Tag Archives: scientific writing

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

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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

The warship Vasa

The warship Vasa and argument from authority

Photos: The Vasa on display in the Vasamuseet, Stockholm, by JavierKohen via Wikimedia.org, CC BY-SA 3.0. Cross-section of Vasa, model in Vasamuseet, photo S. Heard.

I’m writing this post in Stockholm, where I’ve come to be the “opponent” (= external examiner) for a PhD defence. I tacked on a few extra days to see some of the Swedish sights, and none was a bigger treat than the Vasamuseet (Vasa Museum).

The Vasa was a Swedish warship launched on August 10, 1628.  She also sank on August 10, 1628, which was tragic for the 30 people who died in the sinking and a pretty major embarrassment for everyone else in Sweden (then).

Why did the Vasa sink? Continue reading

Writing a book: what a long strange trip it’s been

Image: Sidewalk art by Jeremy Brooks, via flickr.com CC BY-NC 2.0; lyrics from Truckin’, Garcia/Weir/Lesh/Hunter.

Warning: really long post.  TL;DR: Publishing a book is really different, and I learned a lot by doing it.

Heard_Scientist'sGuide coverPerhaps you’ve noticed that I’ve just published a book, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing.  (I’ve tried to make it hard for you not to notice.)  And lately, it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been.

What do I mean by that? Well, if I were an academic in the arts or humanities, there’d be nothing unusual about having published a book.  But in the sciences we don’t write a lot of books.  Like most scientists, I knew next to nothing about writing or publishing a book before I started working on mine.  If you’re curious about how it works and what it’s like, read on. Who knows, maybe you’ll write a book too, someday. (Caution: since I have a sample size of one – for now – I can’t guarantee that my story is representative.)

Books take a long time

It took almost five years* from the first tentative plan to a published book I could hold in my hand.  I knew it would take a long time, of course, but I didn’t see five years coming.  Inasmuch as I planned it out at all (and I’ll admit that making and sticking to a plan is not my academic strong suit), I thought perhaps six months to write a prospectus and get the book under contract, a year to write the rest of it, and another to get it published. (Ha!)

In hindsight, of course, I’m not sure how I thought I could write a 90,000-word book in a year.  Continue reading