5 steps on the path toward writing (science) well

//images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=https://i1.wp.com/img.tfd.com/authors/cather.jpg&imgrefurl=http://cather.thefreelibrary.com/&h=249&w=197&sz=10&hl=en&start=6&tbnid=2vSp7moJhI2enM:&tbnh=111&tbnw=88&prev=/images%3Fq%3DWilla%2BCather%26svnum%3D10%26hl%3Den%26safe%3Doff%26client%3Dsafari%26rls%3Den%26sa%3DNJanet 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?

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5 Responses to 5 steps on the path toward writing (science) well

  1. TurtleMan says:

    For step 2, I would highly recommend OmniOutliner. Logical arguments have never been so easy to organize and fine-tune. Beautiful exporting to RTF and many other common formats (and Word if you buy pro) and then away you go with putting the flesh on the bones. Only for the Mac-inclined.

  2. Flowerlady says:

    I agree with TurtleMan!!
    You can also use Kinkless (a free add-on to Omni Outliner) to implement GTD _ it rocks!!

  3. Mike says:

    I use OmniOutliner for keeping my todo list, which I call “Calender”, it keeps a week’s schedule in list form, and a list of the big goals for the month. I also use Kinkless GTD which helps me keep track of my projects (altho I’m waiting for OmniOutliners ultimate version of Kinkster II.

    That said, I’m not a huge fan of OmniOutliner for writing, largely because importing it into MSWord involves reformatting. If, on the other hand, I use Word’s outline view, I already have the headers pre-formatted, and I can go back and forth from outliner mode to Page mode, which is especially useful if I get stuck (as I usually do) on the Discussion and need to arrange chunks of text. But I agree, the latest versions of OOPro make exporting to Word a lot easier. So as loathe as I am to support big, resource using Microsoft programs, as long as I use Word (and EndNote), I do most of my outlining and writing in Word.

    So OmniOutliner for lists, MSWord for writing, is how I do it.

  4. TurtleMan says:

    Make sense if you like to go back and forth and have your page formatting from the get-go. For my preferences (and perhaps those of other), you hit the nail on the head with the comment about Word’s size (aka bloat) and resource use. In the initial creative/brainstorming stage of building the skeleton, I would rather use a fast and (most importantly) responsive app that will do what I want it to do without any fuss. Word just doesn’t fit that bill. “Clunky” immediately springs to mind. Once I have the outline I also switch to Word, but I don’t have much trouble with the formating thing. A couple of styles applied in Word and all is dandy.

    So I use OmniOutliner fot lists on steroids and arranging complex ideas. I transfer to Word for the final product, even though I would love an alternatve for this stage.

  5. DAZUNAE says:

    I LOVE ANTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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