Episode 37 – Interview with writing coach Dr Malini Devadas
This week we had the great pleasure of chatting with Dr Malini Devadas about all things writing. After completing her PhD at the Australian National University in the 1990s, Malini did a postdoc and then realised that she enjoyed the writing part of the job more than the lab work! In 2004 she started working as a professional editor, becoming accredited in 2009. In 2013 Malini launched MD Writing and Editing, working as a trainer and editor to help academics and medical professionals get published faster.
After working with academics for many years, Malini discovered that there are many reasons why people don’t make progress on their writing tasks. Malini decided to train as a coach, and she now uses her variety of skills and qualifications to help academics get past their blocks about writing so that they can create a regular writing practice that they enjoy.
You can find out more about Malini and her work here:
Hello and welcome to Let’s Talk SciComm, a podcast by the University of Melbourne Science Communication Teaching Team. I’m Associate Professor Jen Martin and my wonderful cohost is Dr Michael Wheeler and we believe that science isn’t finished until it’s communicated.
Hello everybody and a very warm welcome to another episode of Let’s Talk SciComm.
I’m Jen and as always I am joined by my friend and colleague Michael.
Michael, the sun[‘s] shining today. How you doing?
The sun is shining. I’m feeling good apart from all of the writing that I’ve got to do, which remains on my to-do list. But no, I’m pretty good apart from that Jen.
My goodness, you have come to the right conversation Michael if you have some writing demons going on because today, we are joined by someone who seriously in the space of just a few hours really helped me enormously this year and actually changed the whole course of my year, I would say. Of course, I’m going to tell you that story shortly.
But I’d like to tell everybody that today we are joined by Dr Malini Devadas. And I’m going to tell you a little bit more about how Malini helped me personally. But before we get there, you need to know that Malini has a PhD in Neuroscience from ANU, the Australian National University in Canberra, here in Australia.
And after her PhD, she worked in medical research in Japan for four years but soon decided that her real passion was in writing rather than being in the lab. And so she became an accredited editor in 2009. In 2013, she launched her own business, which is called MD Writing and Editing. So warm welcome to you, Malini and happy almost 10th business birthday.
Thanks Jen, and thanks Michael. It’s great to be here.
And yes, it’s hard to believe it’s almost 10 years.
Yeah, it’s a great achievement, 10 years. I mean, I think a lot of scientists often think if I don’t stay in science, what can I do? And I think a lot of scientists probably think about starting a business, but probably fewer actually take the step and go and do it. So I’m really looking forward to hearing a little bit more about your journey.
Yeah thanks. I’d love to encourage more people to take the leap so we can talk about that for sure.
Michael, I’m really impressed that there was word of a birthday and you didn’t start talking about cake.
I felt for sure you were going to ask if there was going to be cake to celebrate.
I have just had some cake before this recording. So I’m satisfied for the moment.
But I could get hungry at any moment and I might just blurt the word cake out.
It’s alright, it was my birthday last week actually.
So it’s a good theme, to talk about… So I had some cake then as well.
Cake is so good. Happy birthday, Malini.
Thank you. Thank you.
So Michael, you also need to know that these days Malini is a trained coach and at the moment, rather than working so much as a writer or an editor, actually her focus is on supporting scientists just like us, but particularly early career research is to actually get words down and get writing done.
So she really helps people to try and find some joy in their writing, to develop a positive relationship with their writing and to really challenge and ideally change some of the self talk that many of us have around writing.
So this is basically about getting papers and grant applications and theses written with a hell of a lot less blood, sweat and tears. Is that a fair summation, Malini?
Yeah, and what I would add to that is actually it’s not just to get it written, but to submit it. So, because a lot of people get stuck… So I find that a lot of people get stuck getting to the computer then knowing what to write, but then sometimes they write something and just keep fiddling with it forever, because especially for papers there’s no deadline. And so part of my job is to help them actually just let it go without worrying about what’s going to happen to it. So that you know, increases a chance of it getting actually published.
Yeah, that’s the last barrier, isn’t it?
You might have written it, but then am I happy to let it go or not?
