First Drafts Suck

Adapted from:

My blogging mojo has been channeled almost entirely towards a book project I’ve undertaken withJulienne Rutherford of UIC and Katie Hinde of UCLA (though shortly to be of Harvard). The book is calledBuilding Babies: Primate Development in Proximate and Ultimate Perspective and it will be published by Springer in 2012. Each co-editor has a chapter in there, and then we have a number of other rather fancy-pants contributors as well.

The first drafts of the chapters were due yesterday. I did not submit my chapter (er, to myself). I’m running about a week late. I thought I would come clean with this, because there are a number of elements of the writing process that I think remain obscure for students and other junior scholars. And after I share a few thoughts about academic writing, I thought I would show you some of the draft I’m working on.

First drafts suck

They really, really do. If you think your first draft is amazing, give it to someone else, and that someone else can’t be a pet, spouse or parent. First drafts suck because we write the most obvious things in them, the most vague. First drafts don’t have enough context. First drafts are where you use cliches because you haven’t figured out how to say what you’re saying in a sophisticated way. They are often under-cited. They are out of order. And, they aren’t that compelling.

This is why so much student writing is bad — but it’s not their fault. Close together deadlines, ones that align with other projects, and little teaching of time management means most students start writing projects just before they are due. So they essentially submit first drafts of papers, with a little copyediting if you’re lucky. Plus, somehow a lot of students have picked up this idea that first drafts are better or more authentic than revisions. This is patently false. They are simply the place our favorite worst stuff goes to die (this is why revision is so often called killing our darlings, to use a term from scio11, though its origin is much older).

But everyone has bad first drafts, so it is absolutely useless to feel bad about them. Give them to your advisor or your colleague if they have said they will read a first draft (otherwise, revise it after consulting with someone else first). They write bad first drafts too. You have to write a first draft in order to get to the revision, and to me, this was a liberating realization. Get it all out now! Don’t worry about using the right word! Just get the words on the page, get about the right content in about the right order, and if something is repetitive, just leave it for now. Because after a little breather away from it, or a look from a trusted colleague or advisor, you will hack it up and remake it into something far better.

Revising only sucks sometimes

Revising sucks when you get your first comments back from a colleague, because it is terrifying to share that vulnerable, bad first draft with another person (ever had that moment after you print it out or hit send when you realize your prized metaphor was a trembling nod to your failed attempt as a fiction writer?). It sucks at those moments when you feel at cross-purposes with the thesis of your paper. And it’s frustrating, also, that revising is the most important yet under-taught skill in academic writing.

But here’s the thing. Revising can be glorious. If you abandon any sense that you own your words, and remember only to own your mind, it allows you to be merciless in cutting out all the badness of that first draft: the cliches, the vague repetition, the jargon. If you return again and again to your outline, or abstract, or data, or whatever materials you keep to help you remember what the paper is about, you will start to see the right shape of the piece. And then you can also build in the context.

The best moments of revision are when you remember why you were writing the piece in the first place. Do you want to produce a fundamental review that will be useful to other practitioners in your field? Do you have an amazing piece of data to share? A well-grounded hypothesis that you want to articulate? What was surprising or compelling about that work when you first set fingers to keyboard?

One last thing I’ll say about revising is that owning your mind is not the same as owning your ideas. You need to be willing to let go of being right, and you need to be willing to change if the evidence is against you. Accepting reality and working with it in an interesting way is the mark of a good scientist, and a good revision.

My first drafts suck

The title of my chapter is: “Inflammatory factors that produce variation in ovarian and endometrial functioning” (eventually, I think, I will need to change the title to better reflect the manuscript). I thought this would be an easy piece for me, since I have been doing a lot of work on C-reactive protein, a biomarker for systemic inflammation, and I have been studying the endometrium and ovaries for many years.

I was wrong. Oh, so wrong.

A few quick searches pulled up an embarrassingly large number of citations for chemokines and cytokines, for toll-like receptors, natural killer cells, and other immunological terms I barely remembered from high school and college. So I re-drafted my outline, set aside a lot of time for reading (as in, several days straight), and then finally set to work.

