Janet has a post soliciting and summarizing comments on how her readers learn to write as scientists. Quite a diversity of experience.
I think the greater challenge, as an engaged creative person, is just to write well. If you love your ideas, and you want to express them, start thinking of writing (and teaching) as a craft to be honed, not a chore to be conquered. Here’s my five for today:
1) Read for style, not just for content. In your paper seminars, take time to critique what you liked about the style. What worked and what didn’t? Read aloud the first and last paragraph. Was it clunky or did it flow? Read good non-fiction writers. John McPhee, Ed Abbey, Carl Zimmer, Robert Sapolsky, John Steinbeck, Gay Talese, John Janovy Jr, and Loren Eiseley. For that matter read Willa Cather and John Updike–they would have been a killer science writers. The more good writing you read, the more you will internalize, and practice, good writing.
2) Outline your logical argument, then put flesh on the bones. The Introduction and Discussion of a scientific paper both have dramatic arcs. The Introduction sucks the reader in with a general problem, then gradually narrows to the series of hypotheses to be tested. The Discussion is a bit more free form, but often starts with a bang (your most intriguing findings) then presents the most profound implications of these results. In both, the logical flow comes first. I start with a pen and a Moleskine, then use Outline View in MSWord to getting my logical tree in shape.
3) Writing is teaching. Know your audience. Write not for the colleagues that attend your seminars (oh those few, those happy few). Write for the colleagues that attend the same national meetings you aspire to. If I’m writing a paper on ants, I’ll write it for ecologists, not myrmecologists. For every self-absorbed twit that would say “Heck, I knew that” there are 100 potential readers who have no idea what a propodeum is.
4) Enjoy editing and appreciate being edited. Writing is hard, editing can be fun. Writing is the toil and agony of finding out what you think, what you know, and what you don’t know. Editing is rearranging the words and cutting out the extraneous stuff until the argument flows with the inevitability of a mountain stream, downhill to your conclusions. By the same token, when you get your manuscript back covered in red ink, someone has cared enough to play with your words. Pay attention.
5) A good writer is also a graphic designer. We communicate with words and images–a reader intrigued by your abstract will often next consult your figures and tables. The captions and images of your figures should thus be sufficiently clear and self-contained that they tell your story all by themselves. IOW, think of your paper as a poster in which your reader will read the abstract, skim the text and spend most of the time looking at the pictures. And don’t skimp on illustrations! Why spend a turgid describing the layout of your experiment, when you can capture it with an illustration?