Thursday, January 20, 2005

On Words

Now that my blog has been formally "outed" by my sister Rachel, I'd better write something memorable and interesting.

Growing up in our family, I was always the least verbally-inclined sister. I never thought I could write very well, until maybe about the ninth grade. It was then that we started writing essays in class, which was something I could actually do well. It was a form of writing that was reinforced by logical thinking. Creative writing I have always been lousy at, mostly because I don't have a knack for making things up. But essays were definitely my cup of tea.

It was in college that I realized that I am very good at writing. I took a history class with a professor who had been nominated for a Pulitzer prize, and he actually gave me A's on all my papers. And here in graduate school, my advisor, who is an excellent writer and the author of a remarkably eloquent textbook on scientific computing, has praised my writing too. That doesn't stop him from marking things up with a red pen, but I think he is delighted that he doesn't have to rewrite my papers for me.

I think that where I lag behind others is in speech. I am not very quick to come up with words I am seeking. In writing, quickness is not important, because you can always go back and edit. But in speech, it is vital.

This is why rehearsal is helpful to me. When I practiced my prelim talk, the phrase "contour plot" completely left my brain, which made it really hard to explain the slide of the contour plot. Somehow I managed to talk my way around it. After the rehearsal, my advisor asked me why I hadn't said "contour plot." From his question I was able to recapture that phrase and put it in a very safe place in the front of my mind. During the prelim, I remembered all the important phrases.

I often write down what I intend to say in a business phone call, such as a call to the utility company to question something on my bill. Similarly, when I teach, I like to write down everything I want to say, because I know my writing is much clearer than my speaking. I don't read straight from what I've written, but I do keep handy notes to remind me of key phrases.

I know I will never be a poet, because I lack the creative intuition about the sound of words. Luckily, "poet" is not high on my list of careers! But I am skilled enough as a writer that I will be able to convey to others the mathematical concepts that I develop.


Anonymous said...

And truthfully, Bec, I have come to realize over the course of Scott's physics career that good writing is both important and rare in the sciences. The only drawback seems to be that the good writer in the collaboration (Scott) is ALWAYS given everyone's drafts to proofread!


Laura said...

Yay for good writing! You rule, Bec. :-)