Category Archives: scientific writing

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

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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

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