How I Write - Conversation Transcript
John Bravman approaches writing in a particular manner he developed as a materials scientist: “Assemble your story in pictures . . . then write the story around that. For me, writing the most detailed, complex, scientific paper is still about telling a story – with a beginning, a middle, and an end. And for me it works best with building that around illustrations.” To this visual, story-telling technique, he adds the KISS principle – “Keep It Simple, Stupid” – in order to produce clear, unembellished prose. As a scientist and as a university administrator, he is constantly working with multiple authors, writing and re-writing, often “bleeding” a red pencil all over the page. This mode of persistent revision fits his style of work very well: “I write like Beethoven, not like Mozart, minus the talent. Beethoven wrote and rewrote and rewrote his works,” while Mozart could dash off exquisite works almost fully formed. John Bravman does not dash off anything; he carefully considers every article, memo or letter.
In this conversation, John discusses his techniques, his work style, his nest of 6 or 7 computers all operating at the same time – and he also discusses his attitudes, his passion for learning, and his love for Stanford. He reads voraciously, subscribing to 60 magazines, and he observes that the best way to learn about writing is to read. He knows he’s come a long way – at least by the standards of his freshman writing teacher (back in 1976) who would be very surprised to see him in a conversation about writing nearly thirty years later: “I was not a good writer in college or high school at all, and struggled quite a bit with writing, and so if there’s any message at all it’s that if I can get to a position where I can write competently, then I feel that anyone can.” John Bravman’s writing considerably more than “competent.” He is, in fact, a master of lectures and oral presentations, a precise scientific writer, and an administrator who can translate his educational vision into vigorous and vivid prose.
Transcript of How I Write Conversation with John Bravman
HO: Welcome to How I Write. I’m Hilton Obenzinger, associate director of the Undergraduate Research Program, and I work with students on honors writing and other kinds of advanced writing. And this is sponsored by URP and Stanford Writing Center, and this is the writing center, if you’ve never been here before. We’ve been having this series of conversations, talking with people, faculty, also some graduate students. And it will be even a broader range of people who, in one way or another, are involved in writing, whether as historians or political scientists, engineers, biologists, etc.—to get their experiences of what’s involved, from their point of view, in writing. Content, of course, is always important, but there’s the issue of how do actually go about doing it, what happens when you get stuck, how do you get ideas, what kind of environment do you like to work in. And what we’ve discovered, this is the second year of doing this, is that people have a really wide and wild range of how they do this. Mary Lou Roberts teaches in the History department—well, she left this year to another university—but talking with her, she will write 80 pages before she figures out what it is she’s writing about, what her argument is, she basically writes it out. And she is used to the fact that she tosses 80 pages, it doesn’t bother her. She also likes to write with light rock radio...she hates light rock, but it fills up the air with white noise and if she listened to something that she really liked, she wouldn’t be able to write. If she listened to something that she really liked then she wouldn’t be able to write. Every half hour she stops and plays a video game. You know, sounds familiar? Like every half hour you stop and check your email. So, you know, she has very particular ways that she does things. David Abernathy, who is a just retired emeritus from Political Science, will not write anything unless he has his argument and everything he wants to say totally worked out. He kept extensive logs doing research and then writing commentaries and developing his argument that way...it’s not as if he’s not doing any writing, but he won’t write an article, he won’t write a chapter, he won’t write anything until he knows everything about what he wants to say. And his last project was a study—a historical and political science study of Western colonialism from its beginnings all around the world. A large task. It took him 15 years to write because of the way he works. In fact, it had consequences because during the academic year he was very involved in academic committees and teaching and very excited, everything, and then come summertime he would hibernate and do his writing work. Because he didn’t write articles—journal articles—en route or anything of that sort, he started getting a reputation as a lazy academic who, once he got tenure, didn’t produce anything, and couldn’t get grants to take a year off for writing because the CV—his resume—didn’t reflect work. He eventually produces this book. Usually with an academic book you have two or three reviewers look at the book. Because he didn’t produce things for such a long time seven reviewers looked at the book before it got approved for publication...highly acclaimed book, wonderful book. But then I talked to him after our discussion and I said, “You know, I could give you some ideas about maybe how you could speed up your writing process...” “NO!” He’s adamant about the way he does it. So those are just two examples, and just talking with Eric Roberts, for example, the way he puts together books—textbooks—explaining things and how he draws from different things, and his whole process. You learn certain other things as well. For example, a computer scientist who refuses to have a computer at home—you work here and if you’re working on computers you don’t bring it home—and who refuses, religiously almost, to watch television. Interesting work styles and habits that all feed into the way that he approaches writing, for example. So those are just a couple of examples of very, very different types of work styles and how people approach this. What we’re doing is talking with people over the course of the years, you know, Andrea over there behind the desk, director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric, is running a 5-year longitudinal study over the course of 5 years of students’ writing on campus. I like to call this our 5 year latitudinal study of what writing has been like among advanced writers, writers who have to work for—have reasons for writing, professional reasons. And we’re getting all kinds of fields, experiences. After 5 or so years we’ll try and pull this all together, in addition to the website, getting different insights about this whole process for how people go about writing.
