Archive for May, 2009

Scientists on scientific writing

I thought you might be interested to hear the thoughts of scientists, especially those who’ve served as journal editors, on ways to improve scientific writing. So, I’ve combed through a number of published articles on the subject and pulled out some common suggestions. Note that this advice comes from people who’ve struggled through hundreds of badly written papers during their careers, so it’s all aimed at reducing the burden on readers.

Minimize the use of acronyms. “Readers can generally handle 2 or 3 abbreviations in a paper, but reading becomes exponentially more difficult with each additional abbreviation,” wrote Loyola University professor, Martin Tobin, in an article he penned as editor of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

The problem is, although you’ve committed to memory the abbreviations you commonly use (FNR, SVM, and CPD, to name just a few from recent BACTER papers), your readers generally have not. This means that every acronym you throw in requires them to expend some precious energy memorizing the new term.

Avoid noun clusters. Using one noun to modify another (e.g., liver cell) is allowed in English. It even works to add yet another (e.g., mouse liver cell). But problems begin when these clusters grow beyond three words, especially when there’s a lot of jargon involved. Consider these clusters from recently published papers: “robust spindle microtubule plus-end attachment” (what’s robust here, the spindle, the microtubule or the attachment?) and “ERRalpha LBD/PGC-1alpha coactivator homogenous time-resolved fluorescence interaction assay.” Again, trying to interpret these clusters requires energy that could be better applied toward understanding the larger points the authors are trying to make.

Limit passive voice. Use of passive voice is definitely appropriate at times; for example, when you want to take the emphasis off the doer (We harvested the cells at the mid-exponential growth phase) and put it on the thing that’s being acted upon (The cells were harvested at the mid-exponential growth phase). But too much passive voice leads to ambiguity, weak-sounding statements and long sentences.

“This is a heartfelt plea from those of us who read a lot of papers,” wrote Charles Van Wray as outgoing editor-in-chief of the Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition. “Use the active voice rather than the passive voice whenever it is possible to do so.”

To be continued…


Compliance (COMmunicate PLease wIth Less Abbreviations, Noun Clusters, and Exclusiveness. MJ Tobin (2002) American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. 166:1534-1535.

On scientific writing. CW Van Wray (2007) Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition. 31(3): 259-260.

May 29, 2009 at 11:23 am Leave a comment

Know your readers, part 2

For the longest time, the phrase “know your readers” completely baffled me. I couldn’t fathom how I was supposed to know anything about people I’d never met and never would meet, much less what they needed from me. My confusion quickly turned into frustration, and from there, rebellion. I decided I would focus on what I wanted to say, and the readers (whoever they were) could fend for themselves.

I’ve since realized that giving some thought to the audience is actually a good thing. Now, however, instead of commanding myself to know these elusive people, I ask: Whom do I want to reach? Then, I picture a real-live person who fits this category of reader, and write to that person.

For example, when I worked for the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), I wrote a newsletter for WARF employees who spanned the gamut from Ph.D. scientists to secretaries. The secretaries, I knew, were frustrated that nobody really tried to make the science behind WARF’s patents understandable to them. So, when I wrote a newsletter story about DNA microarrays, I kept a certain secretary in mind.

Visualizing her as I typed allowed me to anticipate the questions she might have, what might confuse her, and the additional background she might need. In the end, although I never told her about my strategy, she came and thanked me for writing such a clear explanation.

In How to Write Mathematics, mathematician Paul R. Halmos also advocates for writing to somebody specific because, he says, “The writer must anticipate and avoid the reader’s difficulties. As he writes, he must keep trying to imagine what in the words being written may tend to mislead the reader and what will set him straight.”

So, as you write, picture yourself explaining your findings to a colleague who is smart and interested, but mostly unfamiliar with your work. Or, if that’s still too elusive, have people other than your advisor and co-authors review your drafts. If you’re planning to submit to a journal read by biologists, have an experimental biologist read your manuscript. Or have a fellow BACTER trainee look it over. (Or me, of course.)

