Tag Archives: writing

How do successful academics write? Helen Sword’s “Air & Light & Time & Space” (review)

Helen Sword’s latest book, Air & Light & Time & Space, has a subtitle to make every academic salivate:  How Successful Academics Write.  Who among us wouldn’t like to know that secret?  Who wouldn’t like to know how academics can write more productively, and at the same time, take more pleasure from writing?  Continue reading

Advertisements

Scientific writing, style, and the trolley problem

Image: Trolley by McGeddon CC BY-SA 4.0 via wikimedia.org

Our scientific literature has a reputation for being not much fun to read: colourless, tedious, and turgid.  By and large, it deserves that reputation (and I would include my own papers in that assessment).  There are exceptions, of course, but they’re few and far between.  I’ve speculated before about some of the reasons for this.  But there’s a possibility I think I’ve been missing, and I’m going to use this post to think through it.

One thing I see fairly often is early-career writers struggling because they think there’s a single best way to write a given piece of text. Continue reading

Some journal covers - Nature, American Naturalist, Entomologia Experimentalis et Applicata

How do you choose a journal when it’s time to submit a paper?

Image: Three choices – out of thousands.

Warning: long post. Grab a snack.

Having lots of options is a wonderful thing – right up until you have to pick one.  Have you ever been torn among the two dozen entrées on a restaurant menu? Blanched at the sight of 120 different sedans on a used-car lot? If you have, you might also wonder how on earth you’re going to choose a journal to grace with your latest manuscript.  There are, quite literally, thousands of scientific journals out there – probably tens of thousands – and even within a single field there will be hundreds of options.  (Scimago lists 352 journals in ecology, for example, but that list is far from comprehensive.)

What follows are some of things I think you might consider when you choose a journal.  Continue reading

I’m leading a writing workshop (at Entomology 2018)

Image: Composite.  Book cover, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing; and Entomology 2018 logo, by Michael Blackstock for the Entomological Society of Canada and the Entomological Society of America.  Find the story behind the meeting logo here.

Just a quick announcement, which will be of particular interest to readers who are considering attending Entomology 2018 (the joint annual meeting of the Entomological Society of Canada and the Entomological Society of America, in Vancouver, BC).  At that meeting, I’ll be leading a workshop on scientific writing. Continue reading

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

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