dropping dimes and kitchen timers

Ray Bradbury’s memoir—Zen in the Art of Writing—is a delightful read about a man who enjoys life. I adore Bradbury’s writing. He is a genius.

Nevertheless, his description of the writing process is utterly foreign to me. Maybe that’s just a difference between writing science and science fiction. Surely, he worked hard at his craft, but he never describes the writing process as a grind. He describes it as whimsical and joyful and cathartic. These are adjectives that I would never use to describe how I feel when I write.

To me, writing is a craft. It is work. I get satisfaction with writing concise, precise, and clear sentences the same way a carpenter may get satisfaction from building level, square, and plumb walls. It feels satisfying to look at something you built with your hands, but fun it ain’t.

Even though my experience is different, my approach is not.

My favorite Bradbury memory is his story of writing Fahrenheit 451. He talks about dropping dimes into the typewriter in the basement of the UCLA library. “You thrust your dime in, the clock ticked madly, and you typed wildly, to finish before the half hour ran out.” When his dime ran out, he wandered upstairs and “strolled, lost in love, down the corridors, and through the stacks, touching books, pulling volumes out, turning pages, thrusting volumes back, drowning in all the good stuffs that are the essence of libraries.”

Drop a dime. Type for 30 focused minutes. Take a walk to refresh and think. Drop another dime. Now this is a part of the writing process that is familiar to me.

I don’t actually drop dimes; I use a basic kitchen timer app on my phone instead. But my app does the same trick. My writing sessions typically include 25 minutes of writing and then 5 minutes of a break. If I have an hour, then I do that twice. If I have two hours, I do it four time. And so on.

Using a timer is a great writing tool. If you write, you should give it a try.

Why? It prevents interruptions from checking a clock. If you trust your timer, you can set it and forget it. You’ve now freed up a teensy bit more mental capacity. While your timer is going, you can give your mind permission to immerse yourself in your writing. Any tweak to your environment or nudge you can give yourself to just get a bit more focus is a big difference-maker. A timer won’t make you the best writer, but it is a tool that can help make you the best writer you can be.

Bradbury and I have quite different experiences of the writing process. But, when it comes to focused writing, we are buddies. Writing is done one dime at a time.

schedule some writing time

Here is an axiom: Writing well takes time. It takes time to think about what you want to say. It takes time to put your ideas into words. And it takes time to mold your pile of words into something that resembles a coherent thought.

Here is another axiom: Time is not made—everybody has the same 1440 minutes per day—time is spent.

How do you find time to write? Easy, you put it on your schedule. Do not mentally put it on your schedule, actually put it on your schedule.*

Many people fill their schedules by putting in their known commitments—if you are in academia as a student or professor, you might add your classes and weekly meetings and whatnot. Then you might add in some other things like an academic conference and other one-off events. At this point, your schedule is not stuffed. You may actually feel optimistic by the amount of unscheduled time you see. It appears you will have ample time to tackle your writing projects in between your scheduled activities. This is where most people stop filling their schedules.

This approach tacitly treats your writing time as non-essential. It assumes that you’ll write during your “free time” when you do not have classes and meetings—at least that’s the story you tell yourself. However, inevitably, each week your chunks of “free time” erodes around the edges. The time in which you might get to write gets filled with last-minute add-ons. It’s sneaky how easily this happens. One day you lose 30 minutes to doing a homework assignment. No big deal. The next day you borrow another 30 minutes because you’re running late to get to campus. No big deal. The next day you have an inordinate amount of email to sort, so you rationalize that an hour of decluttering your inbox will free your mind so your next writing session will be extra productive. The next day you’re having an “off” day and you tell yourself you deserve 10 minutes of mindless internet browsing. These 10 minutes turns into 30. And so it goes, many little chunks of time that are each trivial start to add up to some serious chunks of time.

A solution is simple: Schedule time to write. Just as you put in your classes and meetings into your schedule, you should put in writing time. Treat those writing times as important meetings. You do not skip those meetings. You do not check email during those meetings. You show up and you are mentally present. If you claim that writing is a priority and you cannot find the time in your schedule to write, then you need to re-prioritize some things.

Here are a few questions you might ask.

Is putting “writing time” into a previously unscheduled block of time really doing anything? It’s not like you’ve actually created more time. That’s true, but trust me, scheduling writing time works. Seeing something on your schedule mentally commits you to a specific activity during a specific time. It is mentally difficult to remove an actual activity from your schedule and replace it with something else. Removing writing time from my schedule is physically aversive to me.

What if somebody asks to schedule a meeting during your writing time? Simple, just say, “I am not available.” People respect that. You will find another time on your schedules to meet.

How much writing time should you schedule? It depends on many factors, but I would say to be ambitious with how much writing time you stake out. Your scheduled writing time should be enough to complete your essential writing projects. Any additional writing time you find will be a bonus.

If you are wanting to hit your writing goals in the upcoming months, go to your calendar now and schedule some writing time. Do it now.

*Sure, people can use the same time more productively than others and we should strive to use our time wisely. But a big battle is in finding time in your schedule so you have the option of using it wisely.

writing roots

I grew up in a village in southwest Wisconsin that has exactly one bank, one gas station, and one school. It also has its own vibe: The roads meander through hollows and across ridges, creeks snake down the valleys and settle into the soggy bottoms of the Wisconsin River, and the people work. It was formative to be around people who woke early, drank a cup of coffee, and then spent the day doing whatever it was they did—they built, grew, fixed, milked, taught, drove, manufactured—until the day was done. And then they’d do it again the next day. And then the next.

A meat-and-potatoes attitude towards work was in the air.

In my younger days, I dabbled in the type of jobs that were around. I milked cows and labored in construction. Once upon a time, in what now seems like a previous life, I worked as an auto mechanic. I remember once counting that I had a cut, scrape, or small burn on nine out of my ten fingers. Anybody who’s worked as a mechanic knows this is not uncommon. To this day, I can still recognize “working hands” on their proud owners.

One of the byproducts of all this work is that people mastered their craft. When you work hard on something for several years, you get pretty damn good at it. I didn’t stick with any of these jobs long enough to develop mastery—I got a few college degrees and went into academia instead—but I have the memories of working side-by-side with people who did.

When I went to grad school, I thought academia was a new game with new rules. I was only partially right.

