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On writing well part 2

“The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”

William Zinsser, On Writing Well

In my previous post, I introduced an excerpt from On writing well by William Zinsser about how writing is work and we can learn to get better. What stuck with me from On writing well were his concrete tips for editing my drafts. This post contains a few extra tips for editing all of the “clutter” in my early drafts.

Fighting clutter is like fighting weeds—the writer is always slightly behind…

Is there any way to recognize clutter at a glance? Here’s a device my students at Yale found helpful. I would put brackets around every component in a piece of writing that wasn’t doing useful work. Often just one word got bracketed: the unnecessary preposition appended to a verb (“order up”), or the adverb that carries the same meaning as the verb (“smile happily”), or the adjective that states a known fact (“tall skyscraper”). Often my brackets surrounded the little qualifiers that weaken any sentence they inhabit (“a bit,” “sort of”), or phrases like “in a sense,” which don’t mean anything. Sometimes my brackets surrounded an entire sentence—the one that essentially repeats what the previous sentence said, or that says something readers don’t need to know or can figure out for themselves. Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.

My reason for bracketing the students’ superfluous words, instead of crossing them out, was to avoid violating their sacred prose. I wanted to leave the sentence intact for them to analyze. I was saying, “I may be wrong, but I think this can be deleted and the meaning won’t be affected. But you decide. Read the sentence without the bracketed material and see if it works.” In the early weeks of the term I handed back entire papers that were festooned with brackets. Entire paragraphs were bracketed. But soon the students learned to put mental brackets around their own clutter, and by the end of the term their papers were almost clean. Today many of those students are professional writes, and they tell me, “I still see your brackets—they’re following me through life.”

You can develop the same eye. Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Reexamine each sentence you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it’s beautiful?

Simplify, simplify.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well

This process is work, and even experienced writers have to write many drafts that they ruthlessly edit.

Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time. Or the third. Keep thinking and rewriting until you say what you want to say.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well


On writing well

When I was preparing for my preliminary exam, a friend gave me a copy of the 25th anniversary edition of On writing well by William Zinsser. I read it at once, devouring it in a couple of days. It instantly became one of my favorite books and is still my favorite book about writing.

Zinsser was a journalist and published many nonfiction in his career. On writing well is aimed at all types of nonfiction writing, and while it wasn’t written solely for academics, academic writers can benefit from following his guidance. Zinsser has a growth mindset for writers, and I continue to appreciate his encouragement. If I work at writing, I can get better.

I love On writing well because it’s the writing book that inspired me and encouraged me to be aspiration about what I want to achieve from writing. In contrast, I’ve found the books I’ve read about academic writing—some of which are excellent—to be more transactional in focus.

I have included an excerpt below about the importance of writing frequently and about the growth that will happen if we write on a regular basis.

You learn to write by writing. It’s a truism, but what makes it a truism is that it’s true. The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.

If you went to work for a newspaper that required you to write two or three articles every day, you would be a better writer after six months. You wouldn’t necessarily be writing well—your style might still be full of clutter and clichés. But you would be exercising your powers of putting the English language on paper, gaining confidence and identifying the most common problems.

All writing is ultimately a question of solving a problem. It may be a problem of where to obtain the facts or how to organize the material. It may be a problem of approach or attitude, tone or style. Whatever it is, it has to be confronted and solved. Sometimes you will despair of finding the right solution—or any solution. You’ll think, “If I live to be ninety I’ll never get out of this mess.” I’ve often thought it myself. But when I finally do solve the problem it’s because I’m like a surgeon remove his 500th appendix; I’ve been there before.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well

how to write about operations research

In my lab meeting this month, we discussed writing operations research publications. We read How to Write About Operations Research by Gerald G. Brown at the Naval Postgraduate School, a fabulous guide for writing technical publications in the field of operations research written in 2004. The entire paper is worth reading and discussing. The paper starts by introducing a “grand, unified design for any OR publication.”

There are five simple, essential questions you must answer in your publication, preferably in this order:
1) What is the problem?
2) Why is this problem important?
3) How will this problem be solved without your help?
4) What are you doing to solve this problem?
5) How will we know when you have succeeded?

The paper introduces a series of writing recommendations, which we discussed by listing our favorite and least favorite recommendations. My two favorites are ones that I often tell students:

  • Start each paragraph with a topic sentence.
  • Make sure that just reading your paragraph-by-paragraph topic sentences conveys all of your publication.

I also like these three recommendations:

  • Use active voice
  • Use present tense
  • Work at it

Afterward, as a group we brainstormed recommendations that we felt were missing from the list. Here is what we came up with:

  • Read your writing out loud as you edit.
  • Use inclusive and gender neutral language.
  • Describe all tables and figures in the text, i.e., do not just refer to the tables and figures.
  • Be consistent with terminology.

