Category Archives: scientific writing

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

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I hate checking proofs. Here’s how I make it (slightly) easier.

Image: Proofreading marks, by volkspider via flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

Like many of us, I suspect, I have a love-hate relationship with writing.  I love having written.  And I enjoy certain kinds of writing and certain parts of the writing process (oddly, I really like shortening things; even more oddly, I just added this parenthetical that lengthens this paragraph).  Other kinds of writing (Gantt charts, anyone?) I dislike; and there are a few parts of the writing process that I truly despise.  Checking proofs?  I’d rather remove my own gallbladder with a rusty spoon. Continue reading

Why is writing hard, and how can we make it easier?

Image © Sasquatch I via flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

This is a guest post by Katie Grogan.  Her Twitter thread on this topic got lots of traction, but Twitter threads are a bit ephemeral, so I invited her to share her experience and advice here.


Disclaimer: These opinions are my [Katie’s] own, garnered from research and experience. But people aren’t the same, and what works for me may be the worst strategy for you. Remember that as you read.

A few weeks ago, inspired by graduate students struggling to write, I shared some hard-won writing experience in a Twitter thread.  A week later, it was still accumulating likes (>2.7k) and retweets (>1k); and I received >100 requests to join the Writing Support Slack group I mentioned. Apparently, a LOT of graduate students, postdocs, and faculty identified with how HARD it is to write. And that’s the truth – academic writing is incredibly difficult. Anyone who seems able to dive into a manuscript without anxiety, stress-eating, procrasti-cleaning, or hand wringing is either lying or a survivor of an earlier, stress-ridden period in their writing lives that you missed seeing. Continue reading

What copyediting is, and what it isn’t

Image: a snippet of the (excellent) copyedit for my forthcoming book.

Over the last six months, I’ve had several pieces of writing go through the copyediting process: a few papers, and one book.  Over my career, I’ve seen closer to 100 pieces of writing through copyedits.  It’s a stage of publication that was, for a long time, rather mysterious to me, but contrasting two of my recent experiences provides a pretty good illustration of what good copyediting is, and what good copyediting very definitely isn’t. Continue reading

Every paper tells a story – or at least, it should

Image: Storytelling chair © BeyondTimelines, CC-0 via pixabay.com

There are plenty of strong opinions and controversies about scientific writing: the active voice vs. the passive, how to describe a result with P = 0.06, even – and perhaps most spectacular for ratio of strength of feeling to importance – one space or two after a full stop.  But one controversy that astonishes me is that over whether or not scientific writing is “storytelling”.  Spoiler alert: of course it is.

It may seem odd to use the word “storytelling” for scientific writing, because we tend to think of that word as associated with fiction. Continue reading

Is my worst writing habit also my writer’s voice?

If I have a shortcoming as a writer – and believe me, the only thing wrong with that proposition is that I don’t just have one – it’s my fondness for parentheticals.  (See what I did there?)  I love them; as I say in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, “I use parentheses as if I’d gotten an irresistible deal on a bulk purchase of water-damaged ones”.  I even have a special step in revision of my early drafts in which I search for all occurrences of parentheses, with the intent of excising as many as I can.  Sometimes it even works. Continue reading

The dangerous temptation of acronyms

(My Writing Pet Peeves, Part 6)

Over the last two weeks, I’ve written peer reviews* for three different manuscripts (MSs).  All three included newly coined acronyms (NCAs) to substitute for repeated short technical phrases (RSTPs).  I’ve gotten in the habit, whenever I run across an NCA, to use my word processor’s search function (WPSF) to find and count occurrences of the NCA in the MS.  Frequently (including for two of the recent three MSs), my WPSF reveals that the NCA is used only once or twice more in the MS.  That makes it an RUA – a rarely used acronym – and RUAs are one of my writing pet peeves (WPPs).

By now that you probably suspect that I’m deliberately using a lot of acronyms to annoy you.  Continue reading