Category Archives: scientific writing

Jargon hurts our science – but we just can’t help ourselves

It’s rare that the appearance of a new scientific paper makes me snort and say “Ha, I told you so!” out loud, but it happened last week. Alejandro Martínez and Stefano Mammola’s paper, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, asks the simple and obvious question: does using jargon* in a paper’s title or abstract affect the citation impact of that paper?  The answer is “yes”: papers (in cave science**) with more jargon in their titles and abstracts get cited less.

We already knew, of course, that jargon hurts science communication. Continue reading

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

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

Barf-and-buff writing, and cherry-picking citations

I’m a big fan of a writing strategy that, in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, I call “storming the beach” – but that’s sometimes more vividly termed “barf and buff”.  The idea is simple: early in a writing project, don’t stop to make things perfect. Instead, charge ahead with getting something – anything – on the page. Rough, awkward, incomplete – it doesn’t matter, you can fix it later. Did you write some crap? That’s OK: you can fix crap much more easily than you can fix a blank page. So barf out something terrible, and buff it later.

Like most good advice, “barf and buff” has a few dangers lurking in it. Continue reading

Three reasons for the red pen

I’m gearing up for the latest offering of my Scientific Writing course, and that’s got me thinking about my (metaphorical) red pen. As scientists, we spend a lot of time commenting on other folks’ writing. I do it extensively in my writing course, but I also do it for my grad students writing thesis drafts, for my coauthors, for my colleagues who want friendly review of manuscripts and proposals, and for other colleagues when I’m a peer reviewer. I’m also often on the other side of the exchange, as my own drafts get marked up by coauthors, colleagues, and reviewers. I’ve been in this game for a while, and one thing I’ve learned is that most of us wield our red pens instinctively rather than deliberately. And that’s not a good thing. Continue reading

Some writing books I like

Tomorrow, I’m giving a Member Webinar for the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution, called How to Write a Better Thesis Faster: Learning the Craft of Writing. (Want to attend? You can join today and get the link tomorrow. Look, I’ll be honest: I’m not worth the price of membership. But you should join anyway – it’s a fabulous society with a great annual meeting and members who are brilliant, engaged, and kind.*

My talk** is a rather whirlwind compendium of advice for early-career folk wanting to learn to write more easily. One piece of advice – one I wish someone had given me early in my own career – is that it’s worth reading books on writing. Books plural. There are quite a few good ones (and yes, it’s true, also quite a few bad ones). Continue reading

Klaas’s cuckoo and the joys of old literature

A couple of weeks ago, Klaas’s cuckoo and I were featured on the Biodiversity Heritage Library blog. You should go read that post – especially the part about Klaas’s cuckoo and the origins of its name.  But here’s a little context.

It’s fashionable in some circles to bemoan the fact that many scientists* rarely cite literature older than a decade or two. There are, of course, many reasons older papers go uncited. Continue reading

Some startling data about the scourge of acronyms

There’s a lot to dislike about the way we write scientific papers. They’re often tedious and impenetrable, and they get that way at least in part because we make poor decisions as we write. We overuse big fancy words when short simple ones are available (“utilize”, anyone?), we just can’t let go of our fetish for the passive voice, and we apparently love nothing more than replacing some actual English words with an acronym. And so on. Continue reading

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. Continue reading