Yes, and I think a big part of that is just accepting that rejection is normal in publishing. And I, I often get academics to just look outside of academic publishing into mainstream publishing.
And the people who get published the most are also the people they get rejected probably the most ’cause they’re putting things out into the world. And that’s what I want more academics to do, to write, to finish and submit.
And to be open to the judgement that comes, which of course is probably why most of us hesitate to hit submit, right? Because once you do that, people are going to criticise me.
Yes, and so one thing I think about is just not to take on the criticism, but also not to take on the praise. Because it’s not right to say well if it’s phrased, and that’s good and I’m going to accept the praise. But if it’s criticised, I’m not going to accept that.
So it’s actually better to just accept in the end, it’s down to one or two people’s opinion, but not to take that on board personally and just to accept whatever the decision is and then move on.
Hmm, that’s really interesting. So not taking on board the criticism makes sense, but not taking on board the praise I guess it makes sense. So you’re basically saying that it’s just get in the habit of separating yourself from the, from the feedback.
Yes, and it’s easier said than done. So I, I see a lot of people you know celebrating when a paper gets published, which is good. But they’re so happy that of course that means if it’s not accepted, they’re so miserable. And so it’s not healthy to be you know, to have your mood dependent on what one person thinks about it.
Because if you sent that paper to 100 people you would get 100 different responses. And so it’s more about looking at the comments. Are they helpful? Try to ignore how they’re delivered, ’cause sometimes useful comments are not delivered kindly. Sometimes kind comments are not that useful, you know? So it’s really just looking at what do they say?
Yeah, and I need to learn not to rely on the validation that comes from you know, other people’s opinions of me essentially.
Yes, the whole system is based on that right? I mean, everything we do is judged and you know, we’re assessed and we’re ranked and whatever it is. So it’s just not letting it affect us personally.
And I think there’s just so much about self awareness. Because my experience working with you Malini was a little bit different to that. I basically came to you because I’d committed to a big writing project that at one level I thought was a really good thing for me to be doing. I had signed a contract. I could see that it was going to be a, a useful contribution, or at least I’d convinced myself it was a useful contribution. And I felt like it was absolutely locked in. And yet I just couldn’t make progress on it. And I felt quite confused about that ’cause I actually don’t have a lot of negative self talk around writing. I’ve, I’ve always enjoyed writing, I’m fortunate in that way. And yet I just couldn’t carve out the time to get this done.
And I was so fortunate that I had some professional development money that I needed to spend because in all honesty, I would have never thought to have worked with a writing coach in another situation. But because I needed to spend this money and I was feeling stuck and confused and I came to you. And and what I said in the beginning was really true. In a very small amount of time, you helped me to gain some clarity that I just couldn’t get to on my own, and that wasn’t the reason I couldn’t get this written was ’cause I actually didn’t believe in the value of the project and it really didn’t align with how I wanted to spend my time.
It really wasn’t going to be producing the output or the outcomes that I wanted. And that’s why I couldn’t get there. And and the fact that you managed to get me there over the course of a few hours and prevent me agonising for months and months and months over this piece of writing that I didn’t want to do. And now that I’ve got time to do the writing that I do want to do, I’m in a much happier place. So there are many ways that a coach can help.
Yes, I think the key things for me are that as a coach it just creates a space for my clients. So a lot of my clients are quite senior or they’re in positions where they don’t feel that they can be honest necessarily with their peers about the struggles they’re having. So in one way it’s a safe space to just actually just say what the issue is.
But I think the thing you mentioned there was you’d convinced herself it was worth doing. And what I think is when I see people not making time for the thing but making time for other things, that tells me there’s something wrong, there’s an issue. And so then we can explore why that is and what the real reason is, other than I’m busy ’cause everyone is busy. But you know, we have to get these things done somehow.
Hmm yeah, and so your business now is all about coaching academics. Did you do any coaching as part of your editing? Is that kind of where you got a first taste for it, and you realised actually, people really struggle with this stuff and they might need a little bit of coaching. Maybe I can set up a business around that.
