Category Archives: scientific writing

A trivial writing error with a powerful writing lesson

There are writing errors everywhere you look*.  Some are trivial – routine typos that confuse nobody – while others change or conceal meaning and sometimes risk lives or cost the transgressor millions of dollars.  Today I’m going to explore an error that’s rampant in scientific writing.  It’s one that in each instance matters not at all, but that in the aggregate offers a powerful writing lesson.

Here it is.  What’s wrong with this sentence?

“The impact of the abiotic environment, via factors such as nutrient supplies, temperature, moisture, and other soil properties, on growth and reproductive strategies of herbaceous plants have been well documented”

Other than the fact that it’s turgid, I mean.  Continue reading

Steal this (updated) syllabus for Scientific Writing

I’ve just finished the 3rd go-around of my Scientific Writing course.  When I first signed up to teach it, I was very scared, but now that I’ve been through it a few times, I’m quite pleased with how it worked out.

After the first offering, I posted my syllabus and other materials, and quite a few folks found that useful.  But I’ve polished and improved the course, so today I’m posting an updated set.  I’m also including some notes about adapting the course to online delivery – something I had involuntary experience with this year, as most of us did! Continue reading

How to get comments on draft writing – more than once

I read a lot of draft manuscripts for people – perhaps you do too. (I’m talking here about my role as a “friendly reviewer”, in which I’m looking at rougher manuscripts that aren’t yet in the peer review system.)  I read drafts for the undergraduates in my Scientific Writing course, for my grad students, and for my friends and collaborators.  I do this because I want to help these folks improve their writing, and also because I want to pay forward the favour that many others have done for me over the years.  It’s a lot of work, which I usually don’t mind.  Sometimes, though, it’s more work than it has to be, and then I see red. Continue reading

Editing as conversation

This is a joint post from Steve Heard and Carly Ziter.

A few weeks ago, Carly contributed a guest post on editing* as an  act of caring.  This got the two of us thinking and talking about editing – and actually doing it too, because Steve couldn’t resist taking his red pen to Carly’s draft.  Carly made the point that while editing may look like a wall-of-Track-Changes-red act of correction, it’s  also an important act of caring – and this isn’t always immediately obvious, especially to early-career folk.  But there’s something else editing is too, and it’s perhaps equally unobvious to some.  Editing, when done and received well, is a conversation.

One reason it’s easy to feel crushed by the wall-of-Track-Changes-red is that it can feel like rejection of everything you wrote – and like a series of non-negotiable edicts.**  Change this.  Write it this way.  Don’t say that.  Continue reading

Eight is (more than) enough: How peer review gets out of hand

A colleague recently mentioned being astonished to receive eight different peer reviews, on a single manuscript in a single round of reviews at a single journal.*  Wasn’t this too many, he asked?  And how could it happen?

Well, I’m here to serve.  Yes, eight is too many.  As for “how could it happen”: that’s a bit more complicated, but I’ll give you a plausible guess. Continue reading

In praise of the red pen: editing as an act of caring

This is a guest post from Carly Ziter – liberally red-penned by Steve, who couldn’t agree more! 

As a PhD student, I’d often arrive at my office (characteristically, late in the morning) to find a marked up manuscript waiting on my desk chair. My advisor preferred to comment in hard copy, you see. The comments were typically in bright red ink, often plentiful (and then some!), and included comments in shorthand – a lost art to me and to my millennial lab-mates.

As grad students do, we shared stories (and a few laughs, and a few complaints) about these comments over the years. One unnamed lab-mate had trouble reading the cursive – now becoming another lost art – and only admitted 4 years into their PhD that they’d secretly relied on a since-graduated colleague to decipher the comments. Another lab-mate came across an online key for shorthand symbols just months before graduating, throwing years of comments into much sharper relief.

While we may have joked about our mentor’s (excellent!) feedback, all of us shared one sentiment. Continue reading

Pizza dough, knowledge, and the problem of authority

I make pizza dough often, and I discovered recently that my pizza has lessons to teach about epistemology, reproducibility, and our practices in scientific writing.  That seems like a big load for some pizza dough to carry, so let me explain. Continue reading

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