Category Archives: scientific writing

Power in the ending

Image: The ending of a long story (Lord of the Rings; Tolkien 1955, George Allen & Unwin, London).

If you’re like me (as a writer, I mean) you probably spend a lot of time thinking about the first sentences of things.  It’s true in fiction, and just as true in scientific writing, that the 1st sentence of a passage, a section, a paper, or a book has a big job to do.  A good opening sentence sets a mood, asks a question, grabs a reader and positions them for the journey to come.

It took me a long time to realize that the last sentence of anything is equally important. Continue reading

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Becoming a science writer: a musical in three acts (guest post)

This is a guest post by Greg Crowther, of Everett Community College, in Everett, Washington, and it’s the latest installment in my “How I learned to write” series. Image: Greg performing “Have Yourself a Healthy Little Kidney” for the University of Washington Division of Nephrology (2017).

Take it away, Greg:

As a reader of this blog, I’ve enjoyed its guest posts on the development of scientific writing skills (entry 1, entry 2, entry 3).  I’d now like to add my own perspective, but with a twist. The writing I most enjoy doing is musical in nature — so, at the risk of seeming completely self-absorbed, I’m going to sketch out my development as a science songwriter, using seasonally appropriate examples.*

Act 1: Student, aiming for humor (1987-2002) Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Go ahead, use contractions: poll responses and more

Two weeks ago, I reported my run-in with a reviewer who wanted me to scrub common English contractions (like it’s, doesn’t, or we’re) from a manuscript.  There’s a common belief that contractions mustn’t be used in scientific writing, although the genesis of this “rule” is unclear.  So is the rationale.  One that’s commonly suggested is that contractions make writing informal, and that that’s inappropriate – to which I say only “Harumph”.  Another is much more important: the claim that they make writing less accessible to readers of English as an additional language (EAL).

I’ve been skeptical of that hard-for-EAL claim, but not being an EAL reader myself makes it hard for me to claim authority on the issue.  So, I asked EAL readers of Scientist Sees Squirrel to weigh in – and they did.  Today, poll results, and a couple of additional points raised by some folks who think about writing for EAL readers. Continue reading

Don’t stop writing in the Chasm of Despair

Image: In the Chasm of Despair (crop), Gavster CC 0 via pixabay.com.  Happy Hallowe’en?

 Warning: it’s not clear whether I’m using metaphor here, or whether metaphor, having taken full control, is using me.

In nearly every writing project I take on – no matter whether it’s an 800-word blog post or an 80,000-word book – there’s a point where I feel like what I’ve produced so far is horrible, that I can’t see how to fix it, and that I’ll probably never find my way to a worthwhile end.  I sit in front of the screen cursing, if I can summon the energy to curse; if I can’t, I just stare at the page with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.

I call this point in my writing process the Chasm of Despair.   Continue reading

How big an obstacle are common contractions for non-native speakers of English? Polls!

I recently had a run-in (OK, a minor disagreement) with a reviewer who wanted me to scrub all contractions from my manuscript – and who specifically objected, not to some fancy or newly-coined acronym but standard, common English contractions like didn’t, it’s, and we’ll. Continue reading

Presenting statistical results: pointers in scientific writing

This semester, I’m coteaching a graduate/advanced-undergraduate level course in biostatistics and experimental design.  This is my lecture on how to present statistical results, when writing up a study.  It’s a topic I’ve written about before, and what I presented in class draws on several older blog posts here at Scientist Sees Squirrel.  However, I thought it would be useful to pull this together into a single (longish) post, with my slides to illustrate it.  If you’d like to use any of these slides, here’s the Powerpoint – licensed CC BY-NC 4.0.

(Portuguese translation here, for those who prefer.)

Here goes.

How should you present statistical results, in a scientific paper?
Continue reading