There’s one moment that stuck with me. It occurred in what must have been my first year in graduate school. I sat in my advisor’s office. Our chairs faced each other. Our knees nearly touched because, I assume, my advisor was in some sort of dare to see how many bookshelves and filing cabinets he could fit into his small office. I proudly handed him a freshly-printed sheet of paper with a table of means from a study we’d been running in the lab. Rather than a quick approving nod, there was silence. His eyes were fixed on this piece of paper for 15 minutes. He didn’t say a word. He didn’t move. He thought and I sat. It’s kind of awkward sitting next to another person in silence; each minute feels like an eternity. But I swear you could feel his brainpower pressing against the paper. Then, finally, he scrawled a few notes onto the margins of the paper and then sent me off to think about it.

There were two things I learned that day. First, his penmanship was horrible. Second, he gleaned an insight that I didn’t.

I don’t remember that moment because it was something new, I remember it because it was so darned familiar to me. It was reminiscent of fetching boards for a master carpenter. This familiarity was comforting to me. Thinking and writing was now my work. And I knew how to work.

Now I spend most of my days at a computer. I put words together on a screen and fuss over them until I’m satisfied. I get to take walks around a beautiful college campus. I don’t milk cows. I don’t roll hay. If I swing a hammer, it’s because I am doing a small task around my home. My once-nicked-up fingers now type all day and I have yet to receive my first work-related injury. On the surface, it’s about as far from my upbringings as possible.

Even though my past and present seem like different worlds, there was no better preparation for academia than the upbringing I had. I learned more about writing by watching farmers in their fields than I did in any college-level writing class I’ve taken. Roll up your sleeves. Get your hands dirty. Your skills will be better than yesterday but take years to accrue. Stick with it. Whether it’s constructing homes or sturdy declarative sentences, valuable skills are hard-earned.

declutter your writing

I’ve been tracking the feedback I give to my students as they write their manuscripts for a class research project. The most common feedback is, to quote Strunk and White, “omit needless words.”

Early drafts are filled with words that don’t do any work. Simply removing unnecessary words will sharpen your ideas and make your writing voice sound more confident.

However, merely saying “omit needless words” is vague. It’s only slightly better than saying, “to write better you need to write better.” Thanks for the advice. How, exactly, is one supposed to omit needless words?

Here are seven concrete ways to prune your writing. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’ll get you started.

  1. Choose tighter phrasing.
    • Replace furthermore with further*
    • Replace in order to with to
    • Replace whether or not with whether
    • Replace due to the fact that with because
    • Etc.
  2. Remove extra “that”s.
    • Participants were told that they would compete against another participant in a multi-round reaction time game.
  3. Remove implied words.
    • Participants were in the process of completing their essays when they were interrupted by the researcher.
  4. Make things plural.
    • “The participant was then given a survey…” becomes “Participants were then given a survey…”
  5. Turn prepositional phrases into adjectives.
    • “Behaviors that are aggressive” becomes “Aggressive behaviors”
  6. Use adjectives sparingly. If you must use adjectives, choose one wisely—two adjectives are one too many.
    • “The behavior was harsh and harmful” becomes “The behavior was severe”
  7. Intensifiers like “very” or “extremely” can generally be omitted. If the intensifier conveys important information, consider finding a more apt verb or noun that can capture the information in a single word.
    • “The stimuli were presented very quickly” becomes “The stimuli were presented rapidly…”

The real power of these rules is when you apply several of them together. Let’s consider an example paragraph to show how it works. Here’s a paragraph I made up:

“In order to identify responses that were extreme and possibly erroneous, we applied our exclusion criterion that we preregistered. A participant who provided an estimate that was more than five standard deviations from the mean was deemed an outlier. This resulted in the exclusion of 17 participants. Participants in the high anchoring condition estimated that the height of the Empire State Building was much taller than those who were in the low anchoring condition.”

This paragraph is typical of an early draft—it’s grammatically correct but bogged down with extra words. Grab a knife and trim some fat.

In order To identify responses that were extreme and possibly erroneous invalid responding, we applied our preregistered exclusion criterion that we preregistered. A participant Participants who provided an estimate that was more than five standard deviations from the mean was were deemed an outliers [making this plural also makes it clearer that the 5 SD is your exclusion rule and not merely describing one person who was excluded]. This resulted in the exclusion of 17 participants. Participants in the high anchoring condition estimated that the height of [implied by “taller”] the Empire State Building was much taller than those who were in the low anchoring condition.”

Here it is without the strikethrough text and commentary.

“To identify invalid responding, we applied our preregistered exclusion criterion. Participants who provided an estimate more than five standard deviations from the mean were deemed outliers. This resulted in the exclusion of 17 participants. Participants in the high anchoring condition estimated that the Empire State Building was taller than those in the low anchoring condition.”

The revised paragraph is not perfect. I would still do quite a bit of wordsmithing before I was satisfied. But the simple act of removing a few words made it much better.

*This, of course, does not omit a word. But it saves the reader a syllable. Extra syllables add up.

Thoughts on “hostile appraisals”: namin’ ain’t explain’

In the past few decades, aggression researchers have emphasized the role of cognitive structures and processes in understanding aggressive behaviors. Understanding how people think can deepen our understanding of when and why people behave aggressively. As a consequence of all this research, aggression researchers, like any in-group that looks for useful labels, have created a vocabulary for describing various phenomena. It is commonplace to read an academic aggression article and see terminology such as hostile expectation bias or hostile attribution bias.

As buzzy as these labels sound, sometimes they are used imprecisely.  

Take, for instance, a class of phenomena that aggression researchers have lumped together under the umbrella hostile appraisals—a sort of label under which we can place other labels. So far, there have been three supposedly distinct phenomena that have been placed under this umbrella: hostile attribution bias, hostile perception bias, and hostile expectation bias. In the future, I wouldn’t be surprised to see others tucked under this umbrella too.

Here is a good description of hostile appraisals taken from Bushman (2016). I’ll use this passage just to provide concrete examples, but this type of wording is commonplace.

This passage (and others like it) sound pretty straightforward. But there is a subtle conflation between describing the hostile biases as an empirical effect and as a process through which the effect operates.

Let’s break that down.

Are hostile appraisals empirical effects? It seems so. Hostile expectation bias, for example, is described as “the tendency to assume that people will react to potential conflicts with aggression.” Thus, hostile expectations are an observation. The meta-analysis this passage is taken from examined whether exposure to violent media affected hostile expectations. Thus, the empirical effect is that violent media is causing a systematic change in an outcome variable that is labeled “hostile expectations.” The cognitive process through which violent media causes a change in hostile expectations is important, but is conceptually distinct from this basic violent media-hostile expectation (input-output) relationship.

