I’ve used jigsaw puzzles as a metaphor for writing before, and today I’m returning to that surprisingly fertile ground. If you’re not into jigsaws, don’t worry: as an alternative framing, I can offer Things My Mother Told Me That Were Not True. (Also ground I’ve ploughed before.)
When I was growing up, my family put a lot of stock in what’s sometimes described as a Protestant work ethic. My mother in particular was pretty strong on this one point: if you have an easy job and a hard job ahead of you, don’t be lazy: do the hard job first. To return to the jigsaw puzzle metaphor: start with the sky, not with the deck chairs. Well, there are surely tasks for which that advice makes sense, but I’m here to tell you that neither jigsaw puzzles nor writing are (usually) among them.
When I write a new paper (or anything else), I ease myself in. Continue reading
I’ve been itching to share this news, and now I can: I’m writing another book! Actually, even better: I’m co-writing this one, with Bethann Garramon Merkle. It’s been hard to keep this quiet for so long, but we’ve just signed a contract (with the University of Chicago Press), so now it’s official. Hooray!
What’s it about, you ask? Well, our working title is Helping Students Write in the Sciences: Strategies for Efficient and Effective Mentoring of Developing Writers. Writing is a huge part of the job of a scientist, and it’s hard – but teaching and mentoring writing is too, and it’s harder. Continue reading
Like most academics, I read a lot. And I mean a lot: student papers, draft manuscripts and thesis chapters, manuscripts I’m peer reviewing, grant proposals, blog posts, and yes, newspapers and magazine articles and novels. So I see polished writing, and unpolished writing, and rough-draft writing. And I have that academic instinct to spot writing errors. I see lots of those, believe me – including, of course, in my own writing.
Some errors impede communication, and some are trivial. You’d think I’d rant about the former and forgive the latter, but I’m afraid I’m not that rational. Continue reading
I’m revising a manuscript, and once again dealing with a peer reviewer who wants my writing to look and sound just like all the other writing in our scientific literature. There’s a problem there – and it’s a pervasive one.
The thing is, our scientific literature has a reputation for being tedious and turgid. It’s a reputation that’s mostly well deserved. There are straightforward ways we could make our literature better – but we can’t do that if we’re tied to the ways we’ve written before. Unfortunately, folks are so tied, very strongly. Continue reading
Fairly often, I run into the claim that adjectives and especially adverbs should be avoided in scientific writing. I’ve been told, for example, that using “Surprisingly” (adverb) or “This important result” (adjective) is an attempt to manipulate the reader’s opinion about the data, and that, in scientific writing, the data ought to speak for themselves. I understand the thinking that leads to this belief – but I think it’s naïve. A new study by Ju Wen and Lei Lei, on adjective and adverb usage in scientific Abstracts, gives us an interesting look at the practice, and at arguments for and against. So despite that study’s limitations, let’s dig in a little.
Wen and Lei open their paper with a claim that I hope is uncontroversial: Continue reading
There are a lot of bits and pieces in a scientific paper. You’ll find advice for writing most of them in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, but somewhat to my chagrin I keep finding gaps – most recently when Jonathan Losos wrote to ask me this apparently simple question:
When you publish a paper, where do you list your institution: where you were when the work was done, where you were when the paper was submitted, where you are now, or some combination of the above?
Jonathan, like me, has been in the publishing game for a while, and I think he was a bit nonplussed to realize he had to ask the question. There don’t seem to be clear guidelines, or at least not universal ones. As Jonathan put it, “A quick google suggested that…everyone, just like me, makes up their own rules”. Continue reading
Like virtually all scientists, I write a lot. Over the last decade, I’ve written two books (and for one of them, a second edition), a proposal for a third book, about two dozen papers,* a dozen grant proposals, over 500 posts here on Scientist Sees Squirrel, and a basketful of miscellaneous reports, lay articles, and administrative documents. I figured out quite a while ago that it’s quite normal for a scientist to spend more time writing that they do anything else – even if writing isn’t why most of us chose science as a career. What’s surprising about this really isn’t my volume of writing (I write more than some, less than others). It’s that until recently, I really didn’t enjoy doing it. Continue reading
The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked. “Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Don’t listen to the King.
At least, not when writing a scientific paper. Continue reading
I’ve devoted a lot of time and effort, over the last decade or so, to writing about good writing. There’s The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, of course; there’s our recent preprint on the construction of good titles; there are dozens of posts here on Scientist Sees Squirrel; and I can neither confirm nor deny rumours of another currently-super-top-secret book project. And this doesn’t even count the innumerable hours I spend toiling to improve my own writing, and to mentor my students towards improving their own.
Does any of this matter? Continue reading
Perhaps you’ve noticed that I have the occasional thought about scientific writing. I recently had the pleasure of expressing a bunch of those thoughts in a wide-ranging conversation with Daniel Shea, one of the hosts of the Scholarly Communication podcast series from the New Books Network. You can listen to the episode here.
The interview was spurred by the recent release of the second edition of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, but our conversation wasn’t limited to that. Continue reading