Yeah, so actually it was because I have been giving workshops. So I’ve been giving writing workshops at universities for about 10 years. I actually need to show the universities who pay me that they’re getting something from this. And the best thing would be to show them that they’re actually changing their practise and have a manuscript that they’ve been working on, to have the writing workshop first and then a few weeks later, have the editing workshop. And the idea was people were supposed to bring their draft to the editing workshop to edit it.
And then I started to notice that a lot of people just weren’t doing it. So they weren’t actually implementing anything because they just couldn’t get past the first hurdle, which is just to find the time, to prioritise the time to actually get the writing done.
At the same time I was in this online business group I joined in about 2015. And I had never heard of coaching before this, right? But there was a lot of women in business and there was lots of coaches in their group. So I started to hear about them talking about mindset. And I’m just really interested in that whole process so I did a coaching certification.
And you know, I’ve done my own personal development because as a business owner, you have to get out of your own way. You know, I started to say there’s a lot of people with unfinished manuscripts that you know it, it harms their career in the end, and they’re capable researchers. But for me, a lot of my clients just do not, are not able to prioritise writing time ’cause they’re doing too many things for other people basically, which is fine in, on the day. But then at the end of the year they have no publications.
So I’m really interested in Malini in this whole idea that’s been a theme throughout our whole conversation, this idea that academic writing either is hard or at least feels hard. Because there are lots of people like me here who actually really love writing, but I still massively struggle to get it done.
So I’m interested in your coaching experiences. Are the biggest barriers kind of structural barriers like workload or are the biggest barriers the self-sabotage? You know the, the self talk, the negative stuff, I’m not good enough, I, I’ve got too many other things to do. People are waiting on me. You know, yeah. Or is it both of those things?
Yeah, I think it’s both of those things. And I just, this is a good opportunity to actually for me to say that I don’t shy away from the fact there’s massive issues in society and in academia structurally, where it’s much harder for some people to just even stand up for themselves and to, to find the time. And so the work I do is not to say that everyone should just suddenly be able to do things and it’s all easy.
But I do think there’s also as you said, the second part is just the negative self talk. I work with a lot of people who are the first person to go to university in their families. So they don’t see themselves as an academic, coming from academic stock or whatever. There’s people who you know for whatever reason, just don’t feel they belong in their department. Maybe they’ve changed research interests and now they feel like an impostor in whatever department they’re in.
There’s also a whole lot of issues especially for women in family, you know, domestic life and all the workflow that they’re doing there. So that’s the inequality there that they’re doing all the things in the home. Teaching loads. There’s so many other things that get in the way.
But then as for other people, they do like it. I’ve also heard people who say to me they enjoy writing. They feel guilty about enjoying it because if you go on Twitter, everyone’s complaining about how much they hate writing.
So it sounds like there’s a you know, there’s a whole load of reasons why academic writing is hard and why it’s a barrier for a lot of people. But when it comes to the solutions then, do you kind of focus on some core solutions?
I know you focus a lot on people’s mindset and I saw you recently tweeted a new mantra for yourself, “I can’t help everyone and that’s OK”. Yeah, just curious to hear a little bit more about what are some of the kind of the solutions that you, that you implement with people?
Yeah, so I think there’s three stages where people get stuck, I think I mentioned this at the start. So the first one is just getting to the computer. And so I think a lot of that is just for a lot of people and women have said this to me, you know, they feel selfish to close the door to work on their paper because it’s a solo task.
Some people, that’s the first step is just making the time and protecting it and it’s part of their job, not seeing it as something they should be doing at midnight. You know, [I’m] very much an advocate of sleep and rest and all those other things. So it’s part of the job. We need to make time for it. And sometimes that means saying no to other people which is hard, but necessary. Because at the end of the year, no one cares about how many people you helped. They’re just looking at where you know, employees are looking at how many papers you’ve got.
The second step is then some people get to the computer and then don’t know what to write about. So that’s where I, you know my process, the process that I advocate for is making a detailed plan. And I think a huge part of academic work is thinking and reading and discussing ideas. And we’ve lost a lot of that with the pandemic and people working from home and being really isolated. But you know, you can’t write something if you don’t know what you want to say and what’s the core message. And that’s where people realise there’s a few key parts in the paper that they’re not actually sure what they’re saying.
