Tag Archives: writing

Writing the Methods as a plausibility check

Image: Rube Goldberg design by Stivi10 CC BY-SA 3.0 via wikimedia.org.

There are many reasons for “writing early” – for starting to write up a project before data collection and analysis are complete, or even before they’re started.  (I discuss this in some detail in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing.)  This is particularly true for the Methods section, which is far easier to write when you’re doing, or even proposing, the work than it is when you’re looking back on the work months or years later.  But one use for early writing often surprises my students: early writing as a “plausibility check” for methods I’m trying to decide about using.

Here’s what happens.  I’ll be sitting with a student (or sometimes, just with myself) and we’ll be trying to decide on an experimental method, or perhaps on a point of statistical analysis.  We’ll wonder, “should we do X?”  And I’ll say: “OK, let’s imagine writing a Methods paragraph describing X.  How would it feel?” Continue reading


The Songs of Trees (review)

I’ve been reading (OK, I’m always reading, except when I’m writing).  This time: David George Haskell’s The Songs of Trees.  Here are some thoughts. Continue reading

What’s the most famous sentence in the scientific literature?

Last week I allowed myself to vent a little about one of my writing pet peeves: the all-too-common but always incorrect construction “an unrelated genus”.  As a card-carrying nerd, I also allowed myself to segue from that into the beautiful and profound closing sentence of The Origin of Species:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.  (Darwin 1859)

 I suggested that this might be the most famous single sentence in our literature, and that raises two obvious but interesting questions.  First, is it?  And second, what are its competitors? Continue reading

There’s no such thing as “an unrelated genus”

 Image: Osmia rufa, André Karwath, CC BY-SA 2.5; Boletus edulis, Hans Hillewaert, CC BY-SA 4.0; Volvocales, Aurora M. Nedelcu, CC BY 2.5; Chimp, Aaron Logan, CC BY 2.5; Ranunculus asiaticus, Leif Stridvall, CC BY-SA 2.5; Isotricha intestinalis, Agricultural Research Service/USDA CC 0; Compilation, Vojtěch Dostál, CC BY-SA 2.5.

 (My writing pet peeves, part 4)

There I was, at the physiotherapist, reading a new manuscript by a friend and collaborator to distract myself from the indignities being visiting on my calf.  There I was, thoroughly enjoying what I was learning, when I was brought up short by a construction that drives me up the wall:

“this species, therefore, cannot be not congeneric with A. jonesi.  Instead, it actually belongs to Ethereum, a similar but unrelated genus”.*

 I gasped.  Unrelated?  No two genera on Earth are “unrelated”.  There are closely related genera and distantly related ones, but because all life on Earth shares a common ancestor, there are no unrelated ones. Continue reading

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

Defenders of the passive voice

I mention in my book, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, that there are few better ways to get academics arguing than to bring up the topic of the passive voice.  I’m reminded of this every time I get into a discussion of voice, either online or in person, in my department.  As you’d expect for a topic provoking argument, there are strongly held opinions on both sides: that scientific writing should use the active voice, or that the passive voice should be used instead*.

In general, I’m a passionate advocate for the active voice (although I acknowledge that a reasonable person can disagree).  Either on Twitter or in real life, I’ll often say something about avoiding the passive, and almost always somebody will come back with an objection.  These objections take a number of forms, both among different objectors but also within a single objector’s argument.  Two things interest me about patterns in those objections. Continue reading

Statistics in Excel, and when a Results section is “too short”

Every now and again, you see a critique of a manuscript that brings you up short and makes you go “Huh”.

A student of mine defended her thesis a while ago, and one of her examiners commented on one of her chapters that “the Results section is too short”*Huh, I said.  Huh.

I’m quite used to seeing manuscripts that are too long.   Occasionally, I see a manuscript that’s too short.  But this complaint was more specific: that the Results section in particular was too short. I’d never heard that one, and I just couldn’t make sense of it.  Or at least, not until I realized that it fits in with another phenomenon that I see and hear a lot: the suggestion that nobody should ever, ever do their statistics in Excel. Continue reading