Are hostile appraisals cognitive processes? It also seems so. These hostile biases are claimed to influence the appraisal and decision process. That these biases are considered a cognitive process is abundantly clear when you look at other passages from this manuscript such as, “[a]ccording to the General Aggression Model, internal states can influence appraisal and decision processes. This meta-analysis focuses on hostile appraisals.” When you look at the accompanying diagram, a common-sense reading is that these hostile appraisals are something that occurs in the box labeled “present internal state” because that would be the point at which they can affect the box labeled “appraisal and decision processes.”

So what? This conflation of hostile-appraisals-as-an-effect and hostile-appraisals-as-a-process can lead to statements such as, “hostile expectation biases (an effect) are caused by hostile expectation biases (a cognitive process).” This obviously is a non-sensical statement.

For this reason, we need to maintain conceptual distinctions between the empirical effect and the process through which that effect operates. If we describe hostile appraisals as an empirical effect, which I think is the right course of action, then we need to describe the process through which that effect operates using different terminology. Ideally, the process is described in clear, mechanistic, and testable terms. You cannot merely say there is a “hostile bias” happening in the cognitive process—namin’ ain’t explainin’.

This conceptual distinction is important beyond precise wording. If we reserve the label hostile appraisals exclusively to talk about empirical effects, then it is possible that we can discover several cognitive processes through which that effect might operate. For example, we might find that sometimes a hostile expectation occurs through process A and sometimes through process B. Further, we might find that several different phenomena that we lump together under the hostile appraisal umbrella might actually have a common process. For example, we might discover that hostile expectations and hostile attributions work through the same cognitive process and we give them different labels merely because we use different outcome measures. In this case, suppose violent media initiates cognitive process A. If we measure the expression of cognitive process A using one outcome, we might label the effect a “hostile attribution,” and if we measure the expression of the same cognitive process using another outcome, we might label the effect a “hostile expectation.” These possible discoveries get lost if we do not respect the conceptual distinction between the to-be-explained effect and the process through which those effects operate.

turn in your best end-of-semester research paper

See the source image

I’ve been teaching an upper-level psychology lab course for the past few years. Over the course of the semester, students conduct their own research project and, by the end, write a paper describing their project. It is my favorite class to teach.

Even though I don’t intend for it to be intimidating, this research paper is almost universally viewed by students as a battle that looms large on the horizon that they will someday have to fight, just not today, unless tomorrow is the due date.

In addition to being unpleasant, an I’ll-write-it-later approach is a bad way to write well. It gets the job done, but not as well as it could be.

I think what makes writing a research paper daunting is that the writing process is often murky. It’s like being asked to build a table without understanding the steps that are involved–you know what the final product is supposed to be, but the process of going from a pile of wood to a table is vague, at best, to the inexperienced. But when the project–be it a research paper or a table–is broken down step-by-step, it turns out to be not that daunting. In fact, it can be enjoyable to build something with your own hands.

Being able to break down a long-term project into concrete steps, systematically tackling those steps, and sustaining one’s focus and energy on a project until it is completed is an incredibly powerful skill. It’s how anything complex gets done. But it’s a skill that is hard-won. These writing assignments are important for class, but these writing assignments are even more important because it allows students to practice valuable skills. After practicing these skills in several classes over several semesters, students can build the muscles to execute long-term projects and figure out what strategies work for them.

If you are a student and want to turn in the best end-of-semester research paper, then here is a guide. This guide will not guarantee a high grade, but it will help you do your best work. Further, this is not a guide about how to write. Rather, it is a few pointers on the approach you should take to the writing process.

  1. Know what target you are trying to hit. In the very first week of class, look over the syllabus, understand what the end product will be, and how you will be evaluated. Is there a rubric? Is there a page count? If you have questions, ask your instructor for clarification. Do not just start writing and hope to find it along the way. There are enough false starts and dead-ends in the writing process, it’s good to dodge the avoidable ones.
  2. Schedule writing time. Also in the first week, get out your calendar and schedule (at least) 1-hour blocks of writing time (at least) once per week. Don’t mentally schedule the time, actually put it into your calendar as an obligation. Putting it in your calendar will make a world of difference. It commits you to regular writing time. Now, aggressively protect that time like you would an important meeting. If you cannot commit to 1 hour per week, at a minimum, then you need to look hard at what else is filling your calendar and be very honest with yourself. Not many things should trump your writing time.
  3. Write during your writing sessions. During your writing time, you are doing one thing–you are writing. You are not writing and texting with a friend. You are not writing and watching Netflix. You are not writing and thinking about your weekend. There is no “writing and” in your writing sessions, there is only writing. This is easy to say and hard to do. Focusing during your writing time is a skill that you must constantly be working on.
  4. Eliminate distractions. Get lost, as in find a place where others will not disturb you. Shut off the notifications for your email (at least during your writing sessions, but consider doing this all the time). Shut down all the tabs to the internet. Use the focus setting in Microsoft Word. You do not need your phone during your writing time. The world will be right where you left it when you are done writing.
  5. Have a starting ritual. Have some ritual to signify that your writing session is beginning. For me, it is grabbing a cup of coffee and shutting down internet tabs. Sip, click, go!
  6. Use a timer. Do not try to focus on writing and monitor a clock. That is a horrible way to use your attention. As far as timers go, get it, set it, and forget it. This frees up more of your attentional capacity to focus on your writing. I use the timebox app. For your 1-hour writing session, write for 20 minutes and take a 5-minute break. Write for another 20 minutes and take another 5-minute break. Then write for your last 10 minutes. Be strict with these times. Do not start your breaks early and end them late. Your mind can easily turn a 5-minute break into a 15-minute break if you are not careful. You will be amazed at how much you can write if you actually write during your writing sessions.
  7. Assess. At the end of each writing session, make sure you are on track to complete your paper by the deadline. Do you need to add more writing sessions? Adjust your schedule accordingly.
  8. Reflect. Also, reflect on what went well for you and what did not. What were your distraction pitfalls? What is the plan to combat those in the future? Self-reflection is crucial to improving the way you do knowledge work. Over time, you will build a feel for what works for you. It is a great feeling when everything gels and you are productive. But that doesn’t happen by chance, you have to self-reflect and make it happen.

Happy writing!

lions and tigers and academic writing…oh my

MacBook Pro on top of brown table

 

Here’s a familiar story: A scientist sits down to write a manuscript and, rather than creating a crisp and coherent presentation of information, meanders aimlessly for several pages instead. This story is a tragedy.

How can we avoid such tragic situations? Try thinking of your manuscripts like a great novel or a blockbuster movie.

