Career Network for student Scientists and Postdocs at Yale

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Good Writing Part I: What’s the Point and Where to Start?

Now that CNSPY has successfully moved to its new web home, the CNSPY Blog is back! Over the next few weeks guest blogger, Dianna Bartel, will be addressing the topic of good writing in a focused Summer Series. Below is the introductory post and a preview of what’s to come in the following weeks! Here’s Dianna:

 

Good Writing – What’s the point?

The fate of our careers hinges as much on good writing as it does on good data. After all, even the most promising discovery doesn’t mean much if it is not published. And without sound writing, we stand little chance of publishing our work, obtaining those cherished grant dollars, and landing one of those oh-so-sought-after academic jobs. And therein lies the vital need for good writing – to get published, funded, and hired.

The reality remains that publications are the currency of academic science. Even for those who are not marching down the traditional academic course to becoming a PI and vying for those precious grant dollars, publications still serve as a measure of output.

So in the words of a renowned Harvard scientist and incredibly prolific author with one of the highest Hirsch index ratings of all living chemists:

If your research does not generate papers, it might just as well not have been done” – George M. Whitesides, Ph.D.

So…

Where to start?

As in any profession, the success of writing is determined by whether or not our readers understand what we are trying to say. No one intentionally sets out to write unclearly, so it is not surprising that our own writing is clear to us – we already know and comprehend the material so it seems obvious to us (see our previous discussion on the Curse of Knowledge). Therefore, we need to write with the reader in mind.

We usually do not know our most influential readers (i.e. reviewers!), and they will vary with each publication and/or grant, but it’s generally safe to assume that there will be scientists with a range of expertise related to our work as well as those from different disciplines. Hence, we cannot jump into jargon-laden prose and assume everyone, or anyone, will understand. Another point to bear in mind is that English is not the first language for the majority of scientists. Such diversity places all the more need for crisp and clear writing.

The bottom line: the burden of clarity rests on us as authors. Our amazing results cannot speak for themselves, and alone they will do us little good; they need to be communicated well. And as astutely noted by Yale’s distinguished authority on scientific communications:

“Good science does not excuse poor writing.” – Angelika H. Hofmann, Ph.D.

Some principles of good scientific writing

Effective writing is a difficult and time-consuming activity that few people are naturally good at; even the most accomplished and published professors and scientists work hard to refine their scientific prose. Many books, blogs, classes, lectures, etc. emphasize the importance of this undertaking. Such an assortment of materials also highlights the fact that there are various techniques and methods to achieve good writing, yet there are basic hallmarks of good writing that are echoed throughout these resources, some of which follow below.

1. Always keep the reader in mind – We have established that this is the critical starting point. It is also THE central tenet of good writing. Whether or not our readers understand our writing determines the success of our writing. Period.

2. Good writing stems from good thinking – But wait, didn’t we just say that if we already know and understand the material, that’s why our own writing is so clear to us? Absolutely, but remember that we are not writing for ourselves. From our readers’ view, things may not be so clear. Maybe we are assuming some underlying knowledge of a topic – often we do not even realize the assumptions we’ve made. Or perhaps we have failed to make a clear transition and connection between ideas. By improving our thinking on a topic, especially in terms of what our readers may or may not know, we will improve our writing about the topic.

3. Conversely, the process of writing usually helps writers improve their thinking – Considering our target readers while writing will help us identify points that will not be clear to others, which inevitably pushes us to think more about the topic. And of course, it is supremely useful to have more distant colleagues (i.e. someone outside of the lab and even outside of our field) read and provide feedback as to how well they grasped our ideas.

4. What matters most about the first draft is that it gets done – It can be easy to get bogged down trying to perfect that first draft, but the draft serves as the starting point. It’s the foundation upon which we will construct and build our ideas into a coherent structure. As if we were building a house, our draft provides the solid base to elevate solid supports and raise the roof. With a solid framework in place, we can then attend to the finer details that we really want our audience to notice.

So the draft provides the blueprint for our writing, as well as for others who are involved. And it will absolutely be flushed out, refined, improved, tweaked, and then flushed out and refined again. As difficult as it can be to have our drafts returned to us with a sea of tracked changes, we shouldn’t feel as though we have failed at writing. In fact, we have embarked on the final crucial hallmark of good writing in the last point…

5. Good writing is the product of good rewriting – This is the other crux of good writing. Together with the first, these two points bookend and more-or-less relate to all principles of good writing. It is far easier to edit and clarify existing work than it is to create something from a blank canvas – this is why it’s important to simply construct a draft without trying to make it perfect the first time around. Rely on editing and rewriting to polish your writing.

And again, this is central to writing in any field. Ernest Hemingway rewrote the final page of Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times before he was satisfied. Regardless that most of us are not destined for Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes in literature, this principle is steadfast among writers of all walks. And scientific writing, like any other professional writing, undergoes rounds of re-writing, perhaps all the more so when we are working with co-authors.

Ok, now that we’ve set stage we hope you’ll come back in the coming weeks when we dive into some more practical points of writing, like how to avoid zombies – really!

 

** Let us know what you think about the point of good writing! **

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5 Comments

  1. Great advice. It motivates me to finish that first draft I’ve been avoiding…Thanks!

    • Glad to hear it, Arie! There’s always ample opportunity to refine and tweak in your revisions. And I’ve found that once I finish a draft, whether I send to others or not, if I leave if it for a few days I can come back to it with fresh eyes and ideas. Happy writing (and rewriting)!

  2. I would also add to “some principles of scientific writing” (I’m leaving the word ‘good’ out of the sentence intentionally) something that -sometimes- works for me: write your ideas. Take each idea and make it a paragraph. Think what is needed to understand that paragraph (in terms of background, definitions, etc.) and add it (you may need a new paragraph above). Connect your paragraphs so that they follow a train of thoughts. And as Dianna said, leave it for a few days and come back to it with fresh eyes (and fresh fingers to re-write it!).
    Thanks Dianna!

    • Very interesting, Diego. This sounds like a useful practice even when we are not writing. Then when we are ready to write, we will already have some ideas written.
      And it also highlights that the lines between writing and rewriting are not exact. By the time anyone else sees our ‘first’ draft, undoubtedly we have already been revising and rewriting. And it doesn’t matter if we get the whole thing down in rough form and then go back to refine, or if we revise as we go, or perhaps a bit of both.
      Thanks for chiming in, Diego!

  3. discussion implies in and become an outstanding paper, steady bro

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