Writing Wisdom from a Nobel Prize Winner

By Jack Limpert

In his book, Avoid Boring People, James Watson tells lots of lively anecdotes about his life in science, including winning the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1962. At the end of each chapter is a list of “Remembered Lessons”—lots of them also lively and entertaining.

Some of the lessons he learned as a child:

Avoid fighting bigger boys or dogs.

Accept only advice that comes from experience as opposed to revelation.

Hypocrisy in search of social acceptance erodes your self-respect.

Some of what he learned as an adult:

Make necessary decisions before you have to.

Don’t back schemes that demand miracles.

Only ask for advice that you will later accept.

Never dye your hair.

In 1968 Watson wrote The Double Helix, a controversial account of his discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, which led to the Nobel Prize. Some of the lessons he  learned from writing that book appear in Avoid Boring People:

Be the first to tell a good story.

Use snappy sentences to open your chapters.

Avoid imprecise modifiers (very, much, largely, possibly).

Always remember your intended reader.

Read out loud your written words.

And this one, appreciated by editors everywhere:

A wise editor matters more than a big advance.

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