The confidence a good mentor places in you can give you confidence in yourself. When a good mentor is willing to invest in you, you can become willing to invest in yourself. Good mentors can be hard to come by, and earlier this month the most influential mentor I’ve ever had passed away.
Dr. Frank Ackerman was a giant in his field; I was truly honored to have been so fortunate to have worked with him. Frank took me under his wing when I was at Synapse Energy Economics. During my time there, I had the privilege of working with him on a range of economic analyses. From the role of climate modeling in public policy to the costs of generic drug regulation. From the social cost of carbon to the long-term plan of a small Kentucky cooperative utility.
Renowned for his robust analytical capabilities in the field of environmental economics, Frank was also an incredibly skilled writer.
I was not.
I still find myself comparing my work to Frank’s and find my work wanting. Having said that, the most important thing Frank taught me was that good writing isn’t a “gift.” If you want to get good at it, you must work at it and keep working at it.
I was 28, and nobody had ever bothered to tell me that until then.
Here are the three things Frank taught me about technical writing that I’ll never forget:
In Calculus, those that give up rob themselves of ever solving the puzzle; it was those willing to struggle that found the right answers. I liked struggling through the math equations but when it came to writing, I lacked encouragement and motivation. Frank gave me both.
“Putting the work in” was a big part of what Frank coached me to do. He would assign me to do write-ups of our work, forced me to think through how to frame the issue, and would show me what worked (and what didn’t). Frank made sure I developed muscle memory so that I would get it right the second go-around (or third, or fourth). It would have taken less time for him to have just written it himself, but he really invested in me.
I used to do whatever I could to make sure writing wasn’t a big part of my job, for fear of failing at it. Today, I tweet at wonks, testify to utility regulators, write briefs to legislators, author technical reports for who knows who, and you are currently reading my blog.
“What science writers do you read?”
That was one of the first questions he asked me, and I couldn’t think of any. He challenged me to find writers that tackle challenging topics and read how those people write. Learn from the best.
I was reading mainstream economists like Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman. Frank’s suggestions led me to David Roberts (then at Grist, now at Vox) who has taken on topics like discount rates (with otters).
My job required me to read thousands of pages of intense testimony from energy economists and financial analysts, still does. What Frank impressed upon me was the need to pay attention to how reporters were covering issues. I was busy trying to impress economists. Trying to show that I knew economics, all the while my writing had become incomprehensible to the outside world.
I still go back and read Frank’s work. I still read David Robert’s work. I read Julia Pyper, Jenny Chase, Brad Plummer, Gavin Bade, Iulia Gheorghiu, Catherine Traywick, Russel Gold, and countless others. Learning from the best, just like Frank taught me.
One element of writing that I’ve learned to appreciate is that you get a chance to be a smarter version of yourself.
Who hasn’t thought, “I have the perfect response to that.” Or, having walked away from an argument thought, “Gee I should have worded it differently!”
When you are doing the writing, you get to walk away, come back, and the rewrite your argument exactly how you want it. Frank was infinitely patient with me and taught me to be patient with myself. I used to write up to the deadline of projects, rather than stagger the writing. Giving myself a day (or even an hour) to step away and come back with fresh eyes, it can make a big difference.
Frank helped me become a better writer and I tried to thank him in a Twitter thread that I botched with broken tangential thoughts and poor grammar. I’m sure if he had seen it, he would have taken out his red pen and gone to work on it. It was no way to honor him, so I’m giving it another shot. This post is my rewrite. My way of memorializing my thoughts the way I wanted to. To sound like me, only better.
I hope I did right by you, Frank.