Category Archives: scientific writing

My writing pet peeves: “As previously mentioned…”

If you’re like me, there are probably things you notice in writing that set your teeth on edge. Today, I’m going to vent a little bit about “as previously mentioned”.

“As previously mentioned” is an example of “metadiscourse” – writing that’s about the writing. We use metadiscourse to help readers find their way through what we’ve written – “signposting” is a less formal term. I’m actually a big fan of metadiscourse, because when used well it helps writing be crystal-clear. Continue reading

Raisin buns, leaf packs, acronyms, and thinking

I made some raisin buns the other day, and I swear there’s a connection to science coming.

The recipe called for, among other things, 2 eggs, 3½ cups of flour, ½ cup of brown sugar, and 2¼ tsp of yeast. Two and a quarter teaspoons – that’s quite precise, isn’t it? One can imagine a test kitchen industriously experimenting, through dozens and dozens of batches, to nail down just the right quantity of yeast for this recipe. 2 tsp isn’t quite enough; 2½ is definitely too much. But if you bake a lot, you might smell a (metaphorical) rat. Continue reading

Your paper is not a Wikipedia article

Scientists don’t agree on all that much, but we agree that it simply isn’t possible to “keep up with the literature”. Our scientific literature is such a torrential firehose that there’s just no way. And if we’re aware of that as readers, you’d think that as writers we’d be taking special pains to be concise. Well, maybe you’d think that. Or maybe you’d think instead that we’d just like everyone else to be concise.

That last sentence was a little tiny rant, I know. Continue reading

The 2nd edition “Scientist’s Guide to Writing” is available for pre-order!

I’m excited: the second edition of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing is now available for pre-order!

I’ve been working on this second edition for a year and a half now. While you can’t have it on your shelf just yet (it’s slated for publication January 11, 2022), you could in principle order a copy today.* For anyone who just can’t wait, here it is directly from the Princeton University Press, and here it is on Amazon (that’s the US link; here’s the Canadian one, and the UK one).

What’s in the second edition, and why might you be as excited as me?  Continue reading

How long is a manuscript? All answers are wrong.

This week I got to do one of my favourite things: shorten a manuscript.* This one we’re targeting for a journal that has a 30 page limit on manuscript length. We started at 37 pages, and I was immensely pleased to hit about 29.7 (giving my coauthors just a little wiggle room to reject one or two of my cuts).

But it was a little weird.

The thing is, Goodhart’s Law exists. If you set up a metric and reward people for using it (in this case, for limboing just under the 30 page limit), they’ll do just exactly what you’re rewarding them for – and there will be unexpected, and maybe undesired, consequences. Continue reading

Blogging, writing practice, and self-discovery

I’ve been writing Scientist Sees Squirrel for almost 6½ years now – something on the order of 450 posts. With blogging being (supposedly) a dying form, and with a non-trivial amount of effort involved, you might wonder why I persist. There are lots of reasons, actually, but today I’m going to mention two: writing practice, and self-discovery.*

First, writing practice. As scientists, we write a shocking amount; in fact, being a writer is as much, maybe more, a part of our jobs as stats or teaching or experimental design. It’s not just papers – I write grant proposals, reports, administrative documents, and as you may have noticed, I’ve also written two books. So it might seem odd that I spend some of my time doing more writing. Continue reading

Why write well?

Writing is hard; writing well is even harder. It’s easy to find advice, as a result, not to work too hard to polish what you’ve written. You’ll see people arguing that an imperfect-but-submitted paper is better than the perfect one you might finish next week, or that writing something just good enough to be accepted lets you move on to the next paper.

At some point, of course, these thing become true. It would be a bad idea to spend your entire career endlessly polishing one paper that you publish, on your deathbed, perfect and deserving of a (nonexistent) award for literary merit in the scientific literature. But the state of that literature – to a considerable degree turgid, tedious, and impenetrable – suggests that nobody much is making that mistake. Continue reading

Don’t use your Discussion to shred your own work

The Discussion of a scientific paper is, I think, the hardest part to write. That’s because every other section has a fairly well-defined purpose and thus a set of standard contents: the Methods communicates how you did the work, the Results shows what you found, and the Introduction sets the work in context while foreshadowing what’s to come in the Discussion. But the Discussion is a challenge because the writer has considerable freedom in both content and organization. What goes in a Discussion? Almost anything, it seems.

Actually, Discussions aren’t quite as free-form as that. Continue reading

Jargon hurts our science – but we just can’t help ourselves

It’s rare that the appearance of a new scientific paper makes me snort and say “Ha, I told you so!” out loud, but it happened last week. Alejandro Martínez and Stefano Mammola’s paper, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, asks the simple and obvious question: does using jargon* in a paper’s title or abstract affect the citation impact of that paper?  The answer is “yes”: papers (in cave science**) with more jargon in their titles and abstracts get cited less.

We already knew, of course, that jargon hurts science communication. Continue reading

What jigsaw puzzles could have taught me about writing – if I’d listened

This (pictured above) is a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. Except that it isn’t – and that’s a lesson about writing I wish I’d learned many years before I did.

My puzzle is a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle, in the sense that there are 1,000 pieces in the box. But on the dining-room table, it’s ten 100-piece jigsaw puzzles: I did the frame, then the boat, then the chairs, then started on the cottage mansion. Nobody (I think) starts a jigsaw puzzle at the upper left corner and tries to put pieces in one at a time until they reach the lower right.

I used to try writing papers that way: starting with the Abstract, and writing until I got to the end of the Discussion. That’s the way I’d written undergraduate essays and lab reports, so that’s how I figured I’d write papers too. It didn’t work, of course. Continue reading