A: Are you going to write a book about this?
HO: Probably. I’ll probably get stuck. It will take me 15 years to do it. But, you know, we’re learning things. And one of the things that people who come to this learn is different techniques, different things that they could use. Also, great relief that your weird habits may not be so weird after all, about how you approach work. In any case, this evening we’re going to talk with John Bravman, Vice Provost for Undergraduate education—I don’t know if I know all of your positions, but—Professor of materials science, Dean of School of Engineering, Dean of Freshman-Sophomore college. And as an engineer has produced a lot of writing, has supervised a lot of writing, so we have a whole view of writing from the point of view of somebody in engineering and science. But also, as vice-provost, and all the academic positions, the closest thing in some ways that we would have here on campus to someone who has to do business writing: memos, reports, supervising other people, committees who put together things, involved in a writing process of that sort, so a whole range of experiences in terms of writing as well as someone who has been here as an undergraduate, a graduate student, a faculty, who has a view of the Stanford writing process of students, of what it has been like over the course of years. Now--
JB: That’s enough.
HO: That’s enough? Okay, what the process that we do is that I’ll ask a few questions and begin the conversation, then we’ll open it up for all of you to join, ask questions. We’ve got a mic to pass around. We’re using the mic not because it’s so terribly small large that we couldn’t hear each other, but we want to get it on tape so that we can ultimately put stuff up on the website, etc., so keep that in mind as you pass it around. So the way that I ordinarily open up is if you have any—just open-ended, if you have anything you’d like to open up with.
JB: Well, I don’t know where Peter Christmas is, but Peter Christmas was my freshman writing teacher at Stanford in 1976—‘75, '76—winter quarter of 1976. And if he knew I was here today talking about this, he would be shocked. Now, my father, who passed away 14 years ago, would be pleased—although probably shocked, maybe not quite so much anymore—because I really learned from him, first the power of the written word, the power of writing, unfortunately a lesson that I didn’t appropriate well—until well after my student days began. And it was really only at the end of my student days that I thought I was finally making some progress in that regard—there was a little thing called a dissertation to write, and that helps to focus one’s mind. But Peter Christmas would be very surprised that I was here because I was not a good writer in college or high school at all, and struggled quite a bit with writing, and so if there’s any message at all it’s that if I can get to a position where I can write competently, then I feel that anyone can. And I know that. I talk to students about this all the time. Students enter the university with many different skills and levels of ability in many areas. But probably in writing, because it’s so pervasive, you see this most broadly. We have students entering the university who can write at really a full professional level—actually who have written books—and we have students who enter the university—and recalling that this is the best university with the best students anywhere, we have students who, like I did 27 years ago (though probably not quite as badly), really struggle with their ability to write, and so we have a broad spectrum here. So I hope whatever I say here tonight that Peter would be proud.
HO: Well, what is it like in your particular field, writing a journal article – what's the process for you to do that?
JB: Well, it depends on the individual and the individuals—here I mean faculty and groups of students. Largely in the sciences and engineering we do work collaboratively, most journal articles have 2, 3, 4, 5 authors. In some fields of science, high energy physics, you might find 150 authors on a paper. So clearly when you get to that point most of those people have nothing to do with the actual process of writing. With journal articles in science and engineering, authorship reflects contribution to the work reported upon. Now someone, of course, has to actually write those words down, and in groups of 2 or 3 or 4, and for me that’s often myself and 1 or 2, sometimes 3, of my PhD students, that is a collaborative project, to varying degrees. But for the most part, especially in latter years when I’m spending so much of my time in administration and other activities, my PhD students will initiate the paper, and write a first draft, and it starts with that. This is a very different process than you will find in the humanities where the papers, as far as I can tell, have single authors, and that person, of course, has not only the research, but has also written the paper. And social science, depending on the field, can fall at either end of that spectrum. Now, lots of scientists and engineers write lots of single author papers. These might typically be review papers rather than research papers, a long term retrospective on a field or something like that. But if you open up any of the prestigious science and engineering literature, you will find the table of contents dominated by multi-author papers. So that’s the way we write. So graduate students typically do most of the writing at a university in science and engineering, and then there is a process whereby we go back and forth with my red pen on that paper. And depending the subject at hand, depending on the sophistication and maturity of the student, and depending on how well she writes, that may involve a little bit of red ink or it may involve a lot of red ink. And the phrase we often use is, “How much did he bleed on your paper this time?” Sometimes we bleed on papers a lot, and we write with lots and lots and lots and lots of red ink. So, in that regard, of course, I’m not actually—I don’t regard myself as actually writing the paper. Although at times I know students feel like I am writing the paper, at least I’m rewriting the paper. But that's the beginning, and it’s not uncommon to go back and forth five or six iterations, in making remarks on a paper. And I am often frustrated with myself—why can't I find all the things to change in that first pass? And I’ve comforted myself after all these years to think that that’s not really my limitation, it’s the way the process of collaboratively writing a paper goes. Now sometimes it’s because the initial draft is so bad that you can't possibly get to the last issue of refinement when you’re dealing with really major structural issues. But even when the paper is quite good to begin with we often go back and forth as the paper evolves and takes shape and go out from there. Now one further thing I would say that is also very common for scientists and engineers is that we’re data driven. We’re writing about data, we’re writing about how we obtain the data, what the data is, and what we think it means. And then sometimes we make models of the data, too. So those are the four things that engineers and scientists do, pretty much when they write papers. I am definitely, as they say, a visual person. Not so common, I think in academic engineers and scientists, but I clearly am. So what works really well for me—and I’ve taught my students and for the most part they have, I think, responded well to this—is when you write your paper, the first thing you have to do is to assemble the sets of data—be it numerical, be it pictoral, micrographic, what have you—assemble the data that’s going to carry the story forward, make sure you have that, not necessarily—and probably not—in final form, but assemble your story in pictures, because so often one graph, one micrograph, will replace hundreds or even thousands of words. So, get the illustrations, the broad term, lined up and ready to go, then write the story around that. And for me, writing the most detailed, complex, scientific paper is still about telling a story—with a beginning, a middle, and an end. And for me it works best with building that around illustrations.