To demonstrate what I mean, let’s look at one specific type of story structure–the 3-act structure–and how it can be applied to a generic scientific manuscript.

A brief overview of the 3-act structure

The 3-act structure is the most common plot structure for stories. This structure not only has a beginning, middle, and end, but also has a familiar cadence and predictability in the events that occur during these different stages. This structure is battle-tested. It is rhythmic. And, most relevant to this post, this structure is a familiar framework onto which you can hang your scientific arguments.

Act I, the exposition: This is the part of a story where the settings and the characters are established. It situates the reader in the world in which the story will unfold. It familiarizes the reader with the typical state of affairs. And it gives the reader a reason to care about the fate of your main characters. 

After the lay of the land is established, Act I ends with an “inciting incident.” The inciting incident upends the typical state of affairs, disrupts what has just been established, and heaves the story in an unanticipated direction. This incident could be a positive event such as a desperately poor character winning the lottery or a catastrophe such as a boat wreck that leaves the characters stranded on an uninhabited island. The important thing is that after the inciting incident occurs, the typical state of affairs is disrupted and the protagonist is unwillingly propelled into action. They now must address the changes that have been initiated by the inciting incident. 

Notice that an inciting incident would not have any weight if the reader did not first care about the protagonist or if it did not cause a jarring shift from the exposition. The inciting incident creates a problem that must be solved. 

Act II, rising action: The protagonist understands the problem before them and establishes a goal to solve it. This part of the story typically involves roadblocks and setbacks–an easily-solved problem would not make for a compelling story. During this act, the protagonist’s life is further and further disrupted as they desperately try to solve the problem initiated by the inciting incident. These roadblocks provide tension in the story. The plot sharpens focus, the stakes are ratcheted higher and higher with each setback, and the protagonist must achieve their goal or else all will be lost. 

The plot barrels down the road towards a high-stakes scene where the protagonist will finally have an opportunity to solve the problem initiated by the inciting incident once and for all.

Act III, the resolution: This act includes the climax–the make-or-break scene where the protagonist lays it all on the line and will either achieve their goal or not. Think of the big fight scene of pretty much any action film. Or the scene where an ex-lover busts open the church doors and disrupt a wedding ceremony in a last-ditch effort to win back their ex-lover. Or a perilous escape on a rickety raft from the island? Is the fight won or lost? Does the guy get the girl? Are the castaways rescued? The climax is a compact, focused scene, where the problem initiated by the inciting incident comes to a head. 

Act III also includes the denouement: The post-climax scene where the story’s theme is reiterated and any loose ends are tied up. 

Applying this to academic writing

Now let’s look at how the 3-act structure can be applied to academic writing. To do so, I will present the plot to The Wizard of Oz alongside a hypothetical replication study. 

Act I: Set the scene and get the reader to care about the topic. Introduce the inciting incident. 

The Wizard of Oz: Dorothy lives a lonely life on a farm in Kansas and she feels unappreciated by her family. A tornado carries her away from her home and she lands in Oz. 

Hypothetical Replication Study: Present the strongest argument for a previously-published effect and why the reader should care about this effect. Then, as strongly as possible, introduce some motivation for conducting a replication. 

The power of both of these examples comes from the juxtaposition of the first sentence with the second. There should be a contrast. An incompatibility. A problem that must be solved. 

Landing in Oz greatly disrupts Dorothy’s life. She is now forced to confront the consequences of this incident. Similarly, the motivation for conducting the replication must be compelling enough that one cannot look at the previously-published effect the same way without some sort of resolution.

Without a stark contrast, the impetus will not be apparent to the reader. The impact of the inciting incident on the exposition makes it clear what action must be taken. The reader is intrigued.  

Act II: Solving the problem caused by the inciting incident 

The Wizard of Oz: Dorothy must get to the Emerald City, period. Everything else in her life takes a backseat to this goal. Along the way, she encounters challenges: Trees throw apples at her; there are lions and tigers and bears, oh my!; and a field of poppies puts her to sleep. Despite these twists and turns, she keeps plodding towards her goal of reaching the Emerald City. But even reaching the Emerald City turns out not to be the end. There is one more challenge. Dorothy must go to the Witch’s castle, get past the flying monkeys, and confront the Witch. The whole story has been leading to this point. Tensions are sky-high. The viewer knows the confrontation with the Witch is the make-or-break moment for Dorothy. 

Hypothetical Replication Study: In a replication study, the challenges and roadblocks are the methods. If an effect exists, then it must overcome several obstacles the researcher puts in its path. These roadblocks take the form of double-blinding, attention checks, high statistical power, accounting for as many lurking confounds as possible, precisely executing the methods, etc. And if that’s not enough, the researcher throws down preregistrations, open data, sensitivity analyses, and flying monkeys (maybe not the flying monkeys). The goal is to sharpen the focus of the study, maximize the diagnosticity of the methods, and set up the high-stakes presentation of the results. As with The Wizard of Oz, the reader feels that everything has been leading up to this point. What will the results reveal?

Act III: The climax and tying up loose ends. 

The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy defeats the Witch (“I’m melting…melting”) and finds a way home (“There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home”). Dorothy overcomes the challenges put forth by the inciting incident. Also, all the loose ends are tied up: The Tin Man gets a heart, the Cowardly Lion gets a medal for bravery, the Scarecrow gets a diploma, and Dorothy gains a new appreciation for her family. 

Hypothetical Replication Study. It’s all been leading to this, the big scene. What were the results? What are the implications? The author should create a beautiful figure to display the most important finding. The exciting part of science is the results are not predetermined: In science, the guy does not always get the girl, the good guys do not always defeat the bad guy, etc. The data are what they are. 

In the Discussion, the author reiterates the theme of the study and ties up loose ends. Was there anything unexpected? Does the author want to tease a sequel? 

Wrapping up

Writing the overall flow of information in a scientific manuscript is hard. But framing this process in familiar terms may help think about how this information could be best presented. If you’re having a hard time thinking of the overall plot of your academic manuscripts, try thinking of the 3-act structure. Your next academic manuscript might just be a page-turner. 

 

self-editing your writing

If you have a draft of your manuscript, congratulations! You have slain the “monster of blank pages,” the fearsome beast that intimidates even the most capable of writers. I know you are tired, perhaps even exhausted. Rest, for now, but do not stop here. Your hero’s journey is not complete, you are merely at the beginning of the next stage of your saga. 

You must now turn your attention towards editing your draft–the gentle sanding process that makes your final paper smooth to the touch. 

