Tag Archives: writing

Who’s in charge of the English language?

Image: Oxford English Dictionary, Mrpolyonymous CC BY 2.0 via flickr.com.  But no, the Oxford Dictionary is not in charge.

Who’s in charge of the English language?  Nobody, of course.  You might think that would make our writing easier; but actually, it makes it considerably harder.

Here’s something you see all the time: someone either asks a question about the rules of English, or insists that somebody else is breaking them.

  • “Can I start a sentence with an abbreviated genus name?”
  • “When do I use which and when do I use that?”
  • Decimate really means to kill only one in ten.”
  • “Everyone knows you can’t split an infinitive.”

If English were a set of rules, with some body in charge of enforcing them, then all questions like those first two would have simple, short, unambiguous answers, and all opinions like the latter two would be objectively either right or wrong.  But English isn’t a set of rules.  Continue reading

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Steal this syllabus! (or, how I taught Scientific Writing)

Image: Writing, CC0 by Startup Stock Photos from Pexels.com

 This semester, for the first time, I taught a course in scientific writing.  I was very scared going into it, but now that the course is over I’m quite pleased with how it worked out.  Several people who have taught similar courses were kind enough to share their syllabi with me, and that helped – so I’m going to pay it forward here.  If you might teach a writing course, or if you have colleagues who might, or if you’re just interested in how one might do such a thing, read on.  I’ll tell you a bit about the course, and down at the bottom I’ll post the syllabus and other course materials, which you are welcome to download and adapt for your own use. Continue reading

Are there really “only so many ways to write the Methods”?

Image: Gustav Flaubert, portrait by Eugène Giraud (1806-1881), via wikimedia.org. Public domain.  I bet you’re wondering why he’s relevant. All in good time…

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about an old chestnut: whether you can, or should, reuse blocks of text when you write a new Methods section describing methods you’ve already published.  My suggestion that you generally can’t, and that often when you can you shouldn’t, raised a predictable number of people to a high dudgeon.  I won’t rehash that here, except for one objection that’s both common and interesting.  It’s this: the claim that “there are only so many ways you can write we prepared a one molar solution of KNO3*”.

This claim achieves an interesting trifecta:  it’s simultaneously irrelevant, false, and important. Continue reading

Do you really have to rewrite your Methods for every new paper?

Image: Recycling logo by gustavorezende, released to public domain

Warning: long post.  There’s a TL;DR in the Summary at the end.

Is recycling Methods text from an old paper, to use in a new paper that applies the same techniques, efficient writing – or self-plagiarism?

We’ve all had the dilemma.  You write two papers that use (at least some of) the same methods.  For the first paper, you craft a lovely, succinct, clear explanation of those methods.  For the second paper, you’d like to just cut-and-paste the Methods text from the first one.  Can you?  And should you? Continue reading

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