Tag Archives: writing

“A Gentleman in Moscow” and scientific writing

In a career, how many extraordinary papers might a scientist write?

I got thinking about this, believe it or not, after noticing a copy of Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow in a neighbourhood Little Free Library. That novel is astonishing (in fact, it’s not at all clear why you’re reading this post instead of A Gentleman in Moscow; but thanks.) Since reading it, I’ve read Towles’ other novels (Rules of Civility and The Lincoln Highway); and while both were fine books well worth my time, neither grabbed me the way A Gentleman in Moscow did.*

Towles isn’t the only author to show this pattern. Continue reading

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Brevity in scientific writing is a good thing – until it isn’t

Nearly all of us need to work at making our scientific writing more concise. I’m definitely part of “nearly all of us” – my usual first draft needs to be trimmed down by 30%, producing a second draft that needs to lose another 30%. In my experience, making a manuscript shorter nearly always makes it clearer and better, in part by forcing it to become less “science-y” (forcing it into active voice, requiring the jettisoning of long fancy words in favour of short simple ones, and so on). So my attention was caught the other day by a reference to the recent publication of the “second shortest” philosophy paper. That paper consists only of its title: “Can a good philosophical contribution be made just by asking a question?”*

Unfortunately, the answer to the paper’s title is pretty clearly “no”.** Continue reading

My love affair with the footnote

If you’ve been reading Scientist Sees Squirrel for a while, or if you’ve read The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, you’ll have noticed my tendency to footnote. Footnotes drive some folks up the wall; others love them. You can tell that I’m in the latter camp – but why?

I guess there are two ways to answer that question: historically and functionally.

Historically: I’ve always loved weird digressions and unexpected connections – things that might not quite be germane to the main point, but are interesting or surprising or funny. Continue reading

My most heterodox scientific-writing lecture (or, how I annoy my colleagues in a good cause)

I’m well into my Scientific Writing course now, and I’ve just given the lecture that consistently annoys my faculty colleagues the most (well, it annoys many of them). It’s the one on writing the Methods section, and it’s heterodox in two rather different ways. This lecture stands out a bit – I don’t think my approach to IMRaD structure, or the content of the Discussion, or outlining, or writer’s block is all that different from the approach anyone else might take. But the Methods is different.

I said what I teach about the Methods is heterodox in two different ways. Continue reading

Six months into “phased retirement”: how it’s going

Warning: navel gazing

If you’ve been hanging around Scientist Sees Squirrel, you’ll know that last July I moved into “phased retirement”, or “semi-retirement” if you prefer. Administratively, I’m now in 62% of a professorial job, and will be for another year before full retirement. I get asked a lot how that’s working out. About a month in, I attempted to answer that question; but for obvious reasons (a month, lol!) it was a poor attempt. Now, at six months, I have a better idea. So if you’re interested (perhaps you’re contemplating something similar yourself), here’s my update.

I knew at the start I wouldn’t be suddenly and magically doing only 62% of the work. Continue reading

It’s not lazy to do the easy writing first

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

Exciting news: I’m (co-)writing another book!

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

Two trivial writing mistakes that really grate on me

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

How circular expectations damage our scientific writing

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

No, adverbs aren’t ruining our scientific literature

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