How I became a writer (guest post)

This is a guest post by JC Cahill, of the Department of Biology at the University of Alberta.

Steve is an old friend from grad school, and just yesterday [as I write] he gave a well-received lecture on writing, here at the University of Alberta.  The enthusiasm and interest expressed by our early career scientists seemed genuine, and even as an old prof myself I can’t help but believe Steve is having some success in humanizing science writing.  But, also as an old prof I can’t help but feel a bit disheartened by the seemingly endless cycle of writing challenges, delays, and strategic failures I see in a nearly daily way. Choosing optimism rather hopelessness, I wish to tell my writing story with the intent of encouragement.

When I was a graduate student, I was a bad writer. I say this with neither pride nor embarrassment, but as a statement of inarguable fact. I hated the process, I hated the product, and I simply didn’t view it as important in science.  Oops. My ostrichian approach to writing came to a (buried) head while defending my thesis proposal (year 2 of grad school). During the discussion a senior researcher on the examining committee simply stated “Your writing is so bad, you likely need a permanent coauthor.”  Just what every early career scientist wants to hear, in room full of senior professors discussing your future. After much work, many tears by all involved, and time, I got better.  I have not emerged as a great writer today, but I am an effective one.  I regularly publish, I supervise students who regularly publish, our work gets cited, and I am even first author on most of my most heavily cited papers – these are not horrible measures of success in academic writing. How did I go from there to here? I made the active decision to change and I worked to improve.

What this stripping down forced me to do is recognize a simple truth – I did not know how to write. I am increasingly of the belief the same is true for most early career scientists, even those who fly through school with a 4.0 and are anointed by granting agencies, professors, and parents.  I believe it takes most of us time to learn that writing and scientific writing are not the same; instead, they are different languages.  Sure, Anglophones are fortunate to grow up learning many of the components of the dominant language of science (e.g. vocabulary, sentence structure, etc.), and many of us use these tools to effectively communicate in daily life.  Unfortunately, many of us are slow to realize that science writing is an additional language.  We are misled to believe that our abilities to elegantly communicate in common English are transferable.  We are often poorly trained as students to believe high school and university ‘lab reports’ have some resemblance any actual form of discourse used by practicing scientists. We become frustrated by thinking that simply writing more will let us learn to write better, when the core problem is we do not understand the rules of the language.

Following this logic is liberating. No one expects to be a master at any craft the first time they pick up the tools. Just because you understand the equipment used in painting you shouldn’t expect to create artwork, at the level of an international standard of performance, on your first try!  Instead, we accept that to learn the craft of painting, we need training, we need humility, and we need patience.  We recognize becoming effective in visual communication and expression requires highly unique skills, developed through study and with feedback and advice.  And so too does science writing.  We should not expect to be good, or even okay, just because we have written before in other contexts.  We should not feel depressed when our early drafts cause steam to emerge from the ears of our coauthors, or when we learn our work caused a local shortage in red ink supplies.  Instead, we should accept this as part of the process.  Learning is hard, but learning can happen.

What really is the alternative to learning?  Do we wish to choose to remain frustrated because we cannot achieve mastery without effort? Do we seek out and secure the very patient and mythical permanent coauthor? As one trying to support the training of early career scientists, I prefer the path of learning. As a lab, we march through Steve’s book chapter by chapter talking about writing. The point isn’t that that Steve’s words are gospel, but instead Steve’s words have opened discussion.  Writing for science is a craft, and a craft worth learning.

© JC Cahill ( November 19, 2018

This is the third in an occasional series in which scientific writers share their paths and progress.  You’ll find previous contributions from Joe Drake here, and from Rob Johns here).  Do you have a story like JC’s – but also, no doubt, different? Would you tell it here?  Drop me a line (Steve, not JC;



Statistical Inference as Severe Testing: How to Get Beyond the Statistics Wars (book review)

Statistical Inference as Severe Testing: How to Get Beyond the Statistics Wars, by Deborah G. Mayo.  Cambridge University Press, 2018.