The problem with the literature on this topic is that it is wholly mechanistic. I can now tell you what interleukins are expressed in the periovulatory phase versus the implantation window, or which ones are suppressed or overexpressed for certain pathologies, but I can’t tell you what that means in a broader sense, or what produces variation in any of these immunological factors in a systemic way that might impact local inflammation in the female reproductive system.

Here is my section on normal endometrial functioning (alas, given the literature, the section on pathology in the endometrium is far, far longer). First draft ahead! Remember, I am sharing this embarrassingly bad prose for the good of SCIENCE.

The endometrium is composed of the functionalis and basalis layers; the functionalis comprises two thirds of the endometrium and is the part that proliferates and sheds each reproductive cycle. The basalis is adjacent to the myometrium, and is the place from which the endometrium regenerates after menses. The proliferative (also known as follicular) phase is when estradiol promotes proliferation of endometrial tissue, where the secretory (also known as luteal) phase is characterized by progesterone control of decidualization and menstruation. The endometrium typically proliferates with narrow, straight glands and a thin surface epithelium, and angiongenesis continues as ovulation nears (King and Critchley 2010). After ovulation and during the secretory phase, the endometrium differentiates: endometrial glands become increasingly secretory, and by the late secretory phase spiral arterioles form. If implantation does not occur, the corpus luteum degrades, progesterone declines, and this triggers a cascade of events to produce menstruation.

Menstruation is a key inflammatory process of the endometrium. Menstruation is when the functionalis are shed at the end of the human reproductive cycle. The basalis regenerates over the course of the next cycle. The demise of the corpus luteum and the associated withdrawal of progesterone precipitate inflammatory mediators that cause tissue degradation. For instance, progesterone inhibits nuclear factor κ B (NF-κB), which increases the expression of inflammatory cytokines like IL-1 and IL-6 (Maybin et al. 2011). The withdrawal of progesterone is also associated with an increase in endometrial leukocytes and IL-8, which regulate the repair process (Maybin et al. 2011). At this time other inflammatory factors promote MMP production to break down endometrial tissue (Maybin et al. 2011). Further, it is thought that progesterone withdrawal, not an increase in estradiol concentrations, leads to the repair of the endometrium so that it can resume activity for the next cycle (Maybin et al. 2011). Thus, variation in progesterone concentrations may lead to variation in inflammatory activity, degradation, repair and cycling in the endometrium.

First question: why should I care about any of the above? So what if any of this happens? Then, you might not know this, but I do: the only two citations in these two paragraphs are both review papers, and one of the authors overlap between them. Therefore, it’s quite under-cited. To be fair, in this section it is less important that I demonstrate the depth of the literature, but a review that only cites two other reviews isn’t doing its job.

Do I inspire excitement in my field? No. Do I provide an appropriate context for this material in order to situate the reader? Not so much. Right now, these two paragraphs contain the exact information I wanted them to contain, based on what was in my outline. That is, I’ve described the basic functioning of the endometrium, and menstruation. It’s flat because that’s all that I did.

My job in this chapter is to take this vast reproductive immunological literature, pair it with what little we have in anthropology and ecology that helps us understand the way genes and environment might produce this variation, and then describe the necessary context in future work to understand these mechanisms. In some places, a lack of context may help me make my case, because it will demonstrate why anthropologists need to be in the field. But if my whole manuscript looks like the two paragraphs above, it will be an unreadable yawnfest that doesn’t contribute a thing to anthropology.

So, I guess I would expand the “kill your darlings” advice. First, accept your darlings. Accept that you have them like everyone else, and that darlings aren’t just turns of phrase but entire ideas, hypotheses, fields of thought. Then, once you have accepted that your darlings make you just like every other academic writer out there, from the middle schooler to the full professor, kill them. With fire. Finally, make sure you provide what is left with context or else there is no reason to read what you wrote.

And now, I have been sufficiently inspired to go finish my bad first draft.


