Category Archives: scientific writing

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

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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

For the love of all that is holy, stop writing “utilize”

(My Writing Pet Peeves, Part 5.)

Last week, in a moment of grading-related frustration, I suggested on Twitter that there is never any good reason to use the word “utilize”.  As scientists, we love to use it – and I’ll have more to say about that below – but my claim is that in every writing situation, “use” is a better choice. It’s shorter, it’s simpler, it sounds less pretentious.

I thought this was a pretty trivial claim, so I was surprised to get pushback.  Maybe I’ll get some more once I’ve posted this.

Why the pushback?  Continue reading

Do scientific writers have “voice”?

Image: The Writer in the Window, by Mark Heybo via flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

Scientific writing has a reputation for being dull (among other things).  By and large, it deserves that reputation (although there are admittedly exceptions).  I’ve become very interested in why our writing is dull.  I don’t have a definitive answer, but in today’s post I’ll begin to explore one possibility: that pressure for conformity has prevented most scientific writing from having voice.

What is “voice” in writing?  Continue reading

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