Our scientific literature (and academic literature more broadly) has a reputation for being impenetrable. That reputation is entirely deserved. That’s why things like the Sokal Hoax sometimes work, and that’s why scientists are sometimes mocked, or scorned, for operating like a priesthood, holding truth away from the layperson. It’s easy and fun to find a complex sentence, dense with unfamiliar jargon and turgid acronym-laden phrases, and hold it up for all to see (I’ll plead guilty: I do it myself in my scientific writing course). But it’s also naïve, unless you’re willing to think carefully about it – because there are two very different reasons why our literature is impenetrable. One is a bug, yes; but the other is very much a feature. Continue reading
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
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
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
If I have a shortcoming as a writer – and believe me, the only thing wrong with that proposition is that I don’t just have one – it’s my fondness for parentheticals. (See what I did there?) I love them; as I say in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, “I use parentheses as if I’d gotten an irresistible deal on a bulk purchase of water-damaged ones”. I even have a special step in revision of my early drafts in which I search for all occurrences of parentheses, with the intent of excising as many as I can. Sometimes it even works. Continue reading
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
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
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
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