One way of editing your final paper is to ask another reader for feedback. However, prematurely asking another person to look over your first draft is a sure-fire way to receive feedback about minor grammatical errors, misspellings, and trifles that you could have identified yourself had you put in the effort. Such readers get mired in muck and will be unable to fully provide the feedback you are seeking. Beyond inefficiency, this basic editing work is the responsibility of the author. Thus, sending your draft to a reader too soon is offloading the hard work of editing–your work–onto another person. 

Before sending your manuscript to another person, it is your duty to edit, edit, edit. Unfortunately, editing your own writing is hard. And doing it well is even harder.

Where do you begin? This is a difficult question to answer for novice writers. And sadly, I, a relatively more experienced writer, cannot fully give you an answer. What I can offer is a glimpse into my self-editing process. I sincerely hope this pulling back of the curtain allows you to benefit from my experiences and may give you ideas on how you can move forward. 

Here is my self-editing process. 

  1. Give it time. If possible, complete your draft and let it sit. Watch a movie. Go about your weekend. The longer the better. Then you can revisit your draft with fresh eyes. In your first rereading of your manuscript, focus on the “big picture”: Is the major organization of information logical? Does one section naturally lead to the other? Does each paragraph within those sections naturally lead to the next? Perhaps there are gaping holes that must be filled or tangents that must be cut. In your first pass, focus on the forest, not the trees. Do not get bogged down in the minutiae of editing sentences or phrases that may be axed. 

Once your sections are in order, and the paragraphs within those sections are also in order, I then read for flow. I look for long sentences that can be broken into shorter, punchier sentences. I add transition words such as “however,” “consequently,” “nevertheless,” “moreover,” “accordingly,” etc. These transition words let the reader know how the different parts of your manuscript are logically related to one another. It holds the reader by the hand and guides them through your manuscript.

This first stage is all about kneading your manuscript until it takes the shape you want. It is not uncommon to delete or cut-and-paste entire paragraphs (or sections!) during this stage. You may need to write, step away, and revisit your writing several times before moving on. Yes, this step takes time. 

Now set down your ax and grab a chisel, it is time to move in closer. For me, I tackle the mechanical parts of writing next. 

2. Separate editing tasks. Take several passes through your manuscript only focusing on one thing at a time. First, look for quick word swaps: Swap out “in order to” with “to”; “whether or not” with “whether”; and “due to the fact that” with “because.” Second, look for intensifiers such as “very” and “really.” Most of the time these intensifiers can merely be deleted. Other times, you need to find a stronger adjective to say what you really mean. Third, search for the word “that” and think about whether each one is necessary. They often are not. Fourth, search for implied words. For example, “the participants were in the process of completing” can be more concisely written as “the participants were completing.” Fifth, search for places where you have multiple adjectives and replace those with one better-suited adjective. 

This step is not about the flow of your paper, it is about clearing away the clutter. It is not uncommon to snip and shave off several lines, one word at a time, from a manuscript during this stage. Remember, take several passes through your manuscript while focusing on one thing at a time in each pass. Hence, this step also takes time. A lot of time. But the result is a well-groomed manuscript. 

3. Use a spelling and grammar checker. Find the squiggly lines in your manuscript. Think about what is being suggested. Understand why a word or phrase got flagged. But do NOT blindly accept the recommended changes because these programs are not always correct (computers are dumb). Address each place in your writing that has been flagged. 

Next, change it up. Try to look at your own writing as a reader would.

4. Read your paper aloud. Your ear will let you know when your writing sounds off. Really pay attention to places where your speaking stumbles because this is an indication your writing needs a tweak. Do this until your writing flows. 

5. Listen. Microsoft Word has a “read-aloud” function. Have the document read to you at least once. Seriously. Close your eyes and listen to your paper. Again, let your ear tell you when a phrase sounds off. 

6. Go Old School. Print the document and go through it with highlighters and colored pens. These are not anachronistic office supplies, these are the tools of successful writers. Holding your paper between your fingers allows you to really notice things that your mind ignores when you are staring at a screen. 

7. Plant a tree to repent for Step 6. 

8. Incorporate changes. Re-open your manuscript on a computer and incorporate all your changes from Step 6. 

9. Change the aesthetics of your manuscript. Make your font two sizes larger. Change the font. Change the color of the font. Go to a new environment. If you write in 12-point Times New Roman black font from your bedroom, try reading your manuscript in 14-point Garamond in navy blue font while you sit at Starbucks. Changing the aesthetics of a familiar manuscript will call attention to the mistakes that are hiding in plain sight. 

10. Reread. Change your manuscript back to the original formatting. Reread your manuscript. 

11. Repeat. Repeat steps 1-10 again. Seriously. 

Once you’ve completed these steps, you are ready to share your writing with others.

A PowerPoint presentation is available here. Feel free to use, share, or modify this presentation any way you want.

the publication recipe

From 8 o’clock in the morning until 5 o’clock in the evening an undergrad research assistant would sit behind the angular metal desk inside of the door of the Harris Aggression Lab. Their job was basically that of a human turnstile: They shepherded the parade of participants through the procedures of the lab’s latest study all day long and ensured the flow of participants coming out don’t bump into the flow of participants going in. To maximize efficiency, the schedule was staggered so that as soon as one of the eight booths was vacated, another participant could fill the void. Like a finely-tuned V8 engine, participants went in-and-out and in-and-out and in-and-out of the eight booths at a perfectly staggered pace. 

The lab’s days were filled with the sound of data being collected–the swooshing sound of the door opening and closing sandwiched between the undergrad research assistant’s friendly-sounding “hello” and a “goodbye.” Thousands of participants would make their way through the Harris Aggression Lab over the course of an academic year going through more-or-less the same routine. Hello. Swoosh. Swoosh. Goodbye. Sometimes two at a time. Hello. Hello. Swoosh. Swoosh. Swoosh. Swoosh. Goodbye. Goodbye. 

These participants would press thousands of buttons on the keyboard and leave behind thousands of rows and columns of numbers that would go into the ether of the lab’s computer system. And these thousands of rows and columns of data were the raw materials the graduate students would use to manufacture the lab’s scientific publications.

Henry Ford would be proud at the efficiency of this operation. 

