Archive for October, 2009

The bottom line in scientific writing

One of the best short pieces I’ve found so far on scientific writing is, “Me write pretty one day: How to write a good scientific paper,” by William Wells.*

The author gives great tips for writing each section of the paper, but what I especially appreciate is his emphasis on defining the “bottom line.” Says Wells:

The first step with any manuscript is to define your bottom line. Be realistic about how much the average reader will take away from an article. Non-experts will retain at most a single message. Make sure you have one, and then repeat it over and over again—at the end of the Abstract, in the Introduction, in the Results, and in the Discussion.

Even if you agree with this, though, defining your main message can be tough. In recognition of this, Wells helpfully offers advice for discovering it:

To uncover your bottom line, ask some questions: What was the mystery that you wanted to answer at the start? Have you answered it? What first got you excited about this area of research? With any luck, it was more than the idea that proteins X and Y might bind to each other—there was probably a bigger idea that motivated and intrigued you. Make sure you convey that reason and that excitement.

Wells’s insistence on a single message is echoed in a 2006 article** from EMBO reports. In it, the authors state:

The primary function of a scientific paper is to transmit a message—to convince the reader and the community that this is important research. It is therefore a good strategy to first think about the message before sitting down to write.

My only quibble with these authors is that they appear to view the development of a message as something that happens strictly through thinking ahead of time — that is, before a single word is typed. What I’m trying to get my students to see is that it’s okay not to know the message (or the complete message) before sitting down at the keyboard, that writing can be a tool for discovering it. Or if they start with one main point, but a different one emerges as they write, that’s okay, too. In other words, nothing’s wrong with their process when things evolve or they realize their original thinking was fuzzy — that’s just the process!

*W. Wells. 2004. Journal of Cell Biology 165(6):757-758
**A.S. Bredan and F. van Roy. 2006. EMBO Reports 7(9):846-849

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October 29, 2009 at 4:14 pm Leave a comment

3 more simple rules for tutoring scientific writing

Continuing on from my last post…

8. Tell writers what they’ve done well. Pointing out the strengths in people’s writing can teach them as much, if not more, than detailing all the weaknesses. Focusing only on the problems can also send the unintended message that the writing has no strengths.

9. Be as specific as possible with your feedback. Vague comments like, “This section doesn’t work for me but I don’t know why,” “This doesn’t flow,” or “Be more concise” are extremely frustrating to receive, because they signal to the writer that something is wrong, but offer no strategy for fixing the problem. Equally frustrating is when a reviewer suggests changes or makes edits without explaining why. If I can’t deduce the reviewer’s reasons for making edits, I tend to consider the changes arbitrary and toss them.

10. Trust your instincts. The interaction between a writing student and a writing tutor is complex and often delicate. Thinking about the complexity can overwhelm me, but when I remember that my utmost intention is to help and that my good communication skills are one big reason why I have the job I do, I feel better.

October 23, 2009 at 3:51 pm Leave a comment

7 simple rules for tutoring scientific writing

I haven’t written for a couple of weeks, for two reasons. First of all, I seem to be running out of topics (how to write title, how to beat writer’s block) upon which to expound and thereby display my vast wisdom and experience. And the other reason is that the longer I work as a writing tutor, the less wise, experienced and eager to expound I feel. In short, I seem these days to have just as many questions as answers.

So, I’m going to mix things up a bit here and use this blog not only to get my head wrapped around the lessons I want to teach my students, but also the lessons I want to learn. In the spirit of PLoS Computational Biology’s Ten Simple Rules series, I’m therefore going to jot down my “10 simple rules for tutoring writing.” We’ll see if I actually make it to 10.

Here goes…

1. Talk less, listen more. I think I’ve been doing way too much talking in my conferences with students.

2. Ask questions, rather than immediately supplying answers. Sometimes answers are helpful, of course, but I’m pretty sure I jump too quickly to offer them, rather than letting students work things out for themselves. For example, I met with a student recently about some changes his adviser had made to the student’s latest paper draft. The student said he couldn’t see why the adviser had made the changes, and so – eager, eager to help – I gave my take edit-by-edit on what I thought the adviser’s purpose was. Now I wish instead that I’d questioned the student harder on what he thought the changes were about; perhaps then, he might have started to see the reasons behind them for himself. I also described outright the stylistic differences I saw between his writing and the adviser’s; again, I wish I’d asked him what he thought the differences were first.

3. …”remember our purpose (as tutors), which is not to point out everything wrong with the paper, but to facilitate improvement…” and encourage revision (John C. Bean, Engaging Ideas, 2001). This really resonates with me – how can I offer comments in such a way that my students will be more inclined to revise? I’ll have to think about that.

4. Encourage students to write more. This is a tough one. I think that the science students I work with tend to view writing mostly as a product they churn out (quickly!) at the end of a research project, rather than as an ongoing process for discovering and deepening their ideas. I’m also not sure that many of them believe writing is central enough to their future careers to spend a huge amount of time practicing it. So, I need to come up with ways (possibly sneaky) to get them to write more.

5. Limit comments on any single draft to two or three main issues. My tendency, I think, is to bring up too many issues at once, which I’m certain is overwhelming — and defeating. Part of this stems, however, from the fact that I don’t get to meet with the students nearly as often as I would like during the drafting process. This leads to my next point…

6. Voice explicitly your expectations for working with students. For example, if they’re going to work with me on a paper, especially if it’s their first, I expect them to meet with me weekly or bi-weekly to go over drafts. Instead, we’ve tended to meet once when they have their first complete draft and once when they’re at the polishing stage.

7. Convey (somehow) that writing is a process that takes time – much longer than students tend to think. Related to 4, 5 and 6, this is another tough nut to crack. It’s also related, I think, to number 3 – that writing necessarily involves revision at every stage, and that revision isn’t merely substituting words here or there, or moving sentences around. Getting them to understand how integral revision is to writing is one thing I really want to achieve. Not certain how to do this at the moment, though…

Hmm…my rules aren’t terribly simple, are they? Regardless, more to come …

October 16, 2009 at 9:48 am Leave a comment


Science of Scientific Writing

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