HO: Let me ask you, earlier when you were saying there’s something with the structure, and you described basic telling the story, is it the structure in the way that it’s discussed or, sometimes in this collaborative way, are there new ways or arguments over content? New ways of viewing the content? Is it the structure of the content or is it simply that you skipped a step in explaining something?
JB: I’m speaking more of the last point that you made. What I find as a common problem that young writers have in developing a style or a voice, or whatever you like to call it, is making the very common mistake early on that writing is the transcription of spoken thought or spoken language. And so many early drafts I get read more like a transcription of a talk they have given. And often we will give talks about a subject before we actually publish something. And so I hear—as I’m reading—I hear my students speaking in a crowd like this, giving a scientific talk. And the flow is not appropriate—does not work—when it’s written down. So it’s things like that or it’s things like bouncing all over the place, not telling a story, and we’re lucky, we’re fortunate in science and engineering in that our stories, in structure, are usually fairly simple and fairly linear, compared to the wonderful flights of imagination that, say on the other end of the spectrum, creative writers get to employ. Where a good writer will take your narrative in certain ways and you may not understand until you get to the last page, and that’s acceptable. That’s not acceptable in scientific and technical writing; its scientific and technical progression, for the most part, is a linear progression, and we tell the story linearly so we can build one step upon the next.
HO: No surprise ending.
JB: Well, sometimes the surprise at the ending is a surprise, but what you do is you read the abstract first and then it’s the same as the last page.
HO: And, in terms of the process, there are set conventions, set ways usually that scientific papers are presented. And there’s a background, a literature review... how you’ve been able to incorporate that, and to what extent, in your field, is the literature review in your field—is it just a small part, is it a major part of a written journal article?
JB: In most of the literature where I publish—such as the Journal of Applied Physics, Journal of Materials Research—papers there run 3 to 10 printed pages, which might be on the order of 10 to 40 or 50 manuscript pages—so not that long. So, what I find is that most of the literature review is worked in and through the text rather than a standard section at the beginning that says “I’m first going to review all the relevant literature in this field.” There often is some of that near the beginning, but then as you are building your story you cite relevant journal articles, rarely texts, usually other journals articles, and—at the appropriate time when you’re building your story. So there’s not an extensive literature review. Now, some fields I know there are, but most of the journals that I am aware of and publish in don’t have that style. They all have their own style with varying degrees of discretion ascribed to the author that the editor will enforce to varying degrees of severity. And so we generally think, when we’re going to start to write a paper, “you know, I think this is probably going to be in Journal of Applied Physics or Journal of Materials Research” –we know what the structure and the relative lengths of those articles are. If we’re going to try to write what’s called a “letter,” that’s a short journal article, 3 pages, 4 pages sometimes max, for Applied Physics Letters¸ we’re going to write that very differently than a long article for Journal of Applied Physics.
HO: So have you ever had the experience of then trying to write for a non-technical audience to describe technical things?
JB: I've done much more speaking about technical things to non-technical audiences, but I’ve long felt that if I have time and if I have a book in me, it’s a book like that. A book about the technical world in which I live and which most people, at that level of detail, have little or no interest, but convey the fact that actually it’s very important to their lives and try to do that in an exciting way.
HO: Well, when you are preparing an oral presentation what’s the process that you go through in terms of trying to put it on a broader level of explanation, rather than assumption of knowing certain technical terms or concepts?