“Numbers in, publications out,” Bear would flippantly hum as he hammered out the draft of the lab’s next manuscript. Writing up the lab’s publications became his specialty. It was another one of those things that most people found complex, but he found it to actually be quite simple. He also took a sadistic pleasure in how he was able to pass off a few hour’s of mundane writing as serious scholarship, like he was pulling one over on the people who actually took the process of publishing academic articles seriously. Sometimes he felt bad about it, his not taking the publication process serious and all, but never enough to stop him. The peer reviewers and editors were all other academics who probably got into psychology because they thought they were going to be nobly doing science, but they ended up with a crummy job in some small public university they’d never heard of before and sitting in meetings all day. They’d probably get gripes from their students and their department chairs all day and then go home and get it from their spouse. They’d probably be flattered to be invited to peer review an article because it made them feel like they were still doing science and they could say things that seemed to matter. And now Bear was poking fun in his own way through the manuscripts coming out of the Harris Aggression Lab, even though they didn’t know that Bear was poking fun. He just couldn’t help it, the not taking the publication process seriously that is. 

“Do you cook?” Bear asked Cal on one of their long walks along the Mississippi River front. “Because writing these publications is like following a recipe. Once you figure out the recipe, it becomes easy. And I’m not talking about baking bread from scratch either. I’m talking about starting with sliced bread and making toast.” Cal didn’t mind that Bear didn’t care too much about his work, but it really bothered him how brazen and explicit he was about it. At least when Bear was quiet Cal could ignore him. 

Academic articles had a predictable format of Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion sections, which the lab acronymized as IMRaD. Boy, they loved their acronyms as much as they liked their military jargon. 

Sometimes they would use the acronym as a verb: “Do you even IMRaD, bro?” And sometimes they used it as a noun. “You start with the IMRaD,” Bear would explain like he was revealing the secret behind how a card trick is done. Even further than the basic IMRaD structure, the Harris Aggression Lab had amazingly similar content within each of these sections so that it became, well, like a recipe that one had to follow, step-by-step, to bake up the next publication. “And then you just add in the information that you know the peer reviewers and the editor is looking for and nothing else. When you do this,” Bear would explain, “you realize that 90% of the manuscript is just filler words. You can write it in your sleep. You just have to focus on 10% of the stuff that really matters.” A thing as complex as an academic article came easily to him, so he talked as if it came similarly as easy to others. “In the Introduction you want to include some sort of ‘real world’ anecdote so it seems like the study is not merely an academic exercise. You know, mention a school shooting or a crime or something to grab the reader’s’ attention. Then they think the article’s real important and all. In the Methods you write something along the lines of the driving simulator analogy. In the Results you want to make a really nice figure. The peer reviewers will mostly just look at the figure anyways, they don’t check the numbers, so take your time to make the figure extra nice. And in the Discussion you want to add a limitation, such as ‘this was a sample of college students’, and say that ‘more research is needed.’ You know, a little blah blah so that nobody can claim that you are overgeneralizing your results and all. It’ll come easy-peesy once you’ve gone through this process a few times.” 

That was it. The big secret. Follow those steps and the manuscript will fly through the peer-review process and your CV grows one publication longer. Or you end up with toast. Or something. 

“Not to belabor the cooking analogy,” Bear started up again, “but it’s sort of like a health inspector saying that a kitchen is clean based off of how good the food looks. They don’t really want to check the equipment and they don’t really want to check the expiration dates on the ingredients. They just want to ensure the food coming out of the kitchen looks pretty.” 

Cal had a puzzled look on his face. It was an involuntary look of bewilderment. If he was quicker he would have just agreed with whatever Bear was saying just to get him to stop talking. 

“Because the health inspector also is a restaurant owner.” Bear continued to clarify. “If they judge the other restaurant owners easily, then the other owners will judge them easily and they can all keep cooking as fast as they want. It’s a big ol’ food cooking party. And the best part is, that unlike real restaurants, there are no customers. Everybody can make as much food as you can. And then all the restaurant owners can get together once in a while and all enjoy some back-slapping fun over a few beers as they toast about how good their food looks.” As pleased as Cal was that Bear seemed to be passionate about something, Cal really wished Bear would stop talking now. Cal just didn’t want to hear that science was a paint-by-the-numbers activity. 

As much as you want to believe there is more of an art to the writing process, or that the peer-review process is a better quality filter, it was impossible to argue with results. The Harris Aggression Lab flatout knew how to publish scientific articles at a speedy rate. And when the lab’s reputation and livelihood is dependent on the quantity of publications, it seems rational to build the lab’s operation on meeting their needed quota of publications. 

“There’s more to it than that though, right?” Cal asked Bear hoping that Bear knowingly left out the parts about how doing good science is a purposeful endeavor.

“Sorry, but no. This is what we get paid to do: Turn numbers into publications.”

It was an impersonal response. And perhaps it was too brutally honest for Cal to process at the moment. Cal wanted the numbers to actually to be meaningful because that would make their work meaningful and that would mean that he wasn’t just another drone in a factory churning out widgets for “the man.” But it wasn’t. Their work as graduate students was literally just turning rows and columns into scientific publications. It was so far detached from the reality of what they claimed to be studying that it didn’t matter whether those numbers represented aggression or love or hate or the yield of corn per acre in the fields that surrounded Bridgeport. 

“That doesn’t sound very satisfying. That doesn’t sound like science, it sounds like factory work.”

The more Cal thought about it, the worse it got. At least people working in a factory know that they’re just making widgets. There’s an honesty to that work. If researchers are just doing factor work too, then they are also delusional because they don’t even know they’re doing factory work. 

“Again with this soul-nourishing crap,” Bear let out an exasperated exhale at his idealistic friend. “It must be exhausting to constantly be disappointed. Look. I hate to be the one to tell you, but we are basically doing factory work here.” 

Once published, the Harris Aggression Lab would take the extra step of making hashtags for each of their studies, creating figures specifically formatted for sharing on social media, and oftentimes preparing short videos where Dr. Harris himself would give the 30-second summary of the study (which always appeared with a big green “Donate Now! button that would take you to the donation portal on lab’s website). 

The lab also applied their research skills into monitoring the amount of social media likes they got with their posts. They tinkered with how to word things to get maximum impact, which times of the day were best to post new studies, etc. All this information about social media impact was itself compiled into spreadsheets, those numbers would be crunched, and the lab obsessed about business-sounding jargon such as “impact metrics” and “market reach” and “engagement ratios.” The lab also obsessed about finding new metrics to obsess over. To an outsider, it may be hard to tell whether this was a lab that studied aggression or if this was a lab that studied how to effectively market aggression research. The lab was not merely the manufacturers of their product, they also were their own marketing department. And more than most labs, there was a fairly direct link between the lab’s online presence and their ability to bring in funding. 