And there’s a lot of people who say “just get the words on the page and you can edit it later”, which I understand the sentiment. But as an editor, I know it’s really hard to do that, So I also see clients have 10,000 words of not really anything, not saying anything. And it’s so emotionally difficult to turn that into a proper thing that they waste months with this draft that they quickly wrote ’cause they wanted to feel like they’re productive. So I sort of you know, encourage my clients to stop, think, re-discuss things. Get your ideas clear. Get the story clear. And then just write to a paragraph plan and just start with the easiest bits first, build the momentum. And I’m a huge fan of writing most days, to keep connected with your story, to feel that you’re actually making some progress, even if it’s just 20 minutes a day.
And then the final step is letting it go. So when people say it’s not quite finished yet, I need to polish it. What does that mean? And you get to a point where you could fiddle with it forever, right? You could just change the same sentence every day forever and you still want to keep changing it. So it’s just about accepting that it still might get rejected. But it’s better out there, in the process that’s going to take ages than sitting on someone’s computer with nothing happening. So you know, there’s sort of the three places where I feel like people get stuck.
Malini, if someone’s listening right now, who really is absolutely in the pit of despair with their writing and can’t see their way out, they feel like they’ve procrastinated for so long now that it’s just impossible, what would be your first piece of advice to them other than you know, maybe see if you can get some support and be compassionate with yourself? What would you say to someone right now who just thinks I’m stuck and I’m never going to be unstuck?
So is this for? Would you say most of your listeners are writing manuscripts, journal articles or thesis or?
Oh, I think we’ve got a lot of students writing theses. I think we’ve definitely got people who are, who are writing manuscripts. And even not within academia, you know, people who are working on reports. I think probably most of our listeners have to write stuff.
And I think procrastination is really really common for many reasons. We’ve got a whole episode about procrastination that I think is still our most listened to episode. You know, we all do it and it’s, and it’s hard.
Firstly, just forget about the time that you’ve spent to now, ’cause it doesn’t matter. It’s easy to just lament all the wasted hours and weeks and months, but that’s in the past. So really just coming back to basics, I would just start with whether it’s a thesis, chapter or a journal article or whatever it is. Why am I writing this? Like what is the purpose? And a lot of academics are just thinking about their CV, their funding opportunities, the journal impact factor and all those things.
But actually as a reader, you’ve got to be thinking about the reader. Like why would someone want to read this? What I want them to do? Because it helps you if you can connect with that purpose. Like you need to feel a sense of connection and Jen, you talked about this earlier where you didn’t have that with that piece you’re working on. If you don’t have that, it’s not gonna be fun to write. So you really have to imagine somebody who you want to read it, reading it and getting something from it, and what you want them to do with that information. I think that’s a good starting point.
And then if you can’t do anything with that, really explore why. So journaling is a great prompt for this. And this is where it’s hard ’cause you have to be honest with yourself, and just get a pen and paper or type it up and just think you know sort of turn your brain off and just write what’s on your, on your mind or in your heart about why you’re struggling. Like what is the thing that’s stopping you? What are you scared of? That’s what it usually comes down to.
You know, it’s usually ’cause people don’t feel qualified to say something. They’re worried about being judged by other academics or whoever it is. They’ve worked with someone they didn’t like and now they have to go and deal with that person and they don’t want to. You know, just really trying to get to the root cause of the problem, because then you can make a decision. As I always say to my clients, do I actually want to write this or not? I see a lot of people who’ve carried half finished papers for years and years. And to me, it’s better to just dump it or do it. Don’t just carry it around as this burden.
Well I mean that’s, that’s the key of what it was for me to actually admit to myself that even though I’d committed to writing this thing and I felt like I had no choice. Actually, it was definitely not what I wanted to be doing. It wasn’t my, didn’t align with my bigger picture goals and purpose. And it was OK to, to find a way to extricate myself. And the lightness I felt once I’ve done that was quite remarkable.
Yes, and that’s what I feel like. I, I feel like all these unfinished things just sit on our shoulders and whether we realise it or not, just taking up space in our brain. We feel guilty. And a lot of like, I’ve worked with people who have up to 10 unfinished manuscripts over many years.
