Category Archives: scientific writing

Some startling data about the scourge of acronyms

There’s a lot to dislike about the way we write scientific papers. They’re often tedious and impenetrable, and they get that way at least in part because we make poor decisions as we write. We overuse big fancy words when short simple ones are available (“utilize”, anyone?), we just can’t let go of our fetish for the passive voice, and we apparently love nothing more than replacing some actual English words with an acronym. And so on. Continue reading

The perfect margarita and the perfect scientific paper

Everyone needs a summer project (or sixteen), and among mine was mixing the perfect margarita.  In pursuit of the perfect margarita, I read a lot of recipes, and a lot of opinions.  I finally made progress when I realized something important: the way to make a perfect margarita is to ignore everything anyone else has ever said about what makes a perfect margarita.  That realization, and a little fiddling, and there it was in my hand: my (not “the”) perfect margarita.

That last little tweak of the wording is key. My perfect margarita might horrify a margarita purist – no, never mind “might”, it’s sure to.  But because I’m mixing a margarita for me, it makes absolutely no difference what anybody else thinks.  It’s my perfect margarita.*

I have not yet written the perfect scientific paper. It turns out that’s harder. Continue reading

Grading, correcting, and mentoring writing: learning on both sides

I’ve been working on writing with grad students, and other early-career writers, for a startlingly long time now. It’s the usual way for scientific writers to learn their craft: the more junior writer produces drafts, and the more senior writer receives and comments on them.  But the process isn’t as simple as I used to think.  Instead, there’s a developmental sequence that both parties go through – junior and senior – and I think it’s useful for each to think explicitly about this sequence: about their own position in it, and the opposite party’s.  This is the sequence I have in mind: from grading writing, to correcting writing, to mentoring a writer.

Let’s work with a simplified cartoon of this.  Imagine that my brand-new (and fictional) grad student Jane has given me a draft of a manuscript about biological control of citrus scale insect.  Throughout, she’s spelled “lemon” with a double m.* I notice this.  What Jane and I each do next, and what we each expect from the other, depends on where each of us is along that the sequence.  When we don’t understand this, frustration ensues. Continue reading

Moby Dick and scientific writing

Call me Ishmael.

It’s one of the most famous opening lines in English-language literature, and it starts one of the most famous books.  Like everyone else, I knew about Moby Dick.  Like a very large fraction of everyone else, I’d never read it.*  I’ve just finished it, and you know how each reader comes at a book in their own way?  I found that Moby Dick made me think about scientific writing.

I know, that’s a little weird, and I’ll admit that scientific writing is something I obsess about a tiny little bit. But as I settled into Moby Dick, and thought about what Melville was doing in the writing, I kept noticing things.  Moby Dick, I claim, has things to teach us about scientific writing – both in the ways that it resembles good scientific writing, and in the ways that it does not. Continue reading

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