Another consequence of the emphasis on social media marketing was that as the summary of the articles got more concise and more “shareable,” which is what they called their formatting of the articles for social media consumption, the more the nuance got lost and the sharper the take-home message became. Real data can be messy. Studies don’t always work out perfectly. Scientific publications are filled with nuance and qualifications and phrases the researchers use to hedge their certainty. Although scientifically responsible, the hair-splitting nuance of scientific publications makes the take-home messages wordy, limp, and not punchy. 

The nuance was sanded out of the lab’s videos and social media posts with clever omissions and lawyerly wording that was technically true but obscured any results that were not quite “on brand.” The end result was a highly-confident final product that was devoid of any qualifications or hesitation. The social media posts were filled with definitive and confident action verbs. The take-home from the studies was boiled down to information that people could digest in the small windows of time they used for browsing the information in their social media feed. The information was made bite-sized and ready to reshare or retweet. A click of the button was all it took to amplify the lab’s latest study from the Harris Aggression Lab demonstrating that violent media causes aggressive behaviors.

a first cup of coffee

Cal laid on a pile of blankets in the middle of his boxy studio apartment. He swiped the face of his phone and the glow from the screen pierced the darkness: 5:12 AM. He checked a weather app: Rain. Perfect, he loved rainy days.

Today was the start of a new chapter in his life. He’d received his bachelor’s degree in psychology a few weeks earlier, moved to Bridgeport yesterday afternoon, and would be starting a graduate program in Social Psychology at Wisconsin State University in August. His wide-open eyes stared into the blackness of his apartment as he fantasized of using a “Dr.” and a “Ph.D.” as bookends to his otherwise plain name. He was giddy that in a few years he would be Dr. Calvin Olson, Ph.D.

Cal flipped a switch and the apartment lit up. It was still dark outside, so the glass on his curtainless windows became mirrors that stared back at him. He slowly rotated his head from left to right as he surveyed his apartment: No furniture, no bed, no television; just six cardboard boxes packed with clothes, a laundry basket full of books, and the bivouac of blankets and pillows he’d slept on the night before. He didn’t even attempt to put his things away when he moved in yesterday, he just neatly lined up boxes along the wall, which was a proactive step to prolong how long he could live without unpacking. He was in Bridgeport to devote himself to science, at least that’s what he told himself, which was a vague enough excuse to avoid doing anything he didn’t want to, such as unpack. He also liked the stereotype of the monastic graduate student who sacrificed material comforts in a single-minded pursuit of his passion. So his stuff would remain in the moving boxes both as a rationalization for procrastinating and because he eagerly embraced the role of an overly-devoted graduate student.

Cal broke the silence of his empty apartment with a primal yawn that started as a groan and ended as a grunt. After years of living with roommates, it felt liberating, almost taboo, to make noise at this early hour. So he exercised his new freedom by talking to himself, which, ironically, meant he was talking merely because there was nobody to hear what he was saying.

“Let’s get cleaned up,” he cheerily said to the empty apartment. After showering, he slowly ran his hand across a 3-day beard. “To shave or not to shave,” he said to the man in the mirror. “Nope,” the man answered. A little scruff is more fitting with the “starving graduate student” look he was going for.

Cal picked up the half-read book that was written by his soon-to-be advisor, Violent Media by Dr. Jack Harris, and threw it into his backpack. Just looking at this book roused a fluttering sense of inspiration that tickled his belly. He also tossed a new moleskin notebook into his backpack, which was anachronistic way to track his thoughts amongst the techy university crowds that preferred digital note-taking, but Cal joked that he wanted to document his scientific career in a manner that would be preserved for eternity like the da Vinci codices. Finally, he tugged his phone charger out of the wall, shoved it into his backpack as he left his apartment.

“Today’s gonna be a great day.” He wasn’t sure if he actually said that aloud or if he merely thought it as he gently closed his apartment door.

The rain pounded the sidewalk as he rounded his shoulders and shortened his stride so he could hide himself under the canopy of his umbrella. The chimes from the campus clock tower reverberated throughout the valley: Gong! Gong! Gong! Gong! Gong! Gong! 6 AM. The raindrops firmly pelted Cal’s umbrella as he sloshed his way through downtown Bridgeport: Dat! Dat! Dat!

Just around the corner from Cal’s apartment was a lighted storefront in an otherwise dusky downtown Bridgeport. He peered through the rain to steady his course towards a blinking black-and-red neon sign like a ship using a lighthouse to navigate stormy waters. “Just head towards the light,” he reminded himself as he tipped his umbrella into the wind. The sign in the window read The Grind.


The Grind was a small cafe that sat on the eastern edge of campus, which itself sat on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River. The brick walls were filled with shelves of old books of no particular genre and in no particular order. WSU paraphernalia and black-and-white photos of campus peppered the walls as if to imply this place has existed as long as the university itself. The drinks were served in kitschy coffee cups that were collected at yard sales over the years. It was the type of place where strangers felt familiar and the customers shared their coffee with the ghosts of the alumni’s youth.

This coffee shop has the circadian rhythm of a spry old man; it is quiet when the sun is rising and setting and lively during the day. It was confident with its identity and was comfortable merely remaining the same within a quickly-changing world rather than chasing fads.

The mornings are filled with early-risers enjoying a cup of coffee. A handful of professors and graduate students getting in a few peaceful hours of work before the rest of the world awakens. Eventually, as the sun rises completely above the eastern bluffs that overlook Bridgeport, the trickle of customers slowly becomes a non-stop parade. The sounds of individuals ordering a morning cup of coffee gradually intensifies into a crescendo of the indistinct din of a small crowd. The caffeine and the bustle creates a hubbub of energy that lasts throughout the day. The air is filled with the clickety-clack of fingers striking keyboards and the yackety-yack of conversation between friends. There is a non-stop ballet of customers and baristas exchanging money and coffee. Then, as the sun gets low and the shadows of the WSU clocktower get long, the pace inside The Grind slows again. The evening customers typically consist of friends who prefer the quiet cafe atmosphere to the loudness of the local bars and an easily-overlooked student who is in the early stages of an all-nighter. Eventually the lights of the cafe goes dark until the next morning when it starts all over again.

Like many businesses surrounding universities, the busyness of The Grind also ebbs and flows with the university’s calendar. Each autumn, the leaves on the trees that fill the bluffs of southwest Wisconsin become brilliantly red and orange, the college football season begins, and thousands of students return to campus full of optimism and hormones. For nine months out of the year, the buzz of students swarming around downtown Bridgeport fills the air. The Grind serves as both a workspace and social gathering place for the WSU community. However, the coming and going of students is like geese migrating north and south with the changing seasons. Students leave a few weeks after the snow melts in the spring and, for a few months, the town is quiet. During the summer The Grind is merely filled with the smell of coffee and old books; a quiet place where it’s possible for a thinker to think a thought and a writer to write a word. Customers stay and sit, they conversate, they commune, they do not have someplace else to be. And then, when a new academic year begins, the students return to Bridgeport and the whole cycle begins anew.

