Why I write the Introduction last

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked. “Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Don’t listen to the King.

At least, not when writing a scientific paper. Continue reading

Parasitic Oscillations: new ecopoetry from Madhur Anand

If you’ve been following Scientist Sees Squirrel for a while, you’ll know that one of my pet topics is the intersection between science and the arts. This intersection is certainly smaller than it could be, but it’s not as small as common (mis)interpretations of CP Snow’s “Two Cultures” essay would have it. So I’ve been happy to discover and share with you some particularly interesting mashups between science and poetry – like Richard Kelley Kemick’s collection Caribou Run, and Madhur Anand’s A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes.  We can add to that little collection today, because Anand has a new book of poetry, Parasitic Oscillations, and I’ve just finished reading it. Continue reading

Getting past writer’s block

All writers know the awful feeling: stuck, stonewalled, stymied, stumped. You just can’t find that next sentence, you have a terrible suspicion that your last one sucked, and you’ve a sense of existential dread that you’ll never again write coherent text. “Writer’s block,” we call it.

I put “writer’s block” in scare quotes, because the key to getting past it is realizing that it’s terribly misnamed. Continue reading

Millipede (Taylor’s Version)

That handsome critter above (the left-hand one) is Taylor Swift’s twisted-claw millipede, Nannaria swiftae – just named last month by Derek Hennen, Jackson Means, and Paul Marek. It’s narrowly distributed in the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee; but it might still look familiar, because its naming made a bit of a media splash (it is quite possibly, for example, the only millipede species to ever appear in Rolling Stone). Its namesake will certainly look familiar, as she makes a bit of a media splash about every other week.

In some circles, this naming will have led to some eye-rolling. Continue reading

Effective grant proposals, Part 3: Qualifications

Today, the third part in my series on writing effective grant proposals. I’ve pointed out the importance of careful thought about what a grant proposal is for. In brief, the function of any grant proposal is to convince its readers of three things:

  • that the work you’re proposing is worth doing;
  • that the work you’re proposing can be done;
  • that the work you’re proposing can be done by you.

Or (in order): novelty and significance; feasibility; and qualifications.

Having dealt with the first and second bullets, it’s now time to think about the third: qualifications. A funding agency will want return on its investment in the work, so they’ll need to be convinced that it can be done – and more particularly, since you’re asking for the money, that it can be done by you. Continue reading

Yes, good writing matters: empirical evidence!

I’ve devoted a lot of time and effort, over the last decade or so, to writing about good writing. There’s The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, of course; there’s our recent preprint on the construction of good titles; there are dozens of posts here on Scientist Sees Squirrel; and I can neither confirm nor deny rumours of another currently-super-top-secret book project. And this doesn’t even count the innumerable hours I spend toiling to improve my own writing, and to mentor my students towards improving their own.

Does any of this matter? Continue reading

How to talk with your mentor about writing (and why)

All of us write, and all of us learn to write; but virtually none of us do so alone. Which is a good thing, both for the doing and the learning! For that latter part: there’s an early-career phase in which you work closely with a mentor. Most often, that mentor will be an honours or graduate supervisor, and you’ll be working together while you write a thesis, or perhaps a manuscript for publication derived from a thesis. This kind of close collaboration can be extremely helpful as you learn the craft of scientific writing; but it can also be frustrating for both parties.

Before going further, it’s worth acknowledging just how much can be involved – on both sides. For the developing writer: writing the thesis is an enormous project that consumes many months (if not years). For most, it’s also a time of rapid learning. And the stakes are high, because the entire graduate program culminates in the thesis, and the first few publications have outsize weight on an early career CV. For the mentor, it’s also a big deal and extremely time-consuming. A mentor might read and comment on three or four drafts, or maybe a dozen, of each of your thesis chapters – and they aren’t likely to have a single mentee, so you can multiply that by the population of a lab.

So if the collaboration can be either helpful or frustrating, it’s very much worth trying to push the needle towards the former and away from the latter. Here are some ways you can do that. Continue reading

Effective grant proposals, Part 2: Feasibility

Today, the second part in my series on writing effective grant proposals. I’ve pointed out the importance of careful thought about what a grant proposal is for. In brief, the function of any grant proposal is to convince its readers of three things:

  • that the work you’re proposing is worth doing;
  • that the work you’re proposing can be done;
  • and that the work you’re proposing can be done by you.

Or (in order): novelty and significance; feasibility; and qualifications.

Having dealt with the first bullet, it’s now time to think about the second: feasibility. A funding agency will want return on its investment in the work, which means that they’ll want to be convinced that the work can actually be done. Continue reading

I’m on the “Scholarly Communication” podcast, talking about (what else) scientific writing

Perhaps you’ve noticed that I have the occasional thought about scientific writing. I recently had the pleasure of expressing a bunch of those thoughts in a wide-ranging conversation with Daniel Shea, one of the hosts of the Scholarly Communication podcast series from the New Books Network. You can listen to the episode here.

The interview was spurred by the recent release of the second edition of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, but our conversation wasn’t limited to that. Continue reading

Do funny titles increase or decrease the impact of scientific papers? New preprint!

Is science a laughing matter? That could mean a lot of things, I guess, but one place the question gets raised is around the construction of titles for scientific papers. Is it OK for a title to be funny?

I’ve had a longstanding (but admittedly weird) interest in the issue of humour and beauty in scientific writing. Not much gets written about that (except by me), but one place there’s just a little bit of literature is where humour intersects with the construction of titles. That’s in part because titles are important, and in part because the availability of easily-extracted data connecting titles with citation rates has given birth to something of a cottage industry in trying to associate features of titles with high or low citation fates of the papers in question. For title features suitable for automated scoring, like length, lots of data and analyses are available. But humour isn’t like that. This lack of data doesn’t stop authors of writing guides from advising against humour in titles (not mine, of course, but this one, and this one, and this one, for instance). How good is this advice? Continue reading