Category Archives: scientific writing

No, adverbs aren’t ruining our scientific literature

Fairly often, I run into the claim that adjectives and especially adverbs should be avoided in scientific writing. I’ve been told, for example, that using “Surprisingly” (adverb) or “This important result” (adjective) is an attempt to manipulate the reader’s opinion about the data, and that, in scientific writing, the data ought to speak for themselves. I understand the thinking that leads to this belief – but I think it’s naïve. A new study by Ju Wen and Lei Lei, on adjective and adverb usage in scientific Abstracts, gives us an interesting look at the practice, and at arguments for and against. So despite that study’s limitations, let’s dig in a little.

Wen and Lei open their paper with a claim that I hope is uncontroversial: Continue reading

Which institutional affiliation should you list on a paper?

There are a lot of bits and pieces in a scientific paper. You’ll find advice for writing most of them in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, but somewhat to my chagrin I keep finding gaps – most recently when Jonathan Losos wrote to ask me this apparently simple question:

When you publish a paper, where do you list your institution: where you were when the work was done, where you were when the paper was submitted, where you are now, or some combination of the above?

Jonathan, like me, has been in the publishing game for a while, and I think he was a bit nonplussed to realize he had to ask the question.  There don’t seem to be clear guidelines, or at least not universal ones. As Jonathan put it, “A quick google suggested that…everyone, just like me, makes up their own rules”. Continue reading

I think I finally like writing

Like virtually all scientists, I write a lot. Over the last decade, I’ve written two books (and for one of them, a second edition), a proposal for a third book, about two dozen papers,* a dozen grant proposals, over 500 posts here on Scientist Sees Squirrel, and a basketful of miscellaneous reports, lay articles, and administrative documents. I figured out quite a while ago that it’s quite normal for a scientist to spend more time writing that they do anything else – even if writing isn’t why most of us chose science as a career. What’s surprising about this really isn’t my volume of writing (I write more than some, less than others). It’s that until recently, I really didn’t enjoy doing it. Continue reading

Sure, spiders might be insects, but surely bees aren’t fish?

Two years ago I treated you to the story of how in Alabama, spiders are legally insects.  “Hold my beer”, said California, and two weeks ago a California court declared that bees are fish. I know; that’s ridiculous. It turns out, though, that it isn’t ridiculous in the biological way you’re thinking; rather, it’s ridiculous in a scientific-writing way. At least, that’s going to be my take, and I hope you’ll come along. Continue reading

Why I write the Introduction last

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked. “Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Don’t listen to the King.

At least, not when writing a scientific paper. Continue reading

Getting past writer’s block

All writers know the awful feeling: stuck, stonewalled, stymied, stumped. You just can’t find that next sentence, you have a terrible suspicion that your last one sucked, and you’ve a sense of existential dread that you’ll never again write coherent text. “Writer’s block,” we call it.

I put “writer’s block” in scare quotes, because the key to getting past it is realizing that it’s terribly misnamed. Continue reading

Yes, good writing matters: empirical evidence!

I’ve devoted a lot of time and effort, over the last decade or so, to writing about good writing. There’s The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, of course; there’s our recent preprint on the construction of good titles; there are dozens of posts here on Scientist Sees Squirrel; and I can neither confirm nor deny rumours of another currently-super-top-secret book project. And this doesn’t even count the innumerable hours I spend toiling to improve my own writing, and to mentor my students towards improving their own.

Does any of this matter? Continue reading

How to talk with your mentor about writing (and why)

All of us write, and all of us learn to write; but virtually none of us do so alone. Which is a good thing, both for the doing and the learning! For that latter part: there’s an early-career phase in which you work closely with a mentor. Most often, that mentor will be an honours or graduate supervisor, and you’ll be working together while you write a thesis, or perhaps a manuscript for publication derived from a thesis. This kind of close collaboration can be extremely helpful as you learn the craft of scientific writing; but it can also be frustrating for both parties.

Before going further, it’s worth acknowledging just how much can be involved – on both sides. For the developing writer: writing the thesis is an enormous project that consumes many months (if not years). For most, it’s also a time of rapid learning. And the stakes are high, because the entire graduate program culminates in the thesis, and the first few publications have outsize weight on an early career CV. For the mentor, it’s also a big deal and extremely time-consuming. A mentor might read and comment on three or four drafts, or maybe a dozen, of each of your thesis chapters – and they aren’t likely to have a single mentee, so you can multiply that by the population of a lab.

So if the collaboration can be either helpful or frustrating, it’s very much worth trying to push the needle towards the former and away from the latter. Here are some ways you can do that. Continue reading

Effective grant proposals, Part 2: Feasibility

Today, the second part in my series on writing effective grant proposals. I’ve pointed out the importance of careful thought about what a grant proposal is for. In brief, the function of any grant proposal is to convince its readers of three things:

  • that the work you’re proposing is worth doing;
  • that the work you’re proposing can be done;
  • and that the work you’re proposing can be done by you.

Or (in order): novelty and significance; feasibility; and qualifications.

Having dealt with the first bullet, it’s now time to think about the second: feasibility. A funding agency will want return on its investment in the work, which means that they’ll want to be convinced that the work can actually be done. Continue reading

I’m on the “Scholarly Communication” podcast, talking about (what else) scientific writing

Perhaps you’ve noticed that I have the occasional thought about scientific writing. I recently had the pleasure of expressing a bunch of those thoughts in a wide-ranging conversation with Daniel Shea, one of the hosts of the Scholarly Communication podcast series from the New Books Network. You can listen to the episode here.

The interview was spurred by the recent release of the second edition of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, but our conversation wasn’t limited to that. Continue reading