Category Archives: scientific writing

I love it when reviewers make conflicting suggestions

Image: One way?  © Andrea Schafthuizen licensed CC 0 via publicdomainpictures.net

Last week I got the first two peer reviews of my new book (of the complete manuscript, that is*).  I read them with equal doses of eagerness and trepidation (as one does), and before long something very, very familiar happened: I caught Reviewer 1 and Reviewer 2 offering exactly opposite and completely conflicting suggestions.  It was a structural issue: according to Reviewer 1, the book has too many short chapters and I should combine them into fewer, longer ones, while according to Reviewer 2, shorter chapters are a plus because they make the material easier to absorb.  So what do I do? Continue reading

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On teaching writing, and being overruled: a passive-(voice)-aggressive rant

So, I’m teaching my course in Scientific Writing, and I’m frustrated by something I didn’t see coming.  I teach students to write in the active voice (“I measured photosynthesis”, not “Photosynthesis was measured”).  That’s the modern best practice in scientific writing – not to use the active all the time, but to prefer it unless there’s a specific reason for using the passive in a specific sentence.  But the way the course is structured, I’m running into conflict with my departmental colleagues.  Continue reading

Publishing in English as an additional language (a view from outside)

Last fall, I was asked to “blurb” – to provide some pithy promotional phrases for – a new book: Corcoran, Englander, and Muresan’s Pedagogies and Policies for Publishing Research in English: Local Initiatives Supporting International Scholars”  It’s a book about how training can be provided to support scholars who want to publish research in English, despite having English as an additional language (that is, being EAL writers).

I’m glad I agreed to read and blurb Publishing Research in English, because it turned out to be fascinating.  I’m not reviewing it here, though; instead, I want to share a few interesting points I picked up from the book.  Some are things I knew; some are things I didn’t. Some are things that may find global agreement among EAL writers; others are doubtless quite different.  If you’re an EAL writer, or if you advise or teach EAL readers, I hope you’ll share your reaction in the Replies. Continue reading

Power in the ending

Image: The ending of a long story (Lord of the Rings; Tolkien 1955, George Allen & Unwin, London).

If you’re like me (as a writer, I mean) you probably spend a lot of time thinking about the first sentences of things.  It’s true in fiction, and just as true in scientific writing, that the 1st sentence of a passage, a section, a paper, or a book has a big job to do.  A good opening sentence sets a mood, asks a question, grabs a reader and positions them for the journey to come.

It took me a long time to realize that the last sentence of anything is equally important. Continue reading

Becoming a science writer: a musical in three acts (guest post)

This is a guest post by Greg Crowther, of Everett Community College, in Everett, Washington, and it’s the latest installment in my “How I learned to write” series. Image: Greg performing “Have Yourself a Healthy Little Kidney” for the University of Washington Division of Nephrology (2017).

Take it away, Greg:

As a reader of this blog, I’ve enjoyed its guest posts on the development of scientific writing skills (entry 1, entry 2, entry 3).  I’d now like to add my own perspective, but with a twist. The writing I most enjoy doing is musical in nature — so, at the risk of seeming completely self-absorbed, I’m going to sketch out my development as a science songwriter, using seasonally appropriate examples.*

Act 1: Student, aiming for humor (1987-2002) Continue reading

How I became a writer (guest post)

This is a guest post by JC Cahill, of the Department of Biology at the University of Alberta.

Steve is an old friend from grad school, and just yesterday [as I write] he gave a well-received lecture on writing, here at the University of Alberta.  The enthusiasm and interest expressed by our early career scientists seemed genuine, and even as an old prof myself I can’t help but believe Steve is having some success in humanizing science writing.  But, also as an old prof I can’t help but feel a bit disheartened by the seemingly endless cycle of writing challenges, delays, and strategic failures I see in a nearly daily way. Choosing optimism rather hopelessness, I wish to tell my writing story with the intent of encouragement.

When I was a graduate student, I was a bad writer. Continue reading

Go ahead, use contractions: poll responses and more

Two weeks ago, I reported my run-in with a reviewer who wanted me to scrub common English contractions (like it’s, doesn’t, or we’re) from a manuscript.  There’s a common belief that contractions mustn’t be used in scientific writing, although the genesis of this “rule” is unclear.  So is the rationale.  One that’s commonly suggested is that contractions make writing informal, and that that’s inappropriate – to which I say only “Harumph”.  Another is much more important: the claim that they make writing less accessible to readers of English as an additional language (EAL).

I’ve been skeptical of that hard-for-EAL claim, but not being an EAL reader myself makes it hard for me to claim authority on the issue.  So, I asked EAL readers of Scientist Sees Squirrel to weigh in – and they did.  Today, poll results, and a couple of additional points raised by some folks who think about writing for EAL readers. Continue reading