JB: Well, I think this actually gets back to what I said about writing a story, so I'm going to tell a story. And I don't have any magic formulas here. I’m not, and never will be, someone to teach writing or public speaking. This is something that has come to me over time—and from a place where I actually was quite poor at it, to where in public speaking—and especially this kind of talk—I feel quite confident about being able to do that well. I think it involves things like, such as gauging your audience correctly, exciting them in some way, bringing home what you’re telling, bringing home to their lives why it’s important and what they do. And I also think it matters a lot if your sense of excitement and style in conveying the message—this is just like teaching in general, right? If you’re bored with your subject, your audience is going to be bored with your subject, so... But I start with I’m going to tell a story and I’m going to tell it visually. And today I was telling my freshman seminar class—we were reviewing their assignment, their first oral presentation assignment—I said, “I want 40 or fewer words per slide, and 20 or fewer is better. I’ll be happy if you put in 10 or fewer.” So don't read your slides—another very common error for young students first giving their presentations—your words, your excitement, plus the whole visual content of the presentation must work together in an integrated fashion to tell the story. Done well, that can be very exciting. Self-deprecating humor works all the time, too.
HO: When you are actually working—either developing an oral presentation or writing a journal article—where do you do it?
JB: Today almost exclusively in my office at home. That's a change.
HO: At home?
JB: At home. That’s a change. For the first, oh I don’t know, ten years or so of my time here at Stanford on the faculty, I worked in my office at work, generally early in the morning or late at night. It is still early in the morning or late at night, but now it is at home. It just became a more comfortable place for me to be and I have no qualms about saying my office at home is definitely my nest. It’s the way I want it to be, it’s where I am most comfortable. So if I take my laptop out in the kitchen I can do certain things, but I can’t write as well there as I can in my nest. If you saw my nest you’d understand that.
HO: Well, can you describe it? Is it a particular kind of creative jumble or is it very neat?
JB: It’s usually somewhere in between, transitioning back and forth in an oscillating fashion. It's nerd heaven. I have four or five computers running in my office at home, four or five printers, a stereo system, a battery pack
HO: All at the same time?
JB: All at the same time. Have you ever seen the Matrix? So, I like tech toys, so I’ve created this space at home and it’s definitely nerd heaven.
HO: I’m trying to picture working on 6 or 7 computers at the same time.
JB: Oh, I didn’t say working on them...running.
HO: Oh, okay...running. One’s got the email...and the other one....okay.
JB: Email is the bane of my existence. It’s such a powerful thing. It’s really a two-edged sword, as many of you know.
HO: So you’re an email addict?
JB: I have no choice but to be.
HO: How do you—you know, this is another element of writing—how do you...?
JB: Email could be a whole talk in itself.
HO: Because there’s this kind of casualness of email and then there’s people who take it in a more formal way.
JB: So let me talk about that. So, email is a principle means of communication today in the business world. And we really could talk about that extensively.
HO: This is moving into also talking about administrative business writing.
JB: Sure. First of all, remember that the 'e' in email stands for 'evidence'...that’s the first thing the lawyers will tell you. If you don't intend it to be ultimately made public, don't put it in email. Most of us most of the time don’t deal with things like that, but I deal with a fair amount of confidential information, and we have to be careful of what we say. But what Hilton said about the varying degrees of formality that most of us bring to email, we have to be very careful about that. We all probably have had the experience of getting just a blistering email from somebody. And if you know them well you’re thinking what is going on. And if you don’t know them, you think this has got to be just an ogre, an awful person, and then you meet them and they’re all sweetness and light. So we have this tendency, I believe, to be much more open and sort of negative in our opinions in email than we ever would be face to face, and this can lead to some real problems. I subscribe to my dorm's chat list, that’s always an interesting thing. And there was one student who was like, “Oh, he gets the chatlist.”
HO: Do they know this?
JB: Well, one of them found out. Most of them do, but some of them are very surprised when I walk up and say, “That was an interesting thing you said about so-and-so.” And you see this look of shock on their face. But there’s a real danger in email with getting a little too carried away. It’s such a low energy barrier to fire off an email, sometimes we do that in anger or haste, and I would urge great caution in writing emails in anger or haste, because you may come to regret it very quickly. Also, know that your email is likely to be forwarded to allies of you or allies of your opponent upon sending it, so recall that many many people are likely to see your email even if you only sent it to one person.
HO: Well, the thing also is the style of composition. There is the kind of no caps, no punctuation, no spelling.
JB: I’m not a big fan of e.e. cummings, so punctuation and spelling is still a discipline to which I think we should adhere, even in email. But it depends on who the audience is. So, I craft my emails to the president a bit more carefully than the one to my sophomore son. He’ll start off with “Yo.” I don’t start my emails to the president with “Yo.” So it depends of the audience, too. But I don't like the total abandonment of five hundred years of development of the English language.
HO: Well, in terms of the work you have to do on an administrative level, there’s all kinds of memos that you have to write and larger projects that are probably similar to writing articles for a journal and all that kind of stuff; what's the process like?