And the way I approach that is we just pick one. Because if you have lots of unfinished things, you will just flip from one to the next to the next. Get stuck on this one, move on to the next one. Get stuck on that one, move on to the next one. So whether it’s thesis chapters or whatever, just pick one and we’re gonna finish it and get it done.
And they they, they do, they feel a huge sense of relief. Ooh, we’re going to let it go whichever way it is. And the relief is huge and it just makes everything easier.
I felt a huge sense of relief when you said just forget about the time you’ve spent procrastinating up till now. Thank you.
Yes, because I mean it’s not helpful, right? I mean, that’s not serving any purpose now to think. Because we all do it, right? It’s like we leave this thing for years and then it takes 5 minutes. And we think why didn’t we do it all those years ago? But the guilt that people feel when they come to me is this like I haven’t done anything, I’ve wasted all this time. Well, that’s in the past so… But I think once you are clear on what you’re trying to say and you’re confident that you can say, have something to say, the writing can actually be easy and enjoyable and fun.
And it can be a nice time for yourself that you actually enjoy and you look forward to. And that’s what I want from my clients to say you want to enjoy that part of the job because there’s no point doing the research if you’re not going to publish it and get it out there in some shape or form, whether that’s academic manuscripts or other forms of communication. You want people to read your work and you want to contribute [to] the conversation and be willing, and that’s the thing, be willing to accept not everyone might agree with us but it’s OK. We’re just you know, putting our thoughts out there.
Now, this might sound like I’m switching topics to something completely different because I’m hungry, but when I go to restaurants I like to ask the waiter what’s the most delicious thing on the menu? I ask it all the time.
He really does every time.
It’s true, it’s true. But I’m curious Malini to ask you, what’s the best piece of writing advice and the worst that you’ve ever come across? The most delicious piece of writing advice and the most disgusting.
Let’s start with the unsavoury first. Let’s start with the unsavoury. OK you know, I do feel that this idea of just writing and focusing on word count. So I see this a lot with thesis boot camps and that sort of thing is just x-hundred or whatever words a day. I just see that what happens is people become obsessed with the word count and they just cannot edit it later.
So they just end up with thousands of words. And I see this a lot with students. They come to me with these chapters. It’s all in a model. There’s no clear logic. And like I said, it’s like the hare and the tortoise. You know, they’ve sprinted to get all these words on the page. And people are saying, you can just edit it later and it’s OK, but they don’t have the skills to do that, no one’s taught them how to do that.
The best advice… I don’t tend to follow a lot of writing advice because you know, I start listening to other people and then I start thinking about am I saying the right thing? You know, I start doubting myself. But I think it’s really just, you have to be confident that you have something to say. That’s where the thinking and and really being sure that it’s got to come back to the message and that’s where I think the story. And it’s easy to get bogged down in data.
Brilliant advice, I feel like we could chat forever and we’ve asked you a lot of big questions.
Now it’s time for some little questions. We like to finish off our podcast with some rapid fire lighthearted questions. So just short answers and you don’t need to think about it too much, first thing that comes to mind.
Yeah I know, that’s why I’m scared.
First question Malini. If you had to pick an alternative career to what you’re doing now, what would it be?
I’ve had so many careers.
I, I just figure in five years I’ll be doing something different so that’s a non answer.
Baking birthday cakes maybe Michael?
Uhh no. You’ve not seen my baking though.
Or given all of the different professions you’ve had to date, what would you say your proudest professional moment has been?
I honestly, I think it’s just what I’m doing now is helping. You know, my clients are so talented and have so much amazing research. And I think it just makes me really happy to see them. You know when they say to me, I finally submitted that paper or whatever it is.
Yeah it does. It’s a, it’s a great achievement and it’s nice to share those experiences with people that you’ve been working with I would imagine.
So next question. Twitter or Instagram and why?
Funny timing. So I started on Twitter maybe I don’t know, years ago. And I, I like it because it’s words. I, I never, I set up Instagram ages ago and never… personal account, never used it ’cause I don’t take photos.