What are your favorite writing tips?


the next chapter as department chair

I’m honored to step into the department chair role. As of July 1, 2021, I have been the David H. Gustafson Chair of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Below is an article about this transition and the next chapter in my professional journey. I am grateful to follow in the footsteps of Jeff Linderoth and Vicki Bier before that.


on the art of modeling

Operations research is a model-centric discipline. We use many mathematical models such as scheduling, assignment, facility location, inventory, and queueing that are presented in operations research textbooks. Formulating new models is often a major contribution in many of our research papers.

The models in our textbooks came into existence and were once formulated for the first time. As an applied researcher, it is important to train the students in my group in how to formulate models that are elegant and parsimonious and reflect appropriate assumptions in the real application. In a recent lab meeting, we read “On the Art of Modeling” by William T. Morris that was published in Management Science in 1967 that teaches the art of modeling.

Models can play the role of giving structure to experience. Yet we seldom encounter a model which is already available in fully satisfactory form for a given management situation, and the need for creative development or modification is almost universally experienced in management science.

Morris (1967)

Morris describes a looping procedure for creating and modifying models, which acknowledges that models are created iteratively. In each iteration, the model is tested against data or the set of assumptions that characterize it. A new version of the model is produced, which leads to a new test or comparison, which repeats until the modeling process is complete. Modeling takes time, trial and error, and experimentation.

The paper offers three “hypotheses” for creating models that are interesting. The entire paper is worth reading, and I won’t repeat them all here. Here are two parts of the discussion that I found to be useful:

  1. Factor the system problem into simpler problems. Identify the right structure for each problem (scheduling, assignment, queueing). This requires setting aside the overarching design objective, which can be difficult for some.
  2. Seek analogies. New problems usually have a lot in common with existing models for other applications. Here, we compare our problem at hand with previously developed models and their logical structures. Is the problem a queueing problem or an inventory problem? Is it linear?

I use both of these methods as well as some of the other modeling practices in the paper.

What is your process you use to create models?

Related reading:


Congratulations to 2021 graduates!

I created a video to congratulate 2021 graduates that I posted on YouTube and am including on my blog. I am looking forward to congratulating graduates in person in the future.


On codes of conduct for conferences and workshops

Years ago I helped edit a draft of the first INFORMS code of conduct for meetings. I was also on the INFORMS Board, where I argued in favor of a motion to approve the first INFORMS code of conduct. I am thrilled to say that the motion passed [see the latest version of the code of conduct here]. I am proud of this work.

I am knowledgeable on this topic, and I am a mandatory reporter at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I am aware that much of the sexual harassment occurs off campus at conferences and while doing field work, where codes of conduct often have not been established. Sexual harassment in field work is highlighted in the documentary Picture a Scientist. When there are no mechanisms for reporting incidents, incidents aren’t reported. Sexual harassment does significant damage to our disciplines and leads to many scientists leaving the field entirely [Read the National Academies’ report [here]. It’s critical that we make our discipline a welcoming place where everyone can flourish.

As of now, 22 people have come forward with allegations of sexual harassment against the University of Michigan Computer Science Professor Walter Lasecki, and many of these allegations occurred at conferences. This has caused me to reflect on the importance of keeping conferences free from harassment, bias, and discrimination. There are so many structural changes we need to make to stamp out harassment, and creating a code of conduct is one of these important structural changes.

I am passionate about diversity, equity, and inclusion in operations research, engineering, and academia, and as a result, allies often ask me for suggestions on what they can to do help. For years, I have kept a running list of what allies can do to advocate for underrepresented groups in academia [See the list here]. One of the items on my list is:

Ask conference organizers if there is a code of conduct for meetings to convey the expectation that the conference is to be a welcoming and inclusive space where all attendees feel safe. If not, ask them to create one.

I am happy to say that at least two people (that I know of) have taken me up on this suggestion and created a code of conduct for a workshop or conference. I want to reiterate this request today. This is important for equity, since those from marginalized groups are most affected by harassment, bias, and discrimination.

A code of conduct sets expectations regarding what behavior will not be tolerated and what the consequences will be for violating the policy. Second, it enables an organization to take swift action if it is violated. It’s worth noting that the ACM barred Lasecki from its events and meetings for at least five years for violating its Policy Against Harassment. Third, a code of conduct creates a mechanism to report incidents. Not having a mechanism has been noted in the literature as a major barrier to those who want to report an incident. I realize that a code of conduct will not prevent all incidents or sexual harassment from ever occurring, and therefore, it is equally important to take each allegation seriously and have a process for addressing allegations.

If you want to create a code of conduct, there are many guidelines to help you get started.