JB: Well, that also is often collaborative, depending on the nature of the project I have. My various colleagues who work in the vice-provost’s office who will write things and draft things, and often I’m just signing something that someone else wrote for me. That's something that took a long time to get used to, but it’s something you have to—I’m not good at this yet—it’s something you have to sort of yield to because you can’t possibly do it all yourself. But as it rises in importance—today we submitted the vice-provost’s area budgets to the provost, and this year this is a big deal. And so that was only about a 10-page document, but I did not draft this at first. My senior staff did. But I pored over it a lot, in great detail, and it’s the kind of thing where you think, “If I only had one more hour, I could have phrased it a little differently.” So it really depends on the import of the document. What you’ll find when you—however ways you do, you’ll all end up in professional lives—you will inevitably find that there is a triage process you can go through in assigning levels of effort and commitment you can bring to projects. I believe that one's success as a manger in part depends on how you perform that triage and get your work done. The real problem that many of us face is—you may have heard this phrase—“the tyranny of the urgent at the expense of the important.” There are so many urgent things that come up every day and every hour in the hundreds of emails I get per day that make it difficult to fight for time to work on what’s the important. That’s important for writing because I know something now that I did not know when I was the age of most of the people in the audience, and that is the direct link or relevance between thinking clearly and writing clearly. And I know that I am thinking about something quite important if I can write about it well. To the point where, at least when I read it, I’m reasonably happy with what I’ve written down. Not everyone’s mind works the same way, but it’s been my experience that if I can’t write about something fairly well, I don’t understand it well enough—if it’s an important thing. If it’s a little thing it doesn’t matter, but if it’s something important, like next year’s budget, I want to think about that very carefully so that means writing about it as best I can.
HO: Let's open it up for people’s questions and open up the conversation. And, as you’re thinking for a moment, the next How I Write is going to be with Scotty McLennan, who’s Dean of Religious Life, and talking about different types of writing, he’s written two books about religion. One about business religion ethics, but he has to write sermons, so it’s a whole other genre of writing, for example. Also, by the way, I’ve asked people in the creative writing program to talk about it, but, you see, when you’re a “writer” (quote, end quote), that’s like professional secrets. And so far no one has agreed to talk about what it’s like to write a novel, for example. But we’ll get there. I think after years of doing this, they’ll break down. What I’m going to do is pass around the little microphone here so that we can get it on the tape.
A: I think it was Stephen Jay Gould, John, who said he was particularly lucky as a scientist, especially in comparison to many of his humanist friends, because he could make good use of very small bits of time when he was writing. I think he even said that even if he only had 10 or 20 minutes, he could actually get some writing done that was worthwhile. Whereas many humanists will say that you have to sit there for a long time before you can dive in. So I wondered what your experience is. Can you just sort of jump right in or not?
JB: Sure. I can write in 10 minute increments often, and often that’s how I answer email throughout the day, continually scanning it, looking for some crisis that is about to happen or an email from my boss or from the president or something like that. The rest of it gets answered sometime late at night or early in the morning. But also, I can wile away two or three hours in my nest trying to come up with the next sentence on a long paper – so it works both ways. But yes, I find that I can, in the middle of a project, stop and then start and write something for 10 minutes or 15 minutes and then drop it and then go back to it. But it works both ways.
A: When I was sitting where you’re sitting a couple weeks ago, Hilton asked me, “Where do you get your best ideas?” and I just blurted out “in the shower” before I could even think about it, and then Hilton said, “Well, several other people had said that.” Do you have a kind of a generative place?
JB: No, I don't think I have a specific place. I have to say that one of the things that unnerves me a bit is that sometimes I will wake up with some minor breakthrough on my mind, and I wonder what my brain has been doing overnight, at least in those last few minutes of semi-sleep where all of the sudden I have an idea, and sometimes I’ll go and write it down or type it down because it has come to me. But I think in general—and this why I can’t teach writing, because I don’t have a process. I have to say that what I regard as many of my best written ideas, phrases, whatever, come to me at unexpected times—when I am driving, in the shower, whatever you want to say. All of the sudden—I’m not thinking about it—and all of the sudden it’s there. This is not a process you can teach, or even one to recommend. But, I have to say, that is the way that it is. And that's the way it is with a lot of my public speaking now, because I no longer have time to write out what amounts to a sermon when giving a class lecture. We had a lot of faculty come and visit and give talks, discussions at Freshman Sophomore College, and but a couple weeks ago we had a unique experience in 4 years. Lanier Anderson, who is a gifted teacher in philosophy, came and I was really worried when I greeted him at my house and he pulled out his 14 page typewritten manuscript. I thought this is not what dorm presentations are supposed to be about. They’re all just extemporaneous and whatever. And I was just really nervous that this was going to upset or turn off the audience and so I gently warned him that this was probably not the best course, and he said, “I'm really not comfortable giving a talk unless I am reading my text.” And I was reminded that at professional conferences most humanists read a text which they have typed out in detail. In the scientific world that never happens; I’ve seen that once, and people are telling a story from the visual material on slides. And social science is more like the science side. Well, he's such a good orator that he really pulled it off quite nicely, but I just don’t have time to do that. I used to try and write out my lectures in fair detail, so one of the benefits of gaining some modicum of confidence in speaking is that you just show up and start talking. So I prepare my classes now just assembling my handouts, my visual things, I just tell a story. And I know that one of these days I’m just going to show up unprepared as usual and I’m going to get total brain freeze and not know what to say, and it will probably be like when I’m standing in front of 5,000 people at convocation or something, but I hope it doesn’t happen that way.
