Writing Career Advice From a Neuroscientist, Part I: Choose your Projects Carefully

As a graduate student studying the brain mechanisms of reading, I'm blessed with a pretty awesome day job (or more accurately, “afternoon, evening, and weekend job”). My adviser is a tenured professor at MIT and occasionally gives graduate students advice on building a scientific career. Not only is his advice spot on, but I've realized that many of his tips apply to building a writing career as well. His tips are the inspiration of this four part series: Writing Career Advice From a Neuroscientist

Tip #1: Choose Your Project Wisely

Before I came to my current lab, I worked as a behavioral psychologist -- I made people do experiments on computers and measured their responses and how quickly they responded. Behavioral experiments are very fast paced -- you can finish an experiment in a week if you work quickly. Because of the small time commitment, the cost of not planning a good behavioral experiment is minimal. If you have a crazy idea, just run a couple of participants and see if it works. Worst case scenario, you lose a few weeks and maybe the $100 that you paid your participants.

When I moved into my current lab, I started with the same mentality of just grab a crazy idea and dive in. However, I quickly learned to slow down and think things through more carefully. Why? Because now I was working in brain imaging. Rather than $100 and a few weeks, you're now talking $20,000 and months or years. An average brain imaging experiment takes about two years from conception to publication if everything goes well. Assuming that your professional life lasts 50 years, every experiment is four percent -- a significant chunk -- of your working life. Therefore, it's important to think before diving in. There's nothing worse than looking back and realizing you would have saved two years of work if you had just thought things through.

Writers would be wise to also consider the time investment factor when planning their projects. If you're just writing a short story, there's no harm in sitting at your computer and typing out any crazy idea you have. However, a novel can take anywhere from six months to several years to complete. It's not so bad to finish a short story and realize it's it's the dumbest thing ever written. However, it's a much worse feeling to finish a 90,000 word manuscript, and only then realize that your premise doesn't work or isn't publishable.

So how to you tell if something is worth working on? Stay tuned for Part II...


  1. It is a bad feeling to finish a manuscript and only then hate what you've written, but at the same time, you don't want to be an almost-novelist who decided halfway through about 2-3 manuscripts that they were a waste of time. There is something to be said for actually finishing something.

  2. Oh yeah -- totally not advocating quitting halfway through. The idea is to think things through before you start writing.