Category Archives: scientific writing

Why I threw in the towel on “data is”

Warning: mostly trivial.

I have several friends who are ready to die on the hill that’s the plurality of “data”.  Writing “the data suggests” or “the data is strong”, for these folks, isn’t just wrong: it’s a crime against the sanctity of the English language, and a grievous insult to right-thinking scholars everywhere.  And for some reason (probably because they know I wrote a book about writing), these particular friends turn to me for backup.  But here’s the thing: once, I was on their side; but I’ve thrown in the towel. Continue reading

The magical writing trick that’s right under our noses

Writing is hard, and over the years I’ve developed a bunch of tricks that make it a bit easier for me.  Some are weird, some are complicated, and some are idiosyncratic enough that they probably work only for me.  But if I had to pick one trick that could work for just about anyone, I’d pick one that might seem too simple and too obvious to be worth mentioning.  It isn’t, though.  It’s this: pay attention to the topic sentence.

Wait!  Don’t click away just yet.  Yes, you learned about topic sentences in high school (so did I). Continue reading

My worst writing atrocity

Image: “It was a dark and stormy night…”, from Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Paul Clifford (1830).  Check out similarly wretched prose at the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.

I’ve been prepping recently for two different writing workshops: one on my home campus, and another half-way across the continent at the University of Wyoming.  A funny thing happens when you write a book about scientific writing: people infer from that authorship that you know things about writing, and even that you’re good at it.  I’ve come to accept the first half of that, although not the second.

I’m certainly a better writer than I once was.  (Writing The Scientist’s Guide to Writing helped me improve quite a bit; I can only hope that reading it has a similarly salubrious effect.)  There’s nothing unusual about my improvement: all of us learn to write better as we practice the craft.  And that means we get to look back and cringe at the offenses we’ve committed in the past. Continue reading

Teaching writing through the curriculum

Image: Writing, CC 0

I teach a scientific writing course, and I think I’m doing it wrong.

I don’t mean that I’m teaching my course wrong.  It might not be the course you’d teach, but I’m happy enough with it, and my students seem to be too.  What I mean, I guess, is that we’re doing it wrong, as a department.  That’s because I’m teaching my course to grad students and 4th year (Honours-by-thesis) undergrads – and it’s pretty easy to argue that that’s way too late.

I’ve come to understand that writing is one of the most important things we teach our undergraduates.*  And while I teach scientific writing, I think writing is also one of the most transferable things we teach. Continue reading

Quotation marks in scientific writing: seemingly simple, yet terribly troublesome

This is a joint post by Scott Ramsay and Steve.  The topic was Scott’s idea, and Scott (mostly) wrote the part about scare quotes.  The boring stuff at the beginning is (mostly) Steve’s.

Photo: scare quotes by Scazon via flickr.com, CC BY 2.0.

Quotation marks seem, on the face of it, the simplest of the punctuation marks.  Commas are rampantly misused; semicolons drive us to distraction; hyphens, en-dashes, and em-dashes are cryptic to all but the cognoscenti.  But quotation marks?  Nothing to it, right?  Ah, not so fast…

The rarity of direct quotation

The most obvious function of quotation marks is (and hence their name) to mark a direct quotation.  Issues of typography aside*, it’s pretty hard to get that wrong.  Except in one way: should you use a direct quotation?  Continue reading

Edit to polish the writing, or edit to polish the writer?

Image: Polishing the chimney of a Burrell Traction Engine.  © Oast House Archives, CC BY-SA 2.0.  What? You think this is only tenuously connected to the post?  My friend, tenuous connections are my thing.

One of the most exciting parts of being a mid-to-late-career researcher is seeing the scientific writing produced by the early-career researchers (ECRs) I’m mentoring: Honours undergrads, grad students, postdoctoral fellows.  It’s a treat to see a new manuscript (or more often, a new piece of a manuscript*) ping its way into my inbox.  A treat, but of course also a new obligation, because I put a lot of effort into editing ECR manuscripts.  The question, though, is how much effort?  And what kind of “editing”?

Once upon a time, I would simply take an ECR manuscript and make “track changes” edits until I was happy with the results.  In other words: I would polish the writing (albeit with the use of “track changes” so the ECR could see and learn from the edits I made).  I don’t do that any more.  Continue reading

Should a paper title tell you what the paper is about? Yes, but not the way Simon/Steve thinks

Image: You know what you’re walking into. © Gary J. Wood via flicrk.com, CC BY-SA 2.0

This is a joint post (argument and rejoinder) from Steve Heard and Simon Leather.  You can find it on either of their blogs.

Should a paper title tell you what the paper is about?  Yes, but not the way Simon thinks.

Steve opens with – A few weeks ago, Simon Leather blogged about one of his writing pet peeves: “titles of papers that give you no clue as to what the paper is about”.   I read this with great interest, for a couple of reasons – first, Simon is consistently thoughtful; and second, I’m terrible at titles and need to learn as much about good ones as I can!  Much to my surprise, I found myself disagreeing strongly, and Simon was kind enough to engage with me in this joint post.

I don’t mean that I disagree that a paper’s title should tell you what it’s about.  That’s exactly what a good title does!  My disagreement is, I think, more interesting.  Simon offered some examples of titles he scored as failing his tell-you-what-it’s-about criterion, and some he scored as passing.  I found myself scoring those examples exactly the opposite way: the ones that failed for him, succeeded for me; and vice versa.

What gives?  Well, most likely, I’m just wrong. Continue reading