Scientific writing and playing the cello

The other day I was sitting at my desk writing something and finding it excruciatingly difficult. In a moment of distraction I turned to my cello for comfort and realised that learning how to write is a bit like learning how to play the cello.

Procrastinating at work

Learning how to write is like learning to  play an instrument

You need to start at the beginning, the first few weeks are bewildering – learning how to read music, which fingers make which notes, how to hold the bow as a weapon of mass destruction. Then, when that bow touches the strings a whole era of pain and suffering commences. Unfortunately, the cello does not automatically play in tune – making it a little traumatic for any unlucky bystanders and unfortunate family members. Payback.

So how is this similar to scientific writing? Well you have to start at the beginning, learning the lingo of your field, ‘stringing’ words together to try to make sense of the conversation you want to be a part of. It feels uncomfortable, in the beginning it is slow and clunky, and the only person who wants to read it (or hear your playing) is your teacher or supervisor. Luckily they are paid to do it, so at least there is some reward. Slowly after practicing or writing regularly your confidence builds – tunes and meaning become more obvious and you feel more comfortable and in control.

So practise regularly, stretch yourself, try some hard pieces and let others read or hear your work.

If only I could take my own advice on this one – I am terrified of playing my cello for others and the thought of showing my supervisor my writing is equally frightening.

So learning from my experience with a large stringed instrument, just get started – understand it is not going to be Nobel prize winning in the beginning – enjoy the journey, knowing it will get better, and we will be able to master this skill.


Catherine Galvin and cello illustrate scientific writingCatherine Galvin is a PhD candidate close to submitting, doing ground-breaking investigations of human knee joints. Her blog is here, where she talks about her PhD journey, sharing useful tips for other PhD students that she picked up along the way and keeping friends and family up to date with her adventures. Catherine is an Electrical Engineer, who has decided to move in a completely different direction and use her analytical skills in a very different field.

This post was republished with permission.