually) to a fuller understanding of it than simple rote learning.
I’ve just taken on a new job. Sadly, this means I’m no longer a scientist, in that it’s not my job title any more. On the other hand, the new job role of raw materials chemist offers me a great deal more room for improvisation and using my understanding of the mechanisms of chemical reactions than my previous role did. I’ll explain a bit more, because this might be useful in a book somewhere. Through no direct planning of my own, I’ve wound up working in the pharmaceutical industry. At first, it was a job, and a job doing science, and I was grateful for it. But as I learned more about the role that quality control plays in producing safe medications for the world (and both the companies I’ve worked for are indeed global), the more I realized that what I was doing mattered. It’s a nice feeling to have your work be significant. However, working in a highly regulated environment brings challenges with it, as some of you can no doubt attest. It’s not just that the Big Gov agency can and will come directly audit your place of work and watch over your shoulder while you’re doing the Thing. It’s also knowing that if you screw up, someone could die. Having set up that background, let me explain why training is vital to the functioning of scientists in these environments.
In science, the gold standard is reproducibility. In Quality Control, everything you do is guided by thoroughly qualified and validated methods, that are themselves based on the Pharmacopeias, huge books (multiple volumes, and these days mostly online, although I was impressed to see them in paper at the new job) full of distilled wisdom on how to make every known approved drug. So what you are doing in a QC lab is, in essence, very careful following of recipes. It has to be done the same way, every time. This isn’t quite as easy as it sounds. Particularly when you add in any kind of bioanalysis, ie polymerase chain reaction (PCR) because biomolecules can have a mind of their own. Training in this environment is a highly structured process. Usually. In my experience. Normally, I’d watch someone (preferably more than one analyst) perform a task. Then, with a trainer watching, I’d perform it, asking a million questions while I did so. Finally, I’d be given a sample and run the analysis without being able to ask anything, but while being observed, and when that was accomplished with results matching the testing previously done on that special training sample, I’d be certified trained. To my surprise, this excellent system is not followed everywhere. I was slightly dismayed to be handed a sheet with instructions on it, and basically told to ‘go do’ in an unfamiliar lab where I didn’t even know where the water was. Water, by the way, is not just water in a lab. Using the wrong kind of water can serious mess up an assay. By dint of asking a lot of questions, which they were fortunately open to, I managed to pass my first training. But it was a disconcerting experience, not unlike a beginning swimmer being thrown into the ocean and told to get to shore. Because I already knew how to swim, I was fine. I had some good habits in place, and that saved me. Had I been fresh out of college? Well, the academic environment and the industry are two wildly different places.
How, you are asking now that you’ve persisted this far, does this apply to writing? Writers can’t exactly be trained. Yes, and no. I’m not a big believer in rules of writing. I do know, however, that you can’t become a good writer without also being a good reader. Observing what works, and then going on to suss out why it is working, will vastly improve your writing as you internalize that enough to get it into your story building. Don’t just stick to one genre, either. You should know, yes, what tropes are expected in romance, fantasy, etcetera. But you can write more interesting and original stuff if you aren’t trying to write to genre. Most of us are lifelong readers, so we’ve already been doing this part, whether consciously or not. Now, it’s time to apply the kinetic learning. put fingers to keyboard, or pen to paper, whatever works best for you. Write something. When you’re stuck on that, write something else, or just push yourself past the block until you’re into another interesting bit. Write every day, even if you only manage 5 words, like Dorothy talked about for her Inktober challenge. I’m doing NaNo, this month. I do not expect to manage 50K words by the end of the month. Not with a job change that is wringing my brain dry trying to keep up with the training (and the open office environment that has me feeling like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs). But it’s very useful to me to keep the daily accountability of words posted. I’m training my brain to write again. I’m still doing daily art, but keeping that short and noncommittal by using prompts a friend helped me with (having a list to work with means I don’t have to put out the mental energy to compose creatively). If you’re struggling to write daily, try writing to prompts. You will find that once you have trained your brain, you won’t have to strain for the creative as much. Take it slow rather than trying to jump right into the deep end. Feeling like you are drowning is not conducive to wanting to repeat that process over and over. Make it fun, make it satisfying, and it will come to you.