Category Archives: scientific writing

The Scientist’s Guide to Writing is a year old!

One year ago*, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing hit the world’s bookshelves. A year is very young for a human or a redwood tree; it’s very old for a butterfly.  I hope a year is still quite young for The Scientist’s Guide, although that depends entirely on whether people keep reading and using it.

People often ask me how the book is “doing”.  I’d love to know the answer to that!  Continue reading

Am I the last holdout against making (publication-quality) figures in R?

It’s been amazing, over the last decade, to watch the incoming tide of R swamp every other tool for statistical analysis (at least in my own field, ecology and evolution). I’ve mostly come to accept my new statistical overlord*.  But what I don’t understand is R graphics. Continue reading

(Continued) From the trenches: How I’m learning to write (guest post)

Image: The PhD monomyth.  Compare with the monomyth narrative structure, the Hero’s Journey (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hero’s_journey).   Adaptation by J. Drake.

This is Part II of a guest post by Joe Drake, a PhD student in the Department of Environmental Conservation at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  Part I is here.  Joe’s own blog is The Secret Life of a Field Biologist, and you can email him at jdrake@umass.edu.

 

Part II:  In which our hero returns…. “enlightened”?

Our story up to now: I am a student learning how to write (and to do science, which involves a batch of writing).  I haven’t been very good at it, and I’m still not that great, but through valiantly misguided (misguidedly valiant?) efforts, I’m here telling you how I’ve started to get better.  Perhaps this will help you too (for more details see part 1). Continue reading

From the trenches: How I’m learning to write (guest post)

Image: The monomyth narrative structure – the Hero’s Journey.  Public domain, by David Richfield, via en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hero’s_journey

 

This is a guest post by Joe Drake, a PhD student in the Department of Environmental Conservation at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  Joe’s own blog is The Secret Life of a Field Biologist, and you can email him at jdrake@umass.edu.

Part I:  In Which Our Hero Enters the Wilderness

Do you know what was one of the most stupid things I ever said I could do? Start and then finish an NSF proposal over the course of a winter break.  My advisor and I sat down the day before leaving and hammered out a wonderful conceptual model for our project and eventual proposal.  We created Google docs to work from.  We were excited. We had a great idea. I said that I’d have a draft in two weeks.  I was an idiot. Continue reading

A capital dilemma: “western Australia” or “Western Australia”?

Image: Western Australia, © TUBS via commons.wikimedia.org CC BY-SA 3.0

 Warning: trivial.

Because no point of writing pedantry is too trivial to catch my eye – and my friends know it – I was asked for advice last week about when to capitalize directional modifiers of place names.  Should one write “western Australia” or “Western Australia”; “northern Ireland” or “Northern Ireland”; or “the northwestern Atlantic” or “the Northwestern Atlantic”?  I know, the Progress of Science and Civilization doesn’t rest on our getting this right, but it’s a question that comes up from time to time, and if you’ve ever been unsure, read on.

I turned to my trusty shelf of writing books to back up my intuition.  Continue reading

Nuancing brevity: less isn’t always more

Image: something I wrote recently. If you’re a sharp-eyed reader of the blog and think you know what it is, make a guess in the Replies. Although the only prize is my admiration.

Nearly every source of writing advice agrees on one thing: brevity is good.  My own book, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, is no exception; I devote an entire chapter to brevity.  There are good reasons for this. Longer papers ask more of their readers’ limited time budgets and seem, likely as a direct result, to have less citation impact.  Journals have limited space and would rather publish more papers than longer ones*.  In general, shorter texts and simpler sentences are easier to understand.  And most writers need to shorten their first drafts – and most find this a challenge (as Blaise Pascal noted in his famous letter, “I’ve made this letter longer than usual; I haven’t had time to make it shorter**).

But just in the last year or two, I’ve backed off my fanaticism about brevity just a bit.  Continue reading

How to handle a useless review

How should you handle a useless review?  I don’t mean one that’s actively idiotic, but a review that’s superficial, misunderstands the manuscript, is positive but lukewarm, or otherwise just doesn’t seem to point to any avenues for improvement. Perhaps it’s this gem:

This study seems competently executed, and most of the writing is pretty good.  A few analyses could benefit from more modern approaches.  However, in the end I’m unconvinced of its importance.*

Let’s start with how not to handle a useless review. Continue reading