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’ve been writing Scientist Sees Squirrel for almost 6½ years now – something on the order of 450 posts. With blogging being (supposedly) a dying form, and with a non-trivial amount of effort involved, you might wonder why I persist. There are lots of reasons, actually, but today I’m going to mention two: writing practice, and self-discovery.*
First, writing practice. As scientists, we write a shocking amount; in fact, being a writer is as much, maybe more, a part of our jobs as stats or teaching or experimental design. It’s not just papers – I write grant proposals, reports, administrative documents, and as you may have noticed, I’ve also written two books. So it might seem odd that I spend some of my time doing more writing. Continue reading
Writing is hard; writing well is even harder. It’s easy to find advice, as a result, not to work too hard to polish what you’ve written. You’ll see people arguing that an imperfect-but-submitted paper is better than the perfect one you might finish next week, or that writing something just good enough to be accepted lets you move on to the next paper.
At some point, of course, these thing become true. It would be a bad idea to spend your entire career endlessly polishing one paper that you publish, on your deathbed, perfect and deserving of a (nonexistent) award for literary merit in the scientific literature. But the state of that literature – to a considerable degree turgid, tedious, and impenetrable – suggests that nobody much is making that mistake. Continue reading
This (pictured above) is a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. Except that it isn’t – and that’s a lesson about writing I wish I’d learned many years before I did.
My puzzle is a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle, in the sense that there are 1,000 pieces in the box. But on the dining-room table, it’s ten 100-piece jigsaw puzzles: I did the frame, then the boat, then the chairs, then started on the cottage mansion. Nobody (I think) starts a jigsaw puzzle at the upper left corner and tries to put pieces in one at a time until they reach the lower right.
I used to try writing papers that way: starting with the Abstract, and writing until I got to the end of the Discussion. That’s the way I’d written undergraduate essays and lab reports, so that’s how I figured I’d write papers too. It didn’t work, of course. Continue reading
The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, my guidebook for scientific writers, will soon have its fifth birthday. I’ll probably bake it a cake, because any excuse for cake is a good excuse, right? But I’ll also be looking forward to a bigger cake, about a year from now, to celebrate the launch of its second edition. Just last week, I sent the manuscript off to my editor, to go through that mysterious process that is book production.*
People sometimes grouse about books that have new editions (I know, because I’m one of those people, especially when it’s a textbook.) Sometimes, no doubt, it’s a cynical ploy to sabotage the used-book market and sell more new copies. So I’ll forgive you if you’re a bit skeptical. Why does the world need The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, 2nd Edition? Continue reading
I’m a big fan of a writing strategy that, in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, I call “storming the beach” – but that’s sometimes more vividly termed “barf and buff”. The idea is simple: early in a writing project, don’t stop to make things perfect. Instead, charge ahead with getting something – anything – on the page. Rough, awkward, incomplete – it doesn’t matter, you can fix it later. Did you write some crap? That’s OK: you can fix crap much more easily than you can fix a blank page. So barf out something terrible, and buff it later.
Like most good advice, “barf and buff” has a few dangers lurking in it. Continue reading
Tomorrow, I’m giving a Member Webinar for the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution, called How to Write a Better Thesis Faster: Learning the Craft of Writing. (Want to attend? You can join today and get the link tomorrow. Look, I’ll be honest: I’m not worth the price of membership. But you should join anyway – it’s a fabulous society with a great annual meeting and members who are brilliant, engaged, and kind.*
My talk** is a rather whirlwind compendium of advice for early-career folk wanting to learn to write more easily. One piece of advice – one I wish someone had given me early in my own career – is that it’s worth reading books on writing. Books plural. There are quite a few good ones (and yes, it’s true, also quite a few bad ones). Continue reading
There’s a lot to dislike about the way we write scientific papers. They’re often tedious and impenetrable, and they get that way at least in part because we make poor decisions as we write. We overuse big fancy words when short simple ones are available (“utilize”, anyone?), we just can’t let go of our fetish for the passive voice, and we apparently love nothing more than replacing some actual English words with an acronym. And so on. Continue reading
Everyone needs a summer project (or sixteen), and among mine was mixing the perfect margarita. In pursuit of the perfect margarita, I read a lot of recipes, and a lot of opinions. I finally made progress when I realized something important: the way to make a perfect margarita is to ignore everything anyone else has ever said about what makes a perfect margarita. That realization, and a little fiddling, and there it was in my hand: my (not “the”) perfect margarita.
That last little tweak of the wording is key. My perfect margarita might horrify a margarita purist – no, never mind “might”, it’s sure to. But because I’m mixing a margarita for me, it makes absolutely no difference what anybody else thinks. It’s my perfect margarita.*
I have not yet written the perfect scientific paper. It turns out that’s harder. 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