If there’s one thing we can all agree on about statistics, it’s that there are very few things we all agree on about statistics.  The “statistics wars” that Deborah Mayo would like to help us get beyond have been with us for a long time; in fact, the battlefield and the armies shift but they’ve been raging from the very beginning.  Is inference about confidence in a single result or about long-term error rates?  Is the P-value essential to scientific inference or a disastrous red herring holding science back?  Does model selection do something fundamentally different from null-hypothesis significance testing (NHST), and if so, what?  If we use NHST, is the phrase “nearly significant” evidence of sophisticated statistical philosophy or evil wishful thinking?  Is Bayesian inference irredeemably subjective or the only way to convert data into evidence?  These issues and more seem to generate remarkable amounts of heat – sometimes (as with Basic and Applied Social Psychology’s banning of the P-value) enough heat to seem like scorched-earth warfare*. Continue reading

Go ahead, use contractions: poll responses and more

Two weeks ago, I reported my run-in with a reviewer who wanted me to scrub common English contractions (like it’s, doesn’t, or we’re) from a manuscript.  There’s a common belief that contractions mustn’t be used in scientific writing, although the genesis of this “rule” is unclear.  So is the rationale.  One that’s commonly suggested is that contractions make writing informal, and that that’s inappropriate – to which I say only “Harumph”.  Another is much more important: the claim that they make writing less accessible to readers of English as an additional language (EAL).

I’ve been skeptical of that hard-for-EAL claim, but not being an EAL reader myself makes it hard for me to claim authority on the issue.  So, I asked EAL readers of Scientist Sees Squirrel to weigh in – and they did.  Today, poll results, and a couple of additional points raised by some folks who think about writing for EAL readers. Continue reading

Yes, most reviews are submitted at the deadline. No, that doesn’t justify shorter deadlines

Image: Deadline, by geralt CC 0 via

Warning: I’m a bit grumpy today.

I’m back tilting at one of my favourite windmills today: requests for manuscript reviews with unreasonably short deadlines.  I’ve explained elsewhere that one should expect the process of peer review to take a while.  Journals would love to compress the process by reducing the time the manuscript spends on the reviewer’s desk – and so they ask for reviews to be returned in 2 weeks, or in 10 days, or less.  As a reviewer, I don’t play this game any more: I simply refuse all requests with deadlines shorter than 3 weeks.

I’ve asked a few editors and journal offices why they give such short deadlines, and they give two kinds of answers: one outcome-based, and one process-based. Continue reading

Don’t stop writing in the Chasm of Despair

Image: In the Chasm of Despair (crop), Gavster CC 0 via  Happy Hallowe’en?

 Warning: it’s not clear whether I’m using metaphor here, or whether metaphor, having taken full control, is using me.

In nearly every writing project I take on – no matter whether it’s an 800-word blog post or an 80,000-word book – there’s a point where I feel like what I’ve produced so far is horrible, that I can’t see how to fix it, and that I’ll probably never find my way to a worthwhile end.  I sit in front of the screen cursing, if I can summon the energy to curse; if I can’t, I just stare at the page with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.

I call this point in my writing process the Chasm of Despair.   Continue reading

How big an obstacle are common contractions for non-native speakers of English? Polls!

I recently had a run-in (OK, a minor disagreement) with a reviewer who wanted me to scrub all contractions from my manuscript – and who specifically objected, not to some fancy or newly-coined acronym but standard, common English contractions like didn’t, it’s, and we’ll. Continue reading

Twitter and your Research Program: tweeting your publications

At the 2018 conference of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution, 5 friends and I put on a workshop on the use of Twitter in science.  Today: slides and commentary from Alex Smith‘s piece of the #CSEETweetShop.  How can you use Twitter to share the word about your own scientific publications?  And how does it help?

I’m an imposter (begins Alex). I joined Twitter in September 2013 looking for a way to promote and distribute the photos and videos that I take in the field.  The way I had done this in the past (individual blogs or websites) was getting views only from my family at first, and then slowly it seemed, not even them.  So I joined Twitter because I thought it was the social media platform that would help me promote the work my lab does. So speaking at the CSEE 2018 symposium on Twitter and Science I felt a bit of an imposter because since October 2013, my Twitter experience has been all about learning from others. But here we go…tweeting your research, why would you want to; and then some suggestions for how to go about doing it. Continue reading