Writing on writing makes me nervous

Photo: Scorpion stonework, house on Lilla Nygatan, Stockholm, Sweden; photo S. Heard. How many legs is that again? Oh well, at least the error isn’t carved in stone.  Oh, wait….

It wouldn’t surprise me if every paper I’ve ever published contains an error. Mind you, it wouldn’t bother me all that much, either.

I don’t mean major errors, necessarily (although I wouldn’t rule them out); I don’t mean errors in statistical interpretation or errors in judgment*. Mostly, I mean typos, or grammatical errors, or sentences awkward enough to be regretted.  It just seems inevitable: as hard as I try, every round of revision includes at least one catch of an error, and if the last round turned up an error, then the would-have-been-next-one-that-I-left-undone surely would have too.

But now I’ve gone and published a book.  And if it’s likely that an error will sneak through in a 10-page paper, well, it’s pretty much certain that a bunch will sneak through in a 320-page book.  So I know there are errors in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing.  I don’t know what they are (yet), but I know they’re there.  I worked 5 years on the book, with multiple rounds of revision and editing and proofing, but I know the errors are there.  And when I find them – when someone points them out to me – I’ll be horrified.  It’s the irony, you see.  It’s a book about writing.  About good writing.  Argh.

If I’m especially unlucky, the irony will come in a double helping – perhaps there will be a dangling participle in my chapter on sentence structure, or some redundant, unnecessary words** in my chapter on brevity.  There was plenty of private irony as I procrastinated writing my chapter on procrastination; but the public irony, when it comes, is going to burn.

In my defence, I don’t claim to be a particularly good writer.  In fact, I think some of the value in my book comes from the fact that its author (me) is just an ordinary scientific writer like everybody else, who struggles at writing and has only become adequate through long, deliberate practice. If I was a naturally fluent writing genius, I’d probably be unable to offer useful advice. Would you ask Bach to teach you to play the organ?  This defence makes perfect intellectual sense to me – but it isn’t going to make me feel any better.

So, if you’re reading The Scientist’s Guide to Writing and you find one of my errors, what should you do?  Well, this post might sound like I’m asking you to keep it to yourself, but no: the only thing worse than an error I know about is an error I don’t know about.  And if I’m lucky and the book sells well, perhaps there will be a second edition and I can fix my errors.  So bring it on!  Email me, tweet me, or just drop a comment on this post; but don’t spare your eagle eyes.  And if we’re lucky, the error you find will be one we can both laugh at.

And what about you?  Sorry, but your papers probably have errors too. Little ones, for sure; maybe once in a long while, one that merits publishing an erratum***. You don’t want to be sloppy, of course; but it’s impossible not to ever make a mistake (in writing, as in everything else). So if someone finds a mistake in a paper of yours, be grateful and be gracious, but don’t be ashamed.  And if it will make you feel better, write to me and I’ll point out some of my errors.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) June 2, 2016


*^Well, Table 2 in Heard and Remer 1997 was definitely an error in judgment.  I mean, who could possibly have thought a table was a good way to present those data?

error in judgement table(American Naturalist 744-770; © University of Chicago, reproduced for (self-) critical commentary)

**^See what I did there?  I crack me up.

***^With luck, none will ever lead to your papers being retracted over your objections.

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5 thoughts on “Writing on writing makes me nervous

  1. Markus Eichhorn

    Definitely. I’m positively embarrassed by some of the errors in my published work, and would cringe if anyone pointed them out. Books no doubt contain them at the same frequency as papers. For this reason I’m not fond of book reviews that merely compile a list of trivial errors (those in Ecology are often along such lines). These perhaps appear because scientists assume that a book review should have the same detail and critical attention as a manuscript review. As a book reviews editor myself (http://escholarship.org/uc/fb), I try to encourage reviewers to focus on the overall content and value of a book rather than its inevitable flaws. We can only hope that all our readers treat them in the same way, and endeavour to approach the work of others in the same spirit.

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  2. jogger1

    Unless it is simply language usage that I am unfamiliar with, I found only one error in TSGtW. And I am a rather careful reader, so I am unlikely to have missed much. “Easily-to-follow” should be “easy-to-follow” on the bottom of pg. 226. I assume it was originally written as “easily followed” but the change in language was only partially implemented.

    If that’s really the only error in there, it’s pretty damn good for a first printing, I think.

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  3. jeffollerton

    Just today I spotted an error in a paper of mine; I stated repeatedly (in the abstract and in the text) that a particular group of plants were known to be pollinated by 11 different families of flies. But when I went to list them for another paper I’m writing, turns out there were only 10. Is struggling with basic counting skills grounds for retracting a professorship…..?

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  4. Pingback: Write as I say, not as I do | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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