* Clancy, K. B., Nelson, R. G., Rutherford, J. N., & Hinde, K. (2014). Survey of academic field experiences (SAFE): Trainees report harassment and assaultPloS one9(7), e102172.


On academic burnout and time management during a pandemic

Like many of my colleagues, I have been struggling with burnout. I’ve been ruminating about why this is the case, why I have been feeling more burned out lately, and what are some strategies for preventing burnout. I ended up writing a tweet thread about burnout a couple of weeks ago that I wanted to include on the blog. Here is the thread. At the end, I also offer some insights into what I am doing to manage time and stay on top of research. I also encourage academic leaders to consider flexibility as a potential tool to prevent burnout.

A major challenge has balancing care responsibilities with academic responsibilities. This is the context of my thread. My three kids attend three different schools, and all have returned at three different times. The changes to my children’s routines and their K12 instructional models have required a lot from me in terms of time and emotional energy. I wrote the tweet thread after hearing that the school district was once again changing their instructional model for two of my three children. The good news is that my children are doing well at school and I felt a lot better after writing this tweet thread. Feedback is welcome.

The tweet thread

I am a solo parent of 3 and a professor, I am experiencing massive role conflict and am burned out. A thread. #AcademicChatter

Star Wars R2D2 GIF

Since the winter break, there has been a major instructional change at one of my daughters' 3 schools almost every week. I am the sole parent who handles their education with a full time job, my roles are increasingly in conflict. It is getting much, much worse.

Not Interested GIF

Every week I have to adapt to a new schedule or instructional change at one of my daughters' schools. I have to constantly change my workflow and routine.

Multitasking GIF

I shouldn't use the term routine to refer to this year. This year hasn't been routine, and I've been operating in a state of flux. It is wearing me down.

Arrested Development Deflated GIF

I have to be responsive to new K12 school requirements and new requirements at work. Each change or new requirement slowly chips away at any remaining flexibility in my schedule.

Star Wars Fail GIF

I am trying to find ways to restore my energy, but it's impossible when I am adapting to new changes and requirements.

Iod Iodiod GIF

Years ago, I learned to function at a high level as a single parent by setting routines & exploiting flexibility in my schedule to maximize performance and achieve work-life integration. But without a steady routine & little flexibility, this is no longer a tool at my disposal

Spinning Plates GIF

Meanwhile, my university has implemented many new procedures that have inflexible requirements and deadlines. This was necessary (I know it's a tough year!), but flexibility did not appear elsewhere.

David Rose Schitts Creek GIF

If this resonates with you, know that I see you and that you are not alone. And I get it.

princess leia GIF by Star Wars

Solutions at work:
Fewer new demands ✅
Flexible deadlines & requirements✅
More support ✅
Fewer & shorter emails✅
Cancel/sunset ✅

The solution does not involve setting up an additional hour-long zoom meeting to address 🚫

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2021/03/how-tell-if-you-have-burnout/618250/

Solutions I've been trying:
Replace hour-long 1-on-1 zoom calls with a 15 min phone call ✅
Replace some meetings with asynchronous work/email check ins ✅
Reduced cmte meetings to 1 hour (from 90 min)✅
Saying no more ✅
Blocking off times for research ✅

Other tips are very welcome! I know I'm missing some good strategies. I want to learn from this and also to not be the source of burnout to my colleagues.

And I want reiterate that flexibility is an underutilized tool for better work-life integration. Have a great day.

Also: I now have a wonderful partner in my life who provides much-appreciated support. But I'm still the solo/primary parent b/c my kids' dad lives out of state, and that's been tough during the pandemic.

Originally tweeted by 𝕃 𝔸 𝕌 ℝ 𝔸 🍀 𝔸 𝕃 𝔹 𝔼 ℝ 𝕋 (@lauraalbertphd) on March 26, 2021.

A template for time management

After writing the above tweet thread, I thought about what I was doing well. I have a pretty decent weekly routine and have been working in some self-care in the form of a daily walk and some exercise.


The Packers should have gone for it on 4th and goal

The Green Bay Packers were defeated by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last night. The Packers trailed 31-23 when it was fourth down and goal with 2:22 to go in the fourth quarter. The Packers decided to kick a field goal instead of trying for a touchdown. The decision was universally criticized. Without crunching the numbers, I knew it would be better to go for it and attempt to get a touchdown, even though either decision was a longshot. The Packers lost 31-26.

Since the game ended, I crunched the numbers.

Here is how I approached the decision. First, the Packers needed a series of events to occur, with all or nearly all events working in their favor to win. Computing the probability of the intersection of multiple events occurring is likely to be a small number. I examined the pathways to winning below. There were some fluke ways to win that I left out because those probabilities were negligible. My calculations are in this spreadsheet.

