The perfect margarita and the perfect scientific paper

Everyone needs a summer project (or sixteen), and among mine was mixing the perfect margarita.  In pursuit of the perfect margarita, I read a lot of recipes, and a lot of opinions.  I finally made progress when I realized something important: the way to make a perfect margarita is to ignore everything anyone else has ever said about what makes a perfect margarita.  That realization, and a little fiddling, and there it was in my hand: my (not “the”) perfect margarita.

That last little tweak of the wording is key. My perfect margarita might horrify a margarita purist – no, never mind “might”, it’s sure to.  But because I’m mixing a margarita for me, it makes absolutely no difference what anybody else thinks.  It’s my perfect margarita.*

I have not yet written the perfect scientific paper. It turns out that’s harder.

Interestingly, the key to writing better papers is exactly opposite to the key to making better margaritas.  That’s because a margarita is for me; but a paper isn’t for me – it’s for readers. That difference changes everything. It’s why it’s not worth paying close attention to margarita recipes, but it is worth reading every book on scientific writing you can get your hands on. (Guess where I think you should start.)  It’s why when mixing a margarita, you should think only of how it will taste in your own mouth; but when writing a paper, you need to think of how each word will sound in the mind of your intended readers.  It’s why you should know what your readers expect, and give it to them. That’s true at the macro scale: it’s why there’s a canonical structure (IMRaD) for scientific papers.  It’s true at the meso and micro scales: it’s why you can use reader-familiar devices such as topic sentences and stress positions to communicate efficiently with a reader by putting information right where they expect it.  (This last bit is key to the useful but hilariously mistitled** paper, “The Science of Scientific Writing” (Gopen and Swan 1990)).

So: to make the perfect margarita, please only yourself. To write the perfect scientific paper, please only your readers.

I guess I’m one-for-two.  Which is an enviable percentage at the plate in baseball, so I’ve got that going for me.  And while the papers might be more important, the margaritas taste pretty good.

© Stephen Heard  September 1, 2020

UPDATE: I can’t believe I posted about margaritas without linking to this. Oh well.  Fortunately: this.

Image: Margarita by Cristie Guevara, CC0 via

*^Given that I’ve just told you to ignore everything everyone else has ever said about what makes a perfect margarita, it would be bizarre and ironic if I told you the recipe I’ve settled on. But I’m going to anyway, because it sort of makes a point.  Here’s what I’ve settled on:

1-1/2 oz tequila
¾ oz Cointreau
2 oz fresh lime juice
1-1/2 oz water
1 tsp white sugar
1-1/2 tsp brown sugar

The last three ingredients are what I’m sure will horrify purists.  They’re a replacement for the agave syrup that might be more “authentic” (yes, those are scare quotes).  The brown sugar is more interesting than white and to my taste rounds off the edges of the drink. If you’re horrified, that’s fine – you don’t need to drink my perfect margarita, and I don’t need to drink yours.

**^It’s hilariously mistitled because if there’s one thing a reader should expect in a paper titled “The Science of Scientific Writing”, it’s science – and there really isn’t any. Since the paper’s bottom line is that writers should meet reader expectations, the irony is really quite heavy.  It is, nonetheless, an extremely useful paper.

1 thought on “The perfect margarita and the perfect scientific paper

  1. John Pastor

    How about a contest nominating the perfect scientific paper? Mine would be:

    Vitousek, P.M. 1977. The Regulation of Element Concentrations in Mountain Streams in the Northeastern United States. Ecological Monographs 47: 65-87.

    A clear “why didn’t I think of that” hypothesis, elegant assembling of data to test it, and beautifully written.



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