But from a marketing perspective, I’m using Instagram more because I like video. So video… I don’t like photos. But I can just turn the camera on and talk. And in terms of building a client base, which is why I use social media really.
You know, I think Instagram has a, has a lot more going for it really than… I mean, I’ve studied marketing and those sorts of things. So if anyone there is building a business, you know? Twitter is very difficult with the algorithm. If you don’t have a huge following, just things die. So that’s where I’ll be as Twitter, see what happens with Twitter now, but…
Yeah, interesting time for sure.
Next question, your favourite science related book and I’m going to ask you specifically about a book given your love of words?
OK, this is, I knew this part would be tricky for me, these rapid fire.
I don’t read any science books, isn’t that?… This is a terrible thing to admit.
Or you can tell me your favourite science related movie if you prefer.
I don’t watch any. But recently, I’ve just discovered audiobooks in the last few years which I just have found a huge relief for my eyes and my brain and everything.
So I listen to a lot of… Well, I listen to a lot of business related stuff and some fiction, but science does not feature. So…
That’s alright, that can be your answer. That’s fine.
That’s, I just do that at work and then yeah, I don’t do any of those things.
So sorry. Yeah, I just…
Totally understand. No no, no apologies.
I’m the same. I’m the same.
I read fiction exclusively. So yeah.
This is just reminding me of my brief scientific career when I prepared talks. I used to practise, my supervisor made me practise all my talks and it was all fine.
And then after the talk, they have the questions, which used to be nervous about, the questions ’cause you can’t prepare for those. That’s what this is reminding me of. Ok, next question.
OK, this is the last question, the last question. This is the hardest one of all. No, not really.
But you’ve given us some great advice already, Malini. I’m curious to know what your top tip for effective science communication is.
Yeah, so this has come up. This is something I’ve thought about recently. So I’ve helped some of my clients prepare conference presentations. And I’ve done a lot of speaking. I do toastmasters. I’ve done a lot of public speaking. And what I said to them about the speaking was that how do you want the listener to be different? So when you’re speaking, especially in a room, it’s a very human to human connection point right, versus writing?
But now I use this for my writing clients, which is how do you want the reader, the listener, whoever it is, How do you want them to be different? Do you want them to know something different? Do you want them to think differently about something? Do you want to sort of challenge their thinking on a topic? Do you want to make them upset? Happy? Whatever it is. That’s what we have to start with. So it’s not about my data and what I want to say necessarily that’s important. But you’ve really got to understand what you want the other person to do afterwards.
And with speaking, I think it’s easier. I see a lot of people who give terrible talks ’cause they essentially try to reproduce their paper on the slides. You know, speaking is a great opportunity to just connect with the people in the room. But for writing, it’s a bit harder ’cause you don’t get to see the person reading your writing. But you can still be thinking about that and it should start from that.
How do you want the reader to be different? And how will you do that so you can take them on that journey so by the time they read the conclusion, you know you’ve got them to where you want them to be, to be thinking about you doing you know, what action do you want them to take afterwards.
And if you start with that, I think that that comes through in the writing versus starting from a place of my, my data, my CV, my impact factor or whatever it is. And it really makes you know, as a reader you know, you know when someone’s writing to you versus writing at you.
I couldn’t agree more Malini. And I reckon I’ve said almost exactly those words myself when you’re particularly teaching about public speaking. You know you’re, you’re giving your audience a gift. What sort of gift is it going to be? How do you want them to, to yeah, have been changed by the experience of giving you some of their precious time and attention? So beautifully said.
And thank you just so much for your time and wisdom today, I’m very sure that we could talk to you for many more hours about all sorts of things. But to make some time for us today and to share some thoughts about why many of us struggle and some of the ways that we can get out of these struggles I think is just so valuable. So thank you Malini. And next time I get completely stuck, I’ll be coming back to you.
Well thanks Michael and thanks Jen. It’s been a pleasure to be here and I’m always happy to talk about these things. I just want more academics to realise you know, you have everything you need today to start writing. We just have to get out of our own way most of the, most of the time just to get started. So I encourage everyone to do that.
Fantastic. Thanks Malini.
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