Decision #1: Go for it on fourth down. There are two ways to win in this scenario.

  1. Score a touchdown.
  2. Make the two point conversion to tie the game.
  3. Stop the Buccaneers defensively (a TB field goal means the Packers lose).
  4. Win by scoring within regulation or in overtime if time expires.

I estimate that the Packers had a probability of 0.6 of scoring a touchdown based on Aaron Rodgers’s pass completion numbers. Teams have a probability of 0.48 of getting the two point conversion. Teams have a probability of 0.68 of stopping their opponent from scoring on a possession. There was not much time on the clock, so this may have been an underestimate. However, both teams had multiple time out to stop the clock, and there had not yet been the two minute warning. Winning in overtime for two evenly matched teams is 50-50. Winning within regulation with very little time left has a small probability (say, 0.03). Putting this together, I estimate that the Packers had a win probability of 0.104.

Decision #2: Make a field goal attempt. There are also two ways to win in this scenario:

  1. Make the field goal.
  2. Stop the Buccaneers defensively while leaving enough time on the clock to score.
  3. Win by scoring a touchdown within regulation.

or

  1. Miss the field goal.
  2. Stop the Buccaneers defensively while leaving enough time on the clock to score.
  3. Score a touchdown within regulation, make the two point conversion to tie, and win in overtime (see Decision #1).

I estimate that the Packers had a probability of 0.96 of scoring a field goal. Teams normally have a probability of 0.68 of stopping their opponent from scoring, but I lowered that to 0.5 here because it needed to happen in such a way that the Packers had enough time for one last drive. That is likely an optimistic estimate. I estimate that the Packers could score a touchdown with a probability of 0.15 with the remaining time (Rodgers had an MVP worthy season). The second way to win involved missing the field goal and tying the game in regulation with a last second touchdown and later winning in overtime. Putting this together, I estimate that the Packers had a probability of 0.076. I believe this is optimistic.

Takeaways

  1. Going for a touchdown increasing the win probability by about 3% compared to kicking a field goal. It’s not a huge different, but it’s also not insignificant.
  2. Either way, the Packers were unlikely to win. So while the decision was bad, it wasn’t a decision that likely cost the Packers the game.
  3. Kicking the field goal (Decision #2) could make sense with high confidence in a defensive stop or scoring a TD with time expiring. For the best defensive team in the NFL, decision #2 might be the better option. If Tampa Bay had, say, the worst defense in the country, especially if their secondary was weak, Decision #2 would be more attractive.
  4. The Packers had two bad choices.

Reflections on 2020 and New Year’s resolutions for 2021

A new year begins tomorrow. I’m taking the opportunity to reflect upon the past year. 2020 was a historic and terrible year in many ways. The COVID-19 pandemic changed life as we know it and demanded many sacrifices. I lost my sabbatical (read my sabbatical posts here).

But 2020 was not entirely a bad year. I took on new hobbies, habits, and challenges. As 2020 comes to an end, I reflected upon what I was able to achieve in 2020.

  • I started new research related to the pandemic and critical infrastructure resilience. It has been a creative year.
  • I did more media outreach to improve public understanding of risk management.
  • I wrote my first op-ed. Actually, I wrote four.
  • I was selected as a IISE Fellow and a AAAS Fellow.
  • I learned about best practices for inclusive teaching in online environments and updated my teaching materials and improved my pedagogy. I am a better teacher now than I was a year ago.
  • I developed a new routine at home that helped my productivity.
  • Virtual K12 school at home is not easy for my three kids, but they are doing about as well as anyone can.
  • I started new hobbies, including jigsaw puzzles and tennis. I even went to the driving range and (sort of) golfed for the first time.
  • I expanded my vegetable garden and was able to grow a lot more than in the past.
  • I love being able to cook and bake. Working from home means I can knead bread dough between meetings and cook elaborate and healthy dinners. I have been eating very well.
  • Extra quality time with my family has been wonderful.
  • I have been able to appreciate the small things all year long.

New Year’s resolutions in 2021

  1. Less doom scrolling.
  2. Create more, consume less.
  3. Continue high levels of public outreach through media appearances and public lectures.
  4. Fewer zoom meetings. I often did not meet my goal of 4 hours or or less of meetings in 2020.
  5. Replace one-on-one zoom meetings with phone calls, where I can go on a walk and stretch my legs during the call.
  6. Write and edit my writing every day, even if only for a few minutes.
  7. Become a better vegetable gardener. I’m good at growing tomatoes and herbs. I want to learn how to grow more vegetables, including the cool weather vegetables like greens and root vegetables.
  8. Go on vacation.

For more reading, check out my New Year’s resolutions in 2018 and 2019. Dijkstra’s 10 commandments of academic research also serve as potential New Year’s resolutions.