And so it continues. The atmosphere of The Grind predictably changes both with the clock and the calendar. Students ride this carousel–the daily up-and down and yearly round-and-round–for a few laps until a new group of students get their turn.


Cal sat at a tall table near the window at the front of the cafe. His coffee was served in a Charlie Brown Christmas mug, which amused him considering that it was early June. “OK. Time to get to work,” he said to himself as he opened Violent Media to the page marked with a neon pink post-it note. A passage struck him. He pulled out his moleskin notebook and wrote “Exposure to violent media causes increases in aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, Jack Harris, Violent Media, page 124.” He nodded in satisfaction at this literary gem he’d discovered and silently mouthed the words as he reread the quote he’d just written down.

As much as he wanted to focus, the excitement of being in such a place kept pulling his attention from his book. Occasionally, Cal would study the old photos hanging on the wall and reflect on how he will soon be part of the long WSU tradition. Perhaps in 50 years there would be students looking at a photo of him. Perhaps his would be a generic face of WSU’s history. Perhaps the photo of Cal would someday look as outdated as the black-and-white photos look to him now. Perhaps someday he would produce a thought worth quoting and future students would point at the picture of the famous Calvin Olson. Perhaps. Someday.

He explored the shelves when he needed to stretch his legs. He’d lean to the side to better read the vertical spines of the books. He pulled out a ragged paperback about ice fishing and read a few lines. Then he closed his eyes and imagined how a blind person would experience the book. The old pages felt fragile like dried leaves and, if he concentrated really hard, he could detect the fishy smell of bluegill from the hands of the original owner. But just holding the book gave him a warm glow of inspiration that he wanted to capture and preserve. Each book was precious. The creation of the hard work of the author thinking each thought and crafting each sentence. He was holding a piece of art. The bookshelves of old books was a museum full of masterpieces. Cal wanted to hide from the world and hold each book–reading was quiet, mindful, and slow; the world was loud, distracting, and fast–even though he knew he wouldn’t have the time to read them once the semester started.

The bell attached to the back of the door would jingle and the sound of rain battering the sidewalk got louder whenever somebody entered. Cal peered over the top of his book to examine each new customer. If somebody looked his way, he lowered his glance to avoid eye contact and pretended to read. For amusement, he used these customers as characters in stories that he would play in his mind’s eye. For example, a middle-aged woman, perhaps 50, casually walked in and ordered a Chamomile tea. She looked bookish and Bohemian. She carried what appeared to be a homemade purse from which a sturdy book peered out the top. She must be an academic, which would make sense being this close to campus. Cal’s mind went to work filling in the blanks. Perhaps she was a world-renowned expert on the Oregon Trail. No wait, perhaps she was an expert in the prohibition-era Mafia or Jane Austen novels. Perhaps she was a chemist. A great chemist! And she was an inspiration to other female chemists because female scientists are rare, especially in the hard sciences. She probably would have interesting stories about being a female in a male-dominated profession. Cal knew she was probably none of these things, but it excited him to imagine that she might be one of those things. He could be ten feet away from a world-famous chemist!

In a moment of indulgence, Cal closed his eyes and soaked in the inspiration that seemed to radiate into his soul from every direction. Coffee! Books! Reading for work! Tickling his mind with idle thoughts of impressive-sounding titles and imagining being in the presence of world-renowned scientists! He was in heaven. Cal daydreamed this was how he would feel every day for the next five years, even though he knew it was just that, a silly daydream. He knew there was hard work and long days ahead. But indulging in these fantasies, if only for a moment, gave him an energy and yearning for the long-days and drudgery of graduate school. And that’s how he spent his morning.

Although the rain lightened, Cal still needed an umbrella as he marched back to his apartment. He hung his wet umbrella and his damp shoes in the shower. He sat on his pile of blankets in the middle of the mostly-empty apartment and ate a box of crackers as he continued reading Violent Media. It was important he knew this book inside-and-out, front-to-back, cover-to-cover, upside-down and downside-up, because Dr. Jack Harris was going to be his advisor over the next few years and he had a meeting with him tomorrow. Cal desperately wanted to make a good first impression. He watched all the videos of Dr. Harris he could find online, followed his social media accounts, and, now, was reading his newly-released book.

The summer rain created a peaceful backdrop of white noise and Cal didn’t know a soul in Bridgeport who could possibly interrupt his reading. He had a new book, hours of uninterrupted silence, and he was giddy with the limitless daydreams of graduate school that were unencumbered by reality. He was free to think and dream.  

When his mind would wander from fatigue, Cal snapped it back to the task at hand. “Focus!” Cal would tell himself. Sometimes he would jokingly yell it in a funny voice to break the silence of his apartment. “Focus!” And he’d laugh at how he chose to use his freedom. Then he would remind himself that he was now in graduate school and that he should not indulge in such immature thoughts.

There was a chapter about how listening to songs with violent lyrics made people angry, a chapter about how reading about how getting rejected on social media increased aggressive thoughts, and a chapter about how violent movies made people behave aggressively. The chapters were imbued with real-life instances of violence, like murders and school shootings, and then described the science of how violent media was implicated in each of these tragedies. The one-two combination of anecdotes pulling on your emotions and science pushing on your logic made for a persuasive narrative. The book ended on a beautifully optimistic note of how reducing media violence could contribute to a better and more peaceful world. Just like society should strive to not expose future generations to hazardous toxins in our environments, we should not pollute their minds with violence through media that is so pervasive in our 21st century social environments. If the awesome power of media was harnessed and focused in a positive direction, it could be used to produce so much good in this world. This optimism warmed Calvin’s heart like the first sip of a hot cup of coffee in a cold winter’s day. The way that Dr. Harris had ended a book about violence on such an upbeat note was masterful weaving together of pessimism and optimism like a maestro who had full command of the range of orchestra’s sounds that could be woven together into a beautiful concerto.  

Although it was still cloudy and grey outside–like he watched his day unfold in a black-and-white movie–his daydreams were in technicolor. This was the best day of Cal’s life so far. Cal felt the weight of the book in his hands as he read the final pages and nodded in satisfaction. He looked at Dr. Harris’ picture in the book jacket one last time before slowly closing it and laying his head down. He couldn’t believe that he would actually get to meet Dr. Harris tomorrow.