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
I’m gearing up for the latest offering of my Scientific Writing course, and that’s got me thinking about my (metaphorical) red pen. As scientists, we spend a lot of time commenting on other folks’ writing. I do it extensively in my writing course, but I also do it for my grad students writing thesis drafts, for my coauthors, for my colleagues who want friendly review of manuscripts and proposals, and for other colleagues when I’m a peer reviewer. I’m also often on the other side of the exchange, as my own drafts get marked up by coauthors, colleagues, and reviewers. I’ve been in this game for a while, and one thing I’ve learned is that most of us wield our red pens instinctively rather than deliberately. And that’s not a good thing. Continue reading
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
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
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
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
Image: Polishing the chimney of a Burrell Traction Engine. © Oast House Archives, CC BY-SA 2.0. What? You think this is only tenuously connected to the post? My friend, tenuous connections are my thing.
One of the most exciting parts of being a mid-to-late-career researcher is seeing the scientific writing produced by the early-career researchers (ECRs) I’m mentoring: Honours undergrads, grad students, postdoctoral fellows. It’s a treat to see a new manuscript (or more often, a new piece of a manuscript*) ping its way into my inbox. A treat, but of course also a new obligation, because I put a lot of effort into editing ECR manuscripts. The question, though, is how much effort? And what kind of “editing”?
Once upon a time, I would simply take an ECR manuscript and make “track changes” edits until I was happy with the results. In other words: I would polish the writing (albeit with the use of “track changes” so the ECR could see and learn from the edits I made). I don’t do that any more. Continue reading
Image: a snippet of the (excellent) copyedit for my forthcoming book.
Over the last six months, I’ve had several pieces of writing go through the copyediting process: a few papers, and one book. Over my career, I’ve seen closer to 100 pieces of writing through copyedits. It’s a stage of publication that was, for a long time, rather mysterious to me, but contrasting two of my recent experiences provides a pretty good illustration of what good copyediting is, and what good copyediting very definitely isn’t. Continue reading
This post is jointly written by Steve Heard and Kathe Todd-Brown. Using the first person for Steve and the third for Kathe seemed less awkward than alternatives, but this should not imply Kathe’s contribution was less important than Steve’s. Disclosure: Steve has been an Associate Editor for The American Naturalist for 13 years. Kathe has not yet taken on an AE role.
So the other day this question (above) popped up in my Twitter timeline: a question from Kathe Todd-Brown, an early-career biogeochemist who’s thinking about how much – and what kinds of – service to take on. I dashed off a superficial reply along the lines of “well, somebody has to, and it’s pretty interesting”.
Then Kathe explained her thinking a little more. When she did, I realized that I’d wondered all the same things at his corresponding career stage. So, here’s Kathe’s longer-form question and my attempt at an answer – not so much directly to her, but to my own early-career self and to anyone with similar questions. Continue reading