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;



4 thoughts on “How I became a writer (guest post)

  1. Lawrence Kirkendall

    I am a fan of this website and recommend it heartily to colleagues and students when the subject of science writing is brought up. However, I disagree with the central premise of this guest post: “… I believe it takes most of us time to learn that writing and scientific writing are not the same; instead, they are different languages.” Quite a strong assertion, which unfortunately is not detailed further.

    As with many readers of this website, I write as a first author, edit as a co-author, review papers written by others, am a subject editor of a journal, and advise students who are writing theses or their first articles. So, I deal with writing on a near-daily basis. While I can see a large gap between informal communication and formal writing, I do not see a major difference between scientific writing and other writing (assuming we are not circumscribing the latter to include only emails and tweets). I certainly don’t see science writing as requiring “unique skills” with (it is implied) virtually no overlap with those needed for other forms of writing.

    Perhaps my experience is not typical, but the “bad” drafts of scientific articles that I struggle with suffer from poor writing skills, period: sections which lack logical flow, paragraphs with too many foci, subject-verb disagreement, vague wording, incorrect word choice, incorrect punctuation (especially semicolons and colons, but also commas and various types of hyphens), being overly passive, over-dependence on acronyms and esoteric terminology. All of these hinder rapid comprehension; none of these are acceptable in other forms of writing, either (or??).

    In my view, science writing is not an introduction to painting: rather, it is simply having to paint on a different type surface, or with a different palette. But you are not going to create art in this new way if you do not first master basic techniques. Switching metaphors (analogies?–I can never remember the difference), one’s first science writing is not learning from scratch to compose, but rather being asked to create a work in a new genre, one that might have traditions and constraints you have not had to deal with before (film music, for example).

    “Different languages”? Hardly. perhaps, different dialects.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Lawrence – I’d argue that you’re right at the scale of words-to-sentences, that JC is right at the level of paragraphs-to-paper, and that you’re both right in between.

      I completely agree that the basics of constructing a sentence are the same. But the construction of a paper – IMRAD, Swales’ rhetorical moves of Intro and Discussion, that sort of thing – that really is different from other kinds of writing. Many students take time to realize that; you can write beautifully and clearly, but still have written something that is not a paper.

      In between scales, there are issues like appropriate levels of hedging or knowing when and how heavily to cite that are unique to scientific writing. And yet the basics of paragraph construction – topic sentence, end-paragraph power position, etc – are universal.

      So at the risk of straddling the fence, you’re both right. If you want to settle on “dialect” that does seem reasonable.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Shahin

    Great reflection! As an applied linguist, a writing instructor and educator, and a writing-in-disciplines researcher, I enjoyed reading this post. I believe JC’s argument is well supported by existing studies in disciplinary discourses. Indeed, research has shown that part of the journey of a novice researcher to become a member of disciplinary communities is mastering the discourse and rhetoric of those disciplines and communities. As we all know, you can’t be a biologist and write/argue, let’s say, like a lawyer or a political science scholar, can you? These are different disciplines, requiring different research methods, different discourses and ways of arguing for their knowledge claims.
    In this journey, it is not easy to separate disciplinary knowledge from communities and discourses. They seem to be simultaneously involved in shaping and reshaping one another.


  3. Pingback: Becoming a science writer: a musical in three acts (guest post) | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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