There seems to be a pretty widespread agreement that peer review should (even if it can’t always) identify flawed reasoning, improper statistical tests, and other serious issues with the inferences a manuscript makes. But should reviewers also make suggestions about writing style? About use of the active voice vs. the passive; about the use of contractions and other informality; about metaphors or even (gasp) humour? A lot of authors seem to think they shouldn’t, arguing that writing style is a personal decision that should be left up to a writer. Actually, I have some sympathy for that argument – the role of reviewers in crushing individual style is one reason that our literature lacks much individual voice, and pushback against beauty and humour is one reason it’s (mostly) so tedious. But in matters of style, should reviewers mind their own business? Continue reading
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
Image: Saturday Night Fever. If you were alive in the 1970s, you probably owned this album. Acme401 CC BY-SA 2.0 via flickr.com
From doo-wop to hip-hop, popular music has always evolved. Styles shift, and when a song you don’t know comes on the radio* you can often place it, temporally, without much trouble. Rock & roll, punk, new wave, indie folk, and dozens of other styles have come (and mostly gone); similarly, the styles that dominate airplay now will surely fade and be replaced. (Sorry, Taylor.) Occasionally, popular music has had a really bad idea, and we’ve all piled onto it, only to shake our heads ruefully a decade later. Yes, disco, I’m talking about you**.
Scientific writing has also evolved. Continue reading
Image: Trolley by McGeddon CC BY-SA 4.0 via wikimedia.org
Our scientific literature has a reputation for being not much fun to read: colourless, tedious, and turgid. By and large, it deserves that reputation (and I would include my own papers in that assessment). There are exceptions, of course, but they’re few and far between. I’ve speculated before about some of the reasons for this. But there’s a possibility I think I’ve been missing, and I’m going to use this post to think through it.
One thing I see fairly often is early-career writers struggling because they think there’s a single best way to write a given piece of text. Continue reading
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a sentence I was tempted to be proud of. It’s part of the Introduction to a paper* about how the impact of insect herbivores on their host plants might evolve over time. We’d pointed out that insects frequently acquire new host plants and plants frequently acquire new herbivores, and to build on that, I wrote:
That herbivore-host associations are frequently reassorted means that some herbivore-host pairs are evolutionarily well acquainted, while others are strangers recently met.
And then I had second thoughts. Continue reading