These are the people who can teach you the most about audience, because while your advisor can still follow you when your writing is vague, jargon-y and awkward, these folks can’t. And the more you solicit their comments, the better able you’ll be to anticipate their needs in the first place.

May 26, 2009 at 9:50 am Leave a comment

How to become a better writer

In the last post, I said that if you want people to read about your work, “you must strive to make your words and style as readable as you possibly can.” Okay, you answer, how exactly do I do that?

As with anything, the only way to become a better writer is to practice writing. Think about the first time (or first several times) you tried to run an experiment or write computer code. I’m guessing the results were far from perfect – and you probably didn’t expect them to be. You instinctively knew you would have try many, many times before you got good enough to achieve the outcome you wanted.

With writing, however, people seem to forget – or even dismiss – this basic need to practice. After not writing anything for months, they sit down one day to compose a proposal or a paper, and wonder why the writing comes so hard. Unfortunately, these struggles often lead people to conclude that they simply cannot write, but I don’t think that’s it. The problem is, they haven’t practiced enough.

This is why I would encourage you to write something, anything, as often as you can. Write down the results from your latest experiment and what they mean. (I’m not talking about scribbles in your lab notebook either, but an actual paragraph like you’d write for a journal article.) Or write a two-paragraph description of your research for the BACTER Web site (I’d love it if you did that; I’d even help you!).

The more you force yourself to fill a blank page with words, the easier the process will get. Plus, getting into the writing habit has another huge advantage that most people don’t appreciate: Clear writing helps clear thinking. This is one big reason why I started this blog.

Here’s what Washington University mathematician Steven Krantz has to say on writing and thought in his book, A Primer of Mathematical Writing:

“We all know that one way to work out our thoughts is to engage in an animated discussion with someone whom we respect. But you can instead, à la Descartes, have that discussion with yourself. And a useful way to do so is by writing. When I want to work out my thoughts on some topic – teaching reform, or the funding of mathematics, or the directions that future research…ought to take – I often find it useful to write a little essay on the subject. For writing forces me to express my ideas clearly and in the proper order, to fill in logical gaps, to sort out hypotheses from blind assumptions from conclusions, and to make my point forcefully and clearly.”

Give it a try.

May 19, 2009 at 10:02 am Leave a comment

Know your readers, part 1

In journalism, reporters are taught to regard their readers as impatient and fickle, with puny attention spans and a tendency to abandon a story the instant it fails to keep their interest. That’s why journalists work so hard to make their stories clear, concise and clutter-free. They know that if their writing makes the going tough, their readers will get going.

When scientists write, on the other hand, they don’t have these same worries. Unlike the general audiences that reporters cater to, readers of scientific publications are reading not for pleasure, but to get the latest findings in their fields. This means that even if the writing is dense, awkward or muddled, most scientists are curious and driven enough to stick things out.

Or are they? Here’s what Dutch physics professor Ad Lagendijk* has to say about scientists as readers:

“Your average reader is mildly interested. Never expect scientists to go through your article from beginning to end.”

And this:

“Professional researchers have to browse many, many papers on a daily basis and are continuously looking for a pretext to put yours aside. You can call yourself lucky if they grant you ten seconds to obtain a first impression.”

Hmm… It sounds to me like readers of science are pretty similar to readers of news: They’re overwhelmed with information, have limited time, and want to get to the main point as quickly and painlessly as possible.

What then shall you do? Just like a journalist, you must strive to make your words and style as readable as you possibly can. Resist the temptation (to which so many scientists succumb) of blaming the reader for not being intelligent or diligent enough to understand you. As the eminent writer, editor and teacher William Zinsser says in his classic book, On Writing Well:

“It won’t do to say that the reader is too dumb or too lazy to keep pace with the train of thought. If the reader is lost, it’s usually because the writer hasn’t been careful enough.”

*From: Survival Guide for Scientists, Amsterdam University Press, 2008

May 6, 2009 at 2:16 pm Leave a comment

Science of Scientific Writing

This article describes what readers expect when they read - and how scientific writing often violates those expectations.