HO: Pop quiz, right?
HO: Do you ever get ideas in inappropriate places? For example, I know, talking with students, that a lot of students get ideas for papers they’re writing while sitting in the lecture in someone else’s course, when they are supposed to be concentrating on a lecture and they go, “Oh yeah, that’s the paper.” You think they’re writing notes, and it’s nothing about you at all. It’s an inappropriate place. You don’t have to go there, but....
JB: Students in my class are thinking about other things all the time, but sure—faculty meetings, staff meetings...
HO: Do you actually jot them down?
JB: I’ve written them down plenty of times, looking dutifully like I’m taking notes.
HO: By the way, David Abernathy—off of what Andrea said—after working for 15 years on his book, got stuck at the very end, and took a shower.
JB: After 15 years I guess he needed it.
A: You were talking about collaborative journal articles that go back and forth between the student and professor and the co-authors. I find that when I am a first author on a paper, my reaction, before I give it off to anyone is usually “This is longer than it needs to be and wordier than it has to be.” But when I give it to my advisor and then back and forth between co-authors it just seems to get longer and wordier, the more people who are in the process, the longer and wordier the paper gets. Have you found that? How do you fight it?
JB: Well, the first thing I would say is that longer and wordier are two different things. Length is going to be constrained probably by the journal to which you’re going to send this article. But outside of that the length should be appropriate to the story you are trying to tell. Wordier is different, in my opinion. Wordier is using too many words per unit of thought.
HO: Words per unit of thought.
JB: Right. This is one of the criticisms of Mozart that people continue to debate to this day: “Too many notes.” And now some people can really pull that off, but in general the KISS principle works best – Keep It Simple, Stupid—there’s a comma between simple and stupid. I only say that when I’m looking in the mirror. The keeping things simple and elegant and clean is generally better than verbose and lots of adjectives and complex sentence structures and things like that. Every once in a while you put one of those in for flourish or whatever, and if you get it just right it’s a joy to behold, but if you get it wrong it’s miserable. And your readers will think, “What a pompous ass. Why is he saying it that way?” Just say what you mean, move on to the next thought. One of the benefits of being a simple-minded, linear engineer. Boom, boom, boom, boom, tell the story.
A: John, as a graduate student in the beginning stages of writing my dissertation in engineering, sometimes I am just overwhelmed by the enormity of the task that I have ahead of me. Do you have any advice for that process?
JB: So, for longer works, I think one can't overestimate the importance of an outline as a living document. I think the temptation there and thus the hesitancy in producing an outline for a long work is the thought that I’ve got to get this outline down and then that becomes biblical truth and I can’t change it. That’s not true. Write down an outline knowing that you are going to hash it out again and again and again. But make the outline a living document and change it over time so that you have less rewriting of chapters. So I would try to really organize your thoughts around an outline, and then start assembling the data, as I said before—the figures, the illustrations, the micrographs—that are going to drive the story, almost inevitably. So I think that—for a long work—some kind of outlining procedure is very important.
HO: Now in materials science and most sciences there is some kind of procedure, experiment, process, that you’re going through that you then end up in some ways reporting in the dissertation. So that’s really where the essence of it really is making sure that that is sound—the experiment that you’re doing is really going to work.
JB: Well, in a dissertation, I mean, it’s really going to be a description of years of experimentation and modeling, sometimes more years than a student cares to recount. But it is rarely, I would say, just one experiment.
HO: But a dissertation is single author, whereas most of the scientific writing in the field is collaborative.
JB: Right. Well, a dissertation is officially single author. Think about that. There is a lot of—to varying degrees—there is often substantial input from an advisor in a dissertation, but of course the student has to write it. And you go back and forth on that many, many times. Sometimes, to be quite honest, it becomes a battle of will going back and forth when you get past misspellings and things like that, of course, where professor and student are going to go back and forth and back and forth about how to report something or describe something. And depending on the willpower of the two individuals, one side or the other will win out, and that’s not always the faculty member—depends who it is. I think this is probably more of an issue in the humanities where it is not around describing and modeling experimentation in hard data but around a different type of human creation.
A: I have a question. Personally, I've noticed that the amount of sleep I get is a direct factor in how well I write. So I was wondering, since you are a generally sleep-deprived person, how you cope with that?
JB: Turn off the tape. Yes, I think it is important in trying to do well at anything that we do—be it writing or sports or somewhere in between—each of us has to make choices about how to structure our lives. And, to varying degrees—perhaps more so when you’re a student than other times—things will be imposed on you that take away some of that total freedom. It will become apparent, you find out, that a lot of things take over your life, so it’s not just being a student. When I am facing a difficult project, I usually will work on it first thing in the morning, so I am freshest. Because I know that at night I’ll be least productive. So at night, I’m usually plodding through the 300 email messages for the day, or filing paper in my office, or throwing things away. And it’s usually in the morning, when I first wake up, before I have to come to school, come to my office, that I can do my best writing. And so if I have three or four hours in the morning to work on things, that's when I can do, I feel, my best work.
