Category Archives: scientific writing

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

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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

A tale of two jokes (one published, one not)

Image: Sun Records compilation; photo © Chris Light CC BY-SA 4.0

Most scientific papers (and definitely most of mine) are pretty dull.  That is, the results may be important and interesting, but the papers themselves – the text – tend to be dry, colourless, even tedious.  That’s partly because we work so hard to remove authorial voice; it’s partly because we favour complex passive-voice constructions laden with jargon and acronyms; and it’s partly because we avoid humour like the plague.  At least, most of the time.

I say “most of the time” because everyone can point to an example or two of a paper that includes a joke. Continue reading

Reclaiming voice in scientific writing

Image: Western meadowlark singing, © Jim Kennedy via flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

I’ve argued recently that our scientific literature is tedious to read in part because it lacks voice – those hints of individuality in vocabulary, style, and structure that show personality and mark one writer’s work as distinct from another’s.  I’ve also thought a bit about where our voicelessness comes from  Today, the obvious next question in the series: if we wanted to see scientific writing with more voice*, how could we make that happen? Continue reading

Where did our (scientific writing) voices go?

Image: European starling by hedera.baltica via flickr.com; CC BY-SA 2.0

A few weeks ago, I argued that unlike fiction writing, scientific writing largely lacks “voice”.  By “voice”, I mean recognizable attributes of text, such as rhythm, vocabulary, style, and other  that makes a particular author’s text unique and that suggest the author’s attitude or personality.  Novelists often sound very different; with rather few exceptions, I think scientific writers all sound the same.

This lack of voice may be one reason among many that our literature has, and deserves, a reputation for being tedious and unrewarding to read (there is of course some brilliant writing in the scientific literature, but these glints are rare).  It wasn’t always this way. Continue reading

(Limited) use-cases for “utilize”

Warning: if you had your fill of ‘use’ vs. ‘utilize’ last week, I won’t blame you for clicking away. Here, this post is kind of fun and I promise it’s not about semantics.

Last week I let myself rant a little bit about one of my writing pet peeves, the overuse of utilize when use will do.  Going just slightly over the top, I wrote that “my claim is that in every writing situation, use is a better choice”. So, is “never use utilize” a categorical rule of writing?  Or is there a case, in particular circumstances, for using utilize in scientific writing?

Here, briefly, are four pro-utilize arguments.  Thanks to readers who pushed back (many of them quite politely).

1. Rhyme. OK, this is admittedly a bit trivial, but I was tickled a couple of tongue-in-cheek suggestions that utilize is better than use when you need something to rhyme. After all, Continue reading