What my grad school adviser taught me about writing

April 2, 2009

If my old graduate school adviser were to tell the story of The Tortoise and the Hare, he might tell it like this:

The slow-but-steady tortoise defeated the favored hare in a classic footrace. The key to the tortoise’s success was his constant pace over the entire race, whereas the overconfident hare fell asleep midway along the course. The contest was originally proposed by the tortoise after the hare mocked his slowness. Despite an early deficit, the tortoise ultimately was victorious.

You see, Kevin always wanted the take-home message to be right at the top, followed by details in descending order of importance and then a restatement of the main idea. That this sometimes created awkwardness in the narrative did not seem to bother him.

My natural inclination is to write more like Aesop, letting the plot unfold gradually before revealing the outcome. As a result, preparing manuscripts with Kevin often resembled a tug of war. I’d send him a draft that progressed from a modest beginning to a satisfying conclusion, and then he’d rewrite it in his style, disrupting my artful flow of logic. It was kind of maddening.

Only after graduating did I come to fully appreciate Kevin’s approach. It’s very practical: if you open and close with your key insights, people are less likely to miss them. This strategy is especially apt for grant proposals, since those who read your proposal will probably do so while flying across the country at an ungodly hour, having just read five similar proposals. Emphatic repetition of your main points is a necessity because, in contrast to the tortoise-and-hare fable, if a reviewer falls asleep in the middle, you are the one who loses.

I thought of Kevin today while working on an NIH grant. I was rereading a long methods-related section when I realized that, although this was my own proposal, even I was getting bored. So I “Kevinized” it, inserting a statement about the method’s importance and consequences before the chronological details.

The grant is better now, but it probably needs more pictures. Kevin always liked pictures.


  1. What I always tried to do in reports, theses, proposals, etc., is the following:1. Tell what you're going to tell.2. Tell it.3. Tell what you told.

  2. Bob beat me to it. Except I learned it as, "Tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em. Tell 'em. Then tell 'em what you told 'em."It was great for those times when I was sitting there with a chunk of something to write and no story to tell. It also works really well when I have an event to write up – I know my readers are skimmers and I need to hook them right away.

  3. pjm actually quoted the exact words I learned, but I modified it for the more learned audience of this blog. 🙂

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