King, A., & Critchley, H. (2010). Oestrogen and progesterone regulation of inflammatory processes in the human endometrium The Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, 120 (2-3), 116-126 DOI:10.1016/j.jsbmb.2010.01.003

Maybin JA, Critchley HO, & Jabbour HN (2011). Inflammatory pathways in endometrial disorders.Molecular and cellular endocrinology, 335 (1), 42-51 PMID: 20723578

She Must Be the “囧est” Girl You Ever Met

1. In one morning after I got up two hours later than originally planned, I told my advisor to meet at lab “hmn”. Thanks God my polite advisor still asked me where “hmn” refers to instead of just punching me in the face. I told him that this is an encoding — I typed “609” on my Nokia phone and forgot to switch the alphabet/numeric tab.

2. I wake up early this morning, only to pick up the passport that has been left in the department’s copy machine yesterday afternoon.

3. “这篇文章“不折手断”,其使用任意矩阵胡乱相乘以及对结果进行向量拼接的做法完全无根无据。”Because I am not sure how to properly translate the above into English, I will just reply a mediocre email.

4. For a while I need to go to the AI Lab for printing, which is located on the 6th floor. The first time I’ve been there, I left my key-card and have to go back and let the colleague working there open the door for me. The second time, I left my key-card together with the wallet… Hence on the third time, I carefully checked over and left after making sure I’ve taken everything with me.  When I got back to my office on the fourth floor, I receive an email saying “you dropped your card in the hallway outside the AI lab”… … …

5. People who have lost their way usually don’t realize what a bad idea it is to come up to me for routing information. One Sunday when I was shopping in the U village, a lady with her son came up to me and asked how to take the bus to the campus. I carefully described the route to them (in Chinese = =), making sure no silly mistakes like missing a xing is made. They left happily, and 30s later I realized the bus I’ve showed them doesn’t operate on Sundays! Yeah, I must have lost a lot of “RP” by routing others.

6. LH is coming to study in Seattle in September and she’s been wildly looking for housing. There happened to be a beautifully painted building opposite to the place I live, which is warm-colored, big but cozy. The neighborhood is surrounded by trees and looks very clean. The entrance looks secure and the management seems to be extremely well… However, by the time I mentioned the place to her, LH already picked my place — which turns out to be a smart choice. One week later when I walked by that cute building again, I saw a sign board in front of it which I have ignored previously, saying “Senior Housing”. Oh yea, I am happy that LH didn’t find out this herself.


7. I am a lazy person. And lazy person always take short cuts. Last Sunday I feel it is too wasteful to take a long detour around the hill to reach the favorite Chinese restaurant from my home. Therefore I started an experiment of walking straightly to that restaurant by climbing over the hill @@.  I met some small troubles getting down: I followed a small trail which leads me to a deserted backyard of someone’s house. It is really deserted because my hand hit a spider web. That seems to be the first warning. However, I am still excited when I saw something cement-like. I thought it was a pathway from which I could get out. Yet I ran over only to find out that it was the roof of another house! I dare not to take short cuts over mountains again!

8. I joined my friends to play the frisbee while we were having a fantastic BBQ at the beach. It was actually the first time I’ve got my hands on a frisbee. And 5min later we had to say goodbye to it forever because it flew into a rodent blackberry bush once it escaped from my hands.

This is a list of jokes. This is also a list that records what a lucky kid I used to be — those tons of silly mistakes that I had been forgiven for. One day I suddenly realized that … for me to kick off my career, and to survive with my dreams, that careless, forever-17, girl shall disappear.  There is too much to come in, and some obsolete stuff has to go away🙂. 


