Category Archives: scientific writing

Nuancing brevity: less isn’t always more

Image: something I wrote recently. If you’re a sharp-eyed reader of the blog and think you know what it is, make a guess in the Replies. Although the only prize is my admiration.

Nearly every source of writing advice agrees on one thing: brevity is good.  My own book, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, is no exception; I devote an entire chapter to brevity.  There are good reasons for this. Longer papers ask more of their readers’ limited time budgets and seem, likely as a direct result, to have less citation impact.  Journals have limited space and would rather publish more papers than longer ones*.  In general, shorter texts and simpler sentences are easier to understand.  And most writers need to shorten their first drafts – and most find this a challenge (as Blaise Pascal noted in his famous letter, “I’ve made this letter longer than usual; I haven’t had time to make it shorter**).

But just in the last year or two, I’ve backed off my fanaticism about brevity just a bit.  Continue reading

How to handle a useless review

How should you handle a useless review?  I don’t mean one that’s actively idiotic, but a review that’s superficial, misunderstands the manuscript, is positive but lukewarm, or otherwise just doesn’t seem to point to any avenues for improvement. Perhaps it’s this gem:

This study seems competently executed, and most of the writing is pretty good.  A few analyses could benefit from more modern approaches.  However, in the end I’m unconvinced of its importance.*

Let’s start with how not to handle a useless review. Continue reading

Stephen King and me

Photo: The Dark Half, and Heard and Kitts 2012 Evolutionary Ecology 26:879

Do Stephen King and I have the same job, or different jobs?

This is, in one sense, a silly question with an obvious answer.  Stephen King is a popular-fiction writer, and I’m a scientist.  Stephen King’s job is to generate novels about the world as it isn’t, while my job is to generate understanding of the natural world as it is.  Clearly, Stephen King and I have different jobs.

At least, that’s how I would have answered my silly question early in my career.  Continue reading

One figure at a time, please

(My writing pet peeves, part 3)

When you’re reading a thesis or a paper, have you ever come across a sentence like this one?

“Diet overlap between species increased from 2004 – 2009 in four of six comparisons: ribbon snake – green snake, mud snake – milk snake, milk snake – ribbon snake, and milk snake – green snake (Fig. 2A-F, Figs. 3 – 6, Table 3).”*

I bet you have (unless you’re reading an entirely different literature than I am).  I come across such sentences often, and every time, they make me see red. Continue reading

Being an open-access advocate doesn’t excuse you from proper literature searches

Lock image: SimpleIcon http://www.simpleicon.com, CC BY 3.0

Every week or two I see a tweet, or overhear a conversation, from somebody bemoaning the difficulty of accessing a paper.  Often it reads about like this:

Another day, another paywalled paper I can’t access and won’t cite. Moving on to read some open science….*

I get that open-access is an attractive model**.  I’d be pleased if we moved all our literature this way, although only if that meant that we had solved the (enormous) transitional funding problems and dealt with the inevitable unintended consequences.  But none of that matters to a simple and important point: I don’t care how fervent an open-access advocate you are; it’s still your job to use our literature properly.  It’s absurd to claim that a paper deserves to be read and cited if it’s published in The American International Journal of Ecography (a hypothetical open-access journal that’s predatory with fraudulent peer review***), but not if published in The American Naturalist (a subscription-model journal of very high quality published by a great society).  Absurd. Continue reading

My plodding journey to better writing (guest post)

This is a guest post by Rob Johns, an entomologist and Research Scientist with the Canadian Forest Service.  Rob and I collaborate, and together try to help our coadvised students navigate their own journeys to writing.

Science at its root is about story-telling and Steve and I have often exchanged stories of our “writer’s journeys” – A.K.A., our paths to becoming better scientific writers. We ‘seasoned’ writers should tell our stories more often and without fear of sharing the gory details. Pondering past struggles and hard lessons can be cathartic and baring these stories openly may offer hope to newer writers facing their own struggles. My own story (or perhaps my mea culpa) follows a classic story arc: it begins hopeful, looks bleak in the middle, and ends in catharsis, with a few lessons mixed in here and there. This is roughly the story I tell my own grad students when they struggle with the grind of writing. Continue reading

A shelf of writing books

Some OTHER good books on scientific writing

If you’ve been hanging around Scientist Sees Squirrel, you’ve surely notice that I’ve written a guidebook for scientific writers.  I’m biased, of course, but I think The Scientist’s Guide to Writing is pretty good – and if you write at all, I think reading it can help.  (Why not go buy yourself a copy?  I’ll wait.)  But if you’re serious about your writing craft, I hope The Scientist’s Guide won’t be alone on your shelf.  It isn’t alone on mine.

Here are a few books that I think could profitably keep The Scientist’s Guide to Writing company.  (UPDATED: see the Replies thread for reader suggestions!) Continue reading