Tag Archives: writing

Why I write the Introduction last

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

Yes, good writing matters: empirical evidence!

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

I’m on the “Scholarly Communication” podcast, talking about (what else) scientific writing

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

Do funny titles increase or decrease the impact of scientific papers? New preprint!

Is science a laughing matter? That could mean a lot of things, I guess, but one place the question gets raised is around the construction of titles for scientific papers. Is it OK for a title to be funny?

I’ve had a longstanding (but admittedly weird) interest in the issue of humour and beauty in scientific writing. Not much gets written about that (except by me), but one place there’s just a little bit of literature is where humour intersects with the construction of titles. That’s in part because titles are important, and in part because the availability of easily-extracted data connecting titles with citation rates has given birth to something of a cottage industry in trying to associate features of titles with high or low citation fates of the papers in question. For title features suitable for automated scoring, like length, lots of data and analyses are available. But humour isn’t like that. This lack of data doesn’t stop authors of writing guides from advising against humour in titles (not mine, of course, but this one, and this one, and this one, for instance). How good is this advice? Continue reading

Our impenetrable literature: partly a feature, partly a bug

Our scientific literature (and academic literature more broadly) has a reputation for being impenetrable. That reputation is entirely deserved. That’s why things like the Sokal Hoax sometimes work, and that’s why scientists are sometimes mocked, or scorned, for operating like a priesthood, holding truth away from the layperson. It’s easy and fun to find a complex sentence, dense with unfamiliar jargon and turgid acronym-laden phrases, and hold it up for all to see (I’ll plead guilty: I do it myself in my scientific writing course). But it’s also naïve, unless you’re willing to think carefully about it – because there are two very different reasons why our literature is impenetrable. One is a bug, yes; but the other is very much a feature. Continue reading

Writing “an” Introduction is a lot easier than writing “the” Introduction

OK, not that sort of introduction.

Last week I was drafting the Introduction to a new paper*, and I was struggling. People often assume that because I’ve written a book about scientific writing, I must be a gifted writer to whom the task comes easily. Nothing could be further from the truth: I’m just like most scientific writers. Yes, I find writing much easier than I used to (thank goodness); but I still have many days when producing the next sentence is like pulling teeth. My own teeth.

I find Introductions particularly hard. Continue reading

Metaphors in scientific writing: vagueness and confusion, or something better?

One of the foremost virtues – probably the foremost virtue – of good scientific writing is clarity. (I make this argument at length in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing.)  In service of this goal, writers are often advised to be cautious about using metaphors (see Olson, Arroyo-Santos, and Vergara-Silva (2019), A User’s Guide to Metaphors in Ecology and Evolution, for an interesting analysis of metaphors and their strengths and weaknesses). A metaphor names or describes one thing by referring to another, and our literature is studded with them*: the tree of life, the Big Bang, electron shells, biological invasions, chaperonins, tectonic plates – and these are just a few that came to my mind right away.

Critics of metaphors often rest their case on three major grounds. Metaphors are held to be vague, to be misleading, or to resist cultural translation. Do these grounds hold water?** Continue reading

Your paper is not a Wikipedia article

Scientists don’t agree on all that much, but we agree that it simply isn’t possible to “keep up with the literature”. Our scientific literature is such a torrential firehose that there’s just no way. And if we’re aware of that as readers, you’d think that as writers we’d be taking special pains to be concise. Well, maybe you’d think that. Or maybe you’d think instead that we’d just like everyone else to be concise.

That last sentence was a little tiny rant, I know. Continue reading

How long is a manuscript? All answers are wrong.

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

Blogging, writing practice, and self-discovery

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