不管“耶路撒冷”知不知道,它在中国的确有很多脑残粉。耶路撒冷(Jerusalem;ירושלים )是位于近东黎凡特地区的一座历史悠久的城市,在地理上位于犹大山地,介于地中海死海之间,被誉为三大宗教的圣城(犹太教基督教伊斯兰教[2]。是古代宗教活动中心之一。犹太教、基督教和伊斯兰教,分别根据自己的宗教传说,都奉该城为圣地 【百度百科】。在近代中东历史上,耶鲁撒冷一直是巴以两国争夺的重要对象。因此,这座城市在中文的互联网和书籍报刊上有很高的曝光度,甚至被作为流行歌曲的关键词。然而,我们绝大多数炎黄子孙并不信奉上述三大宗教,对这座宗教名城的来龙去脉也知之甚少,它的美名远扬——尤其实在十几岁的青少年之间——可能要大大归功于当年音译着选取的这几个汉字。


汉语有一个非常美好的特性——“朗朗上口”,这是很多语言(至少英语)所不具备的。“耶路撒冷”的 音调抑扬顿挫,音节分隔清晰 (A)。拆开来看四个字分别意境抽象(其中”耶”为音译专用字),词频居中(我觉得可以做个统计,让人觉得高雅顺口的汉字应该是具有较高的perplexity,但又不至于落入生僻的范畴)(B)。倘若写做“耶陆撒冷”则意境锐减,而要是直白的译做“杰鲁撒勒姆”就更是意境全无了。

至于“有比耶路撒冷更好听的外国城市名字吗?这个问题是我从TBBT的百度贴吧力帆出来的。我的答案是——”I don’t know. 因为发现左思右想从这个标准来说想找一个与和平之城平起平坐的都不容易。但此外,姑娘我忽然想在自己知道的城市里面列这样一个排名,记录一下那些我听过的、到过的、走过的wonderlands.

No.10 马尔代夫 (Maldives)

3-5-Star-Taj-Exotica-Resort-and-Spa-Maldives这张图片是马尔代夫的一个度假景点Taj Exotica。当年姑娘我选中它作为桌面背景的时候还不知道这就在大名鼎鼎的马尔代夫,只是觉得建在水上的房子(从陆地延伸出来)非常美。某次开会的时候老板问我这是哪里,去过没有,我只好说恐怕会成为计划的目的地之一。马尔代夫放在第十是因为它具备(A)(B)两个特点,但是近几年它快要被说烂了。“夏威夷”单凭字面是有实力上榜的,但是它早在马尔代夫之前被说烂了,也烂得更彻底。

No. 9 温哥华 (Vancouver)


No. 8 圣地亚哥 (San Diego)



No. 7  布鲁塞尔 (Brussels)


No.6 奈良 (なら)



No. 5 圣托里尼 (Santorini, Σαντορίνη)

我没有去圣托里尼,但是就整体的向往程度来说,圣托里尼在我心目当中的地位是数一数二的。今年五月,我非常喜爱和赞美的Cici学姐在这里举行了婚礼 =D=D=D 作为希腊的代表城市,它PK掉了单从选字来说跳不出毛病的“雅典”。


No. 4 剑桥 (Cambridge)



No. 3 哥本哈根 (Copenhagen, Koebenhavn)


No. 2 翡冷翠/佛罗伦萨 (Florence, Firenze)


No. 1 圣弗朗西斯科(旧金山, San Francisco)




Special No. 3 香江/香港 (Hong Kong)



Special No. 2 西雅图 (Seattle)

西雅图的城市全景很经不起推敲,如果放上来恐怕要被上面的很多城市给比下去了。这张照片是某一次国家地理头版登出来的据说是2013年最大的月亮——Space Needle的顶部果然像只飞碟。


Special No. 1 牛津 (Oxford)








12. 女扮男装的猎人(《十二个猎人》The Twelve Huntsmen)




11. 荨麻织的衣服(《野天鹅》)




10. 豌豆上的公主


princess and the bean2

9. 云霄里的豌豆树(《杰克与魔豆》 Jack and the Beanstalk)




8. 参加舞会的花儿(《小意达的花儿》)




7. 飞入心灵的玻璃碎片(《冰雪皇后》)



6. 拇指姑娘 (《Thumbelina》)




5. 睡美人 (Sleeping Beauty)


4. 水晶鞋 (《灰姑娘》Cinderella)


3. 充满期待的十五岁(《小美人鱼》The little Mermaid)



2. 树林里的糕点屋 (《汉索尔和格瑞泰尔》Hansel and Gretel)


1. 永不长大的孩子(《彼得潘》Peter Pan)