Monthly Archives: March 2021

What jigsaw puzzles could have taught me about writing – if I’d listened

This (pictured above) is a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. Except that it isn’t – and that’s a lesson about writing I wish I’d learned many years before I did.

My puzzle is a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle, in the sense that there are 1,000 pieces in the box. But on the dining-room table, it’s ten 100-piece jigsaw puzzles: I did the frame, then the boat, then the chairs, then started on the cottage mansion. Nobody (I think) starts a jigsaw puzzle at the upper left corner and tries to put pieces in one at a time until they reach the lower right.

I used to try writing papers that way: starting with the Abstract, and writing until I got to the end of the Discussion. That’s the way I’d written undergraduate essays and lab reports, so that’s how I figured I’d write papers too. It didn’t work, of course. Continue reading

Strong opinions, weak effects: What makes a good title?

If you want your scientific papers to be read and cited, you have to give them good titles. Right? This statement seems utterly uncontroversial – after all, the entire function of a title is to inform and attract readers; and the title is the first piece of your paper a prospective reader will see. It’s not uncommon for someone to make a decision to read a paper (or, more likely, not to read it) based on just a few seconds spent skimming a title or a long list of titles. So good titles matter. Right?

It’s not hard to find strong opinions about what makes a title “good”. Continue reading

Online teaching and self-fulfilling prophecy

My university is in the throes of figuring out what Fall 2021 looks like for teaching – while working under the enormous handicap of not knowing what Fall 2021 will look like for anything else: student demand, vaccination uptake, variant persistence, not-yet-relaxed Public Health limits on classroom capacities, you name it. This has of course brought with it another round of existential-angst-ridden debate over whether another semester of partly-to-mostly-online teaching will be a way out of our conundrum or the end of higher education as we know it.

It’s easy to be tempted into “end of higher education as we know it”. Continue reading

The Scientist’s Guide to Writing will have a 2nd edition

The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, my guidebook for scientific writers, will soon have its fifth birthday. I’ll probably bake it a cake, because any excuse for cake is a good excuse, right? But I’ll also be looking forward to a bigger cake, about a year from now, to celebrate the launch of its second edition. Just last week, I sent the manuscript off to my editor, to go through that mysterious process that is book production.*

People sometimes grouse about books that have new editions (I know, because I’m one of those people, especially when it’s a textbook.) Sometimes, no doubt, it’s a cynical ploy to sabotage the used-book market and sell more new copies. So I’ll forgive you if you’re a bit skeptical. Why does the world need The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, 2nd Edition? Continue reading

You can’t (only) target science funding: Covid-19 edition

Last week, I exulted in the astonishing scientific triumph represented by the availability – already! – of vaccines for Covid-19. This week I’m going to let myself slide back into curmudgeon mode, just a little bit, because I think there’s an important way in which some folks are missing the point of the Covid-19 vaccine story.

Like a lot of posts here at Scientist Sees Squirrel, this one is inspired by several different events lining up in my head to point in a common direction: Continue reading