Category Archives: scientific writing

What’s the most famous sentence in the scientific literature?

Last week I allowed myself to vent a little about one of my writing pet peeves: the all-too-common but always incorrect construction “an unrelated genus”.  As a card-carrying nerd, I also allowed myself to segue from that into the beautiful and profound closing sentence of The Origin of Species:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.  (Darwin 1859)

 I suggested that this might be the most famous single sentence in our literature, and that raises two obvious but interesting questions.  First, is it?  And second, what are its competitors? Continue reading


There’s no such thing as “an unrelated genus”

 Image: Osmia rufa, André Karwath, CC BY-SA 2.5; Boletus edulis, Hans Hillewaert, CC BY-SA 4.0; Volvocales, Aurora M. Nedelcu, CC BY 2.5; Chimp, Aaron Logan, CC BY 2.5; Ranunculus asiaticus, Leif Stridvall, CC BY-SA 2.5; Isotricha intestinalis, Agricultural Research Service/USDA CC 0; Compilation, Vojtěch Dostál, CC BY-SA 2.5.

 (My writing pet peeves, part 4)

There I was, at the physiotherapist, reading a new manuscript by a friend and collaborator to distract myself from the indignities being visiting on my calf.  There I was, thoroughly enjoying what I was learning, when I was brought up short by a construction that drives me up the wall:

“this species, therefore, cannot be not congeneric with A. jonesi.  Instead, it actually belongs to Ethereum, a similar but unrelated genus”.*

 I gasped.  Unrelated?  No two genera on Earth are “unrelated”.  There are closely related genera and distantly related ones, but because all life on Earth shares a common ancestor, there are no unrelated ones. Continue reading

I’m about to teach a writing course, and I’m very scared

I start teaching a new course in just a few weeks.  For the first time, I’m teaching a whole course in scientific writing.  I’m supposed to know something about that – after all, I wrote The Scientist’s Guide to Writing – but nevertheless, I’m scared.

I’ve resisted teaching scientific writing for many years, despite agreeing with my colleagues who argue that it’s one of the most valuable courses a student (undergraduate or graduate) can take.  I’ve resisted in part because teaching a good scientific writing course is a lot of work; but mostly I’ve resisted because I’m not sure that I know how to teach a good scientific writing course.  I’ve never taken one, and so have no model to emulate or to avoid.  On top of that, I don’t actually think of myself as a very good writer.  I’m slow, and although I’ve worked hard to become an adequate writer, my papers are never going to be celebrated as outstanding in our literature.  So how can I teach writing? Continue reading

Defenders of the passive voice

I mention in my book, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, that there are few better ways to get academics arguing than to bring up the topic of the passive voice.  I’m reminded of this every time I get into a discussion of voice, either online or in person, in my department.  As you’d expect for a topic provoking argument, there are strongly held opinions on both sides: that scientific writing should use the active voice, or that the passive voice should be used instead*.

In general, I’m a passionate advocate for the active voice (although I acknowledge that a reasonable person can disagree).  Either on Twitter or in real life, I’ll often say something about avoiding the passive, and almost always somebody will come back with an objection.  These objections take a number of forms, both among different objectors but also within a single objector’s argument.  Two things interest me about patterns in those objections. Continue reading

Statistics in Excel, and when a Results section is “too short”

Every now and again, you see a critique of a manuscript that brings you up short and makes you go “Huh”.

A student of mine defended her thesis a while ago, and one of her examiners commented on one of her chapters that “the Results section is too short”*Huh, I said.  Huh.

I’m quite used to seeing manuscripts that are too long.   Occasionally, I see a manuscript that’s too short.  But this complaint was more specific: that the Results section in particular was too short. I’d never heard that one, and I just couldn’t make sense of it.  Or at least, not until I realized that it fits in with another phenomenon that I see and hear a lot: the suggestion that nobody should ever, ever do their statistics in Excel. Continue reading

Oral storytelling and my supposed superpower

Image: Der Grossvater erzählt eine Geschichte (Grandfather tells a story). Albert Anker, 1884 (Berlin Museum of Art) via Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes I’ll meet with a grad student who’s feeling stuck on a piece of writing, and I’ll do something they find surprising.  It’s this: I’ll think for a moment, roll my chair away from the desk a bit, look up at the ceiling, and dictate the paragraph that’s needed, more of less off the top of my head.  (A very rough version, mind you.  And I can do it for a paragraph or two – not for a whole paper!)  A while ago, one student stopped me midway through dictation and asked me how I could possibly do that.  It seemed, to her, like a superpower.

That brought me up short, because I hadn’t consciously realized that when I do it, I’m using a writing trick.  Continue reading

How good (a manuscript) is good enough?

Image: © (claimed) Terrance Heath, CC BY-NC 2.0

“How good a manuscript”, I’m sometimes asked, “is good enough to submit”?  It’s a natural enough question.  A manuscript heading for peer review isn’t the finished product.  It’s virtually certain that reviewers will ask for changes, often very substantial ones – so why waste time perfecting material that’s going to end up in the wastebasket anyway? Continue reading