A: So you’ve talked about a number of different kinds of writing—the journal article, the dissertation, the lecture, the administrative writing, even email as a sub-genre. One form of writing that I’ve heard you deliver in oral form, in oral presentation, are all of those kinds of exhortations that the vice provost has to give to students when there’s a convocation or at other formal occasions. And I’m not sure how to fashion this as a question, exactly, but since you have been associated with Stanford for so long, where do you get your sources of inspiration for that kind of utterance, because there’s something kind of sermonic about it—do you think about what you heard when you were sitting in that chair x number of years before?—
JB: Definitely not! Well, first of all, as I said before, I’m panicked that I am going to show up someday having had no time to write out my thoughts and I’m going to give a really dud talk, and that’s the kind of thing that I think about. Where does that come from, two places, and I can’t explain it any better than this so I’ll just give you the straight answer. The straight answer is that I love Stanford and I love Stanford students, and so that’s the only motivation that I need. And I hope that that never ceases to be enough motivation to serve this institution’s students well. So it’s a passion—probably now an abused word at Stanford, you know, “Find your passion,” there’s only so many times you can hear that—but there’s truth in that, too, and passion motivates and that’s how I get through all of it. It’s not for the cheap housing in the area. I’m hoping for some really tough, put-me-on-the-spot questions here.
A: What books have you read that have influenced your writing?
JB: I’m glad you asked that. People who have been to my house are surprised by what they find, given that I’m an engineer and plenty of people make stereotypes about engineers. I’ve got a big problem: I have three offices and a house, I'm 45 years old and single, and I am out of bookshelf space. So I get a lot of books. But I’m going to answer that a different way. First of all, in general, probably the best advice, to improve one’s writing, the first thing you have to do is don’t write and you have to read. And you have to read a lot, all the time. And so I’ll say what was probably more important to me now and in recent time, the last ten years or so, are actually not so much books, although I love reading books, but I tend to read a fairly small genre of sort of standard literature, history, politics, things like that, but the variety of magazines that I subscribe to—which I can't possibly keep up with. But trying to force myself to flip through those and find interesting articles daily, usually when I go to bed, I think is very important to having become at least a semi-decent writer. So, I subscribe to like 60 magazines, so I get 2, 3, 4 magazines a day. And they’re all over the place, from things where the writing is not really a part—you know, like Car and Driver, I’m a car nut. But I get a lot of the—I’ll say it’s the just short of scholarly literature in that particular field. So if you read ForeignAffairs, you are going to read very fine writing from a wide variety of political points of view about the world situation. If you read the Atlantic, and Harper's, and journals and magazines like that, and journals and magazines that most of you haven’t had a chance to run into yet, things like The New Criterion and—you’re going to read really well-written, beautifully-crafted text. All I can say is, I think it rubs off all the time. You subconsciously and consciously pick up and adopt for yourself modes of communication that, at least for me, make me want to be a better writer. And I will study the writing I read sometimes, not just for what it says, but how it’s done. When I went to Stanford in the post-60's malaise era, we had almost no general education requirements. And you may think that's Nirvana, but I came to understand that I was really short-changed in my education as a result of those decisions that were taken at many universities, not just Stanford. And at the time I thought it was Nirvana because at the time I was a nerd engineer. But long after I graduated and long ago I consciously determined to do something about that. And I started to read. And I wish my father had lived long enough to really see that because he kept pushing me to do that. My father was uneducated but he could read at an incredible rate and retain it all. He was a very smart guy. So I determined to educate myself for the rest of my life. And learning, to me—learning and time, which for me are the same things—is the greatest luxury because I don't have enough of either. All these books I buy that I can't read now I'm going to read when I retire, which most people tell me I never will do. But, of course, I probably won’t be able to retire if I'm going to pay for all the books I bought. If there’s any lesson to take—I’m saddened when I ask groups of students, “What are you reading outside of what we’re telling you to?” And sometimes I’ll get great answers, and sometimes I’ll get laughter, snickers, like “What, are you kidding?” And, as I told you before, I love tech-y toys, and I love the Web, and I love all this stuff, but I just can't tell you how deeply I have come to appreciate the power of the printed word, how it communicates. In the summer of 1993 or '92, I said “Okay, I’m going to read every Jane Austen novel in one summer. And that's the kind of thing that I've done, and that’s when I really got mad at my education, because I realize what I had missed out on. Probably nothing short of a kick in the head would have made me appreciate Jane Austen when I was 18 years old, and when I teach students I never forget that, I remember that; but that's why I read now.
HO: You know, 60 magazines, you’re probably sending at least one kid to college by the subscriptions you’re doing there. But, you know, the process that you described about reading something and stopping and looking at how it is written, is actually a process that a lot of writers of fiction do. And to read anything and everything in that way, even bad writing, and examine, take it apart, look at how it works. So even when you are reading a textbook, you know, stop for a minute and say, “Well, let me look at this paragraph and see why I can understand something because of the way this paragraph is written.” And no one told you that, but you pick it up yourself.
JB: What I know about education is that for the most part we have to teach ourselves. We have to teach ourselves. And either you have the will to do that or you don't. If you don't there is nothing that I can do, or anyone can do probably, to teach you. So learning is a lifetime process. I love movies, kids who know me know that. I love movies, shoot ‘em up movies, the Matrix, all this kind of stuff, and you can be really wowed with visual imagery and things like that. But what I have come to appreciate is that I can be sitting there without moving, quietly reading a book and I will come across a passage, or a phrase, or a set of pages that will move me, excite me, energize me more than any visual image I have ever seen. And that is the power of the written word. And that’s why I think there’s some kind of direct link. The written word is a creation of the human mind--there has got to be some kind of link between the two that, when done to ultimate quality, results in that kind of response in us. A given passage may not excite anyone else, but read enough until you start finding those passages and then you will never want to stop reading because you’ll want more, it’s addicting...reading is addicting. There's an old television series called 'The Twilight Zone' in the ‘60s. I don’t know if you ever saw it, there’s all kinds of spoofs on it. But one of the scariest ones I saw was a guy, this little guy henpecked by his wife, all he wants to do is read. So he’s a banker and he escapes the hubub of the world and his wife he goes into the bank vault to read every day at lunch hour. Well, he goes in one day and there is a nuclear war and everyone is killed except him because he is in the bank vault. And he comes out and he realizes what’s happened and he’s so happy because now all he can do is read—all he has to worry about is just reading. And at the end of the episode he falls or stumbles on the concrete steps of the big bank building and he steps on and crushes his glasses. And now he can’t read. And it’s one of those things—why do you remember those things? I remember that. And even, you know, to this day I remember. I saw that when I was not a reader, but that’s my favorite episode of Twilight Zone. I can put myself in that situation, so if I go blind someday I’m going to have to learn to read brail really fast.
HO: Well, not for everything, but there are the books on tape--it has a different quality, but still, it’s very, very valuable. A lot of people do that, obviously people who have vision problems, etc, but a lot of people like that.
JB: [I don’t have] wrist strength to write long pages of text anymore. I did when I was a child because there were no computers, believe it or not. We’d write everything out. But I long ago stopped doing that. I think this is one of those important decisions you must make about writing at the computer or not. The danger in writing at the computer, which I think I finally got myself over is, there’s something about seeing the nicely formatted text on the page now that compels us to want to get the final version in the first version. And how many students here have written their first draft of their IHUM or PWR or research paper the night before it’s due? Anyone here do that? No. That’s the danger, but I do eventually type it out, and I force myself to be tolerant of the crappy first version that comes out without correcting it a line at a time. Just don’t let someone see it.
A: I was also wondering—you’ve talked a lot about writing for professional purposes—do you ever write for personal purposes? For your family or anything?
JB: Yeah, that’s a nice question. Not very often. But I have on occasion. You know, I'm the vice-provost for four years now, but just last year two of our generous alumni donated enough money to endow the vice provost-ship. So it’s now the Freeman-Thornton vice-provost for undergraduate education. It’s not mine, it’s whoever holds the position. So we had dinner the other night to honor them, and I had to write for that a personal essay on thoughts on becoming the first Freeman-Thornton vice provost. And that was the most recent opportunity to write something like that. And I enjoyed that because it’s very different than the technical writing that I do, I had a chance to be fairly personal with that. And it’s the kind of thing where I, as often, as many of us struggle with. I procrastinate in writing, I do. So I’m not just laughing at the night before routine. I know what that’s like. And I put this off and put this off and put this off and finally the deadline was there, and the deadline was past—one of the benefits of being a vice-provost is that we get to treat deadlines a little differently than you do—but I had to get this thing in, so in one of those bursts, I sat down and typed this thing out, and then was able to sit on it for a day or two, showed it to a good friend, and then mailed it off. I am actually proud of that piece of writing; I think it reads nicely, and it honors the university, it honors the donors and it honors my parents. That was cool. I have two and a half years of sabbatical time saved up, plus a year of administrative leave promised to me. One of these years I am going to stop doing what I’m doing and I’m going to cash that stuff in, move away, and I’m going to write, because I have really learned to enjoy it. I thought well, how do you write? I write like Beethoven, not like Mozart, minus the talent. Beethoven wrote and rewrote and rewrote and rewrote his works. And had one type of genius. About the only truthful part of the “Amadeus” version of Mozart is the fact that he wrote out his symphonies and his operas in manuscript form and they were done, so he had a different kind of genius that we might not ever see again. Beethoven brooded over his work for months and months and months, and I’m much more like that. I've met people who could write out text and have it be damn near perfect. My freshman roommate one of them, and it used to aggravate the heck out of me.
HO: I think this is a good place to stop about how you enjoy writing. And you might feel a little funny because you’re an engineer, but all the processes you’ve gone through and that you’ve described are the kinds of things that many many people go through writing. I’ve written with engineers, and engineers are terribly self-conscious about not being writers, for example. And in this case it’s really not the case that you are limited by being an engineer, so it’s really wonderful that you have come, so thank you very much. And please if you have any questions personally, come on afterwards.