Tag Archives: scientific writing

The arrogance and common sense of teaching from my own book

This year, for the first time, I’m teaching a course in scientific writing (with both graduate and undergraduate versions).  There were lots of decisions to be made in designing the course: what topics to cover; the blend of lecture, workshop, and assignment; how to accommodate graduate and undergraduate students in the same classroom; and more.  But one decision was easy: which book to use as a text.  There are quite a few books on the topic, but I assigned my own, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, without any hesitation*.

Well, not really without any hesitation.  Actually, I can’t help feeling mildly embarrassed by joining That Bunch Of Profs Who Assign Their Own Books.  How arrogant!  How closed-minded!  How ridden with conflict of interest! Continue reading

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I’m about to teach a writing course, and I’m very scared

I start teaching a new course in just a few weeks.  For the first time, I’m teaching a whole course in scientific writing.  I’m supposed to know something about that – after all, I wrote The Scientist’s Guide to Writing – but nevertheless, I’m scared.

I’ve resisted teaching scientific writing for many years, despite agreeing with my colleagues who argue that it’s one of the most valuable courses a student (undergraduate or graduate) can take.  I’ve resisted in part because teaching a good scientific writing course is a lot of work; but mostly I’ve resisted because I’m not sure that I know how to teach a good scientific writing course.  I’ve never taken one, and so have no model to emulate or to avoid.  On top of that, I don’t actually think of myself as a very good writer.  I’m slow, and although I’ve worked hard to become an adequate writer, my papers are never going to be celebrated as outstanding in our literature.  So how can I teach writing? Continue reading

The coauthors I’ve never met

As of two weeks ago, I’ve published 76 peer-reviewed papers, and I’ve published them with 114 different coauthors.  Among those coauthors are my graduate and undergraduate students, my colleagues, my friends, my wife – and quite a few people I’ve never met. Continue reading

How to handle a useless review

How should you handle a useless review?  I don’t mean one that’s actively idiotic, but a review that’s superficial, misunderstands the manuscript, is positive but lukewarm, or otherwise just doesn’t seem to point to any avenues for improvement. Perhaps it’s this gem:

This study seems competently executed, and most of the writing is pretty good.  A few analyses could benefit from more modern approaches.  However, in the end I’m unconvinced of its importance.*

Let’s start with how not to handle a useless review. Continue reading

One figure at a time, please

(My writing pet peeves, part 3)

When you’re reading a thesis or a paper, have you ever come across a sentence like this one?

“Diet overlap between species increased from 2004 – 2009 in four of six comparisons: ribbon snake – green snake, mud snake – milk snake, milk snake – ribbon snake, and milk snake – green snake (Fig. 2A-F, Figs. 3 – 6, Table 3).”*

I bet you have (unless you’re reading an entirely different literature than I am).  I come across such sentences often, and every time, they make me see red. Continue reading

Why do we mention stats software in our Methods?

Image: Excerpt from Heard et al. 1999, Mechanical abrasion and organic matter processing in an Iowa stream. Hydrobiologia 400:179-186.

Nearly every paper I’ve ever written includes a sentence something like this: “All statistical analyses were conducted in SAS version 8.02 (SAS Institute Inc., Cary, NC)*  But I’m not quite sure why.

Why might any procedural detail get mentioned in the Methods?  There are several answers to that, with the most common being: Continue reading

The first rule of writing

rules-for-writeresPeople love rules – in writing as in everything else.  Lists of rules litter the internet: “Five rules for better paragraphs”, “Seven habits of successful writers”, “Ten top tips for clearer writing”.  (Those latter two might be labeled “habits” and “tips”, but they’re really presented as rules: do this and you will be successful; don’t, and you won’t.) I haven’t read “Rules for Writers”, but I’m willing to bet it’s just chock full of rules for writers.  Sometimes you can tell a book by its cover.

There’s really just one rule of writing, though, and that is There Are No Hardfast Rules. Continue reading