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

Making your abstract flow

1221630_flow_1A good scientific abstract not only needs to contain all the right pieces (background, problem statement, main findings, etc.), but it should also flow smoothly and seamlessly from one sentence and idea to the next. The value of this should not be underestimated, especially when you reflect on how quickly and impatiently most readers will be scanning your abstract.

So, how can flow be achieved? In this slide show (pdf), I offer some thoughts for creating it, along with some examples that illustrate these points.

September 30, 2009 at 9:31 am Leave a comment

Avoiding the pitfalls of grant writing

I was looking the other day for some “how to” advice on grant writing that goes beyond the basics, and found an excellent set of articles called “How Not to Kill a Grant Application” on Science magazine’s Careers website. Basically, the author interviewed several experienced grant writers and reviewers about the common mistakes they see in grant proposals and how to avoid them — problems like incomplete abstracts, prose that’s too detailed or jargon-laden, and poorly worded research aims. I’d say it’s really useful stuff, especially for those grappling with the daunting task of writing their first proposal.

September 23, 2009 at 4:12 pm Leave a comment

10 simple rules for just about everything

I don’t know if anyone else has run across this, but the journal PLoS Computational Biology has an ongoing series on their website called “Ten Simple Rules” that I think is pretty nifty. In the words of the editor, the collection provides “a quick, concentrated guide for mastering some of the professional challenges research scientists face in their careers,” such as how to collaborate successfully with others, how to choose a postdoc position, and how to organize a scientific meeting.

It also covers some writing topics:

Ten Simple Rules for Getting Published (Rule 1: Read many papers, and learn from both the good and the bad work of others)

Ten Simple Rules for Getting Grants (Rule 6: Remember, Reviewers Are People, Too — i.e., they’re short on time and likely aren’t expert in your exact discipline)

Ten Simple Rules for Reviewers (Rule 3: Write Reviews You Would Be Satisfied with as an Author)

Check out the entire series here.

September 8, 2009 at 8:26 am Leave a comment

How to write a good abstract

Your abstract isn’t just a mini-version of your paper, with sentences chopped from your introduction, methods, results and discussion, and pasted together. Instead, it needs to be greater than the sum of those parts, an argument that compels people to read your paper, attend your talk, or visit your poster. Easier said than done, right? Here are a few tips to guide you in writing an informative and compelling abstract.

State the problem. If readers don’t grasp the problem, they’re not going to care about the solution (i.e., your research) or get the significance of what you’ve found. So, the beginning of the abstract should contain the research problem, along with just enough background for readers to understand why it is an “intricate unsettled question,” a “source of perplexity.” Your findings should then be presented as a solution to the problem.

Have a main point. Although the style of writing is different, the abstract is sort of like a brief news item on your research, and news stories always have a main point. So, rather than trying to squeeze in as many findings as possible, write a few bullet points or “sound bites” about your most important data, and then shape the abstract around them. This can be a good thing to do even before you start writing your paper, as it can help you find your overall focus.

Target a broad audience. In my opinion, the abstract should be aimed at a wider audience than the paper itself, because you never know who’s going to pull up your abstract in online and database searches. Thus, it should contain few, if any, jargon terms or acronyms, and include adequate background information for scientists outside your field (this becomes more important, of course, when you’re publishing in widely read journals, such as PNAS). Having a main point will also help capture the attention of a broader audience.

Say what you found, not what you did. Statements about methods (we did this) can almost always be rephrased as statements about findings (we found this). It’s always more interesting to hear about results than methods, plus you’ll save on words.

Be explicit about the significance of the research. If you want to compel people to read your paper, don’t make them guess what your data mean. I think good abstracts always include a statement at the end about the significance of the work, the more specific the better.

Eliminate writing errors. When people are skimming text very quickly – as they are, of course, with abstracts – they tend to be even less patient than usual with writing errors and clunky, hard-to-decipher prose. So, make every effort to use good grammar, proper sentence structure and so on. Your abstract should carry readers along like a gently winding path. Making them hack through thickets of prose, on the other hand, will discourage them from taking the longer journey (i.e., reading your paper).

To summarize. To write an informative and interesting abstract: 1) State the problem; 2) Present your key findings (i.e., the main point), answering as you do how they address the problem; 3) State the overall significance of the research; 4) Provide background as needed, and make your writing as clear and accessible as possible.

September 1, 2009 at 2:12 pm Leave a comment

More tips for breaking up writer’s block

In my last post, I discussed two strategies for beating writer’s block: starting anywhere and brainstorming. These techniques for getting something, anything down on paper lead directly to my next strategy, which is…

Let it be crap. Too often when we write, the desire for perfection is hounding us. We expect the words in our head to flow onto the computer screen fully realized and shining with precision. After all, haven’t we thought about our research enough? Putting the words down should be easy.

Alas, it isn’t, not for nobody, no how – and yet, we cling to the possibility that we’ll be the first. That’s why I think perfectionism is the number one cause of writer’s block. It certainly is for me. I don’t want to see a bunch of awkward, stiff, embarrassing sentences dribble from my pen. I want excellence right off the bat, and if I can’t be excellent, then I sit and sweat, or get up and avoid the task altogether. It’s understandable – no one likes to witness a train wreck, least of all one of her own making. But being squeamish about making a mess also doesn’t get one very far.

So in the name of progress, let your writing be bad, bad, bad – as bad as it needs to be to get the job done. I’m not going to lie: This can be uncomfortable. But try to be okay with the discomfort; don’t run away. Then, once you’ve written some crap for a while, you’ll read it over, spot a few pearls in amongst all the tidal wrack, and start cleaning it up. You’ll rearrange, you’ll cut, you’ll rephrase, you’ll augment, and pretty soon, the entire piece will be much closer to pearly white.

Time yourself. When actor and filmmaker Woody Allen famously said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up,” he could easily have been talking about writing. In other words, if you can plunk yourself down at the keyboard for even a short period, often the words begin to flow on their own. So, make a deal with yourself to write for 10 minutes, 15 minutes, a half hour, every day. Then buy a timer and stick to it, even if on some days you do nothing more than stare into space.

I’m guessing that if you can get yourself to show up, you’ll end up writing for longer than your original time limit. But don’t count on it, especially if you’re really blocked. And tempting as it might be to increase the time period after a good day, keep to your original goal for at least a week, so that you don’t put too much pressure on yourself and burn out again. It’s like running. When you’re trying to motivate yourself to run regularly by sticking to a mere one to two miles per day, you don’t suddenly increase to five simply because of one good outing. You stay at one or two for awhile, because the point is just to keep heading out the door every day.

August 25, 2009 at 10:17 am Leave a comment

Don’t get stopped by writer’s block

“Writer’s block is inevitable. It may arrive like an uninvited visitor at the start of a project, or just when the writing was proceeding smoothly.”*

How true. For me, this state of mental paralysis typically sets in just as I’m starting out: I can’t decide how to begin. I’ve sat sometimes for hours with nothing to show for it but a few crippled sentences, all the while sweating over my deadline and fretting the assignment will never get done.

If this sounds familiar, you might analyze your thoughts the next time writer’s block strikes you. Something straightforward could be nagging you: You realize you need to write at home rather than in the lab, or that you should do another experiment before writing anything more. What’s often happening with me, however, is that I’m putting undue pressure on myself to create something beautiful or clever or in some other way perfect, while simultaneously telling myself that it’s never going to happen, that everything I write is clunky or dumb or boring. This is what I call my “self-conscious state.” Instead of just getting down to business – just doing it, as Nike says – I write for, say, one minute, and then spend the next 10 or 20 second-guessing what I’ve composed.

It’s a painful place to be in, of course. That’s why over the years I’ve developed strategies for breaking out of it as quickly as possible and into what I call my “unconscious state.” In this blissful place, the entire universe shrinks down to my computer screen, I develop a laser-focus on what I want to say, and – best of all – I forget all about myself as the writer. I’ve learned to do this primarily through writing on tight deadlines (you really can’t waste two hours getting started when you need to submit 700 polished words by 5 pm). Still, even when deadlines are longer and more fluid, the writing must get done. Here are some tactics for getting on with it.

Start anywhere. If I’m stuck (and even often when I’m not), I let myself start absolutely anywhere in a story. In the middle, at the end – whichever spot happens to capture my imagination at the moment. In the feature stories I write, for instance, the most compelling, enjoyable task is usually writing anecdotes, or mini-stories, about the people involved. So I often start with these bits as a way of entering the piece as a whole.

So, the next time you’re not getting anywhere, ask yourself: What could I get myself to write about today? Maybe you feel like describing the significance of a certain result, because you think it’s just so cool. Or maybe the methods appeal because they’re straightforward. Or perhaps you want to compose the background paragraphs for your introduction, because synthesizing information is one of your favorite writing tasks. Don’t get hung up on writing in a logical sequence – you can put all the pieces together later, trust me. Plus, the progress you make on these parts will make finishing the whole much less daunting.

Brainstorm. When I was uncertain how to start an article in the past, I used to compose one opener, and then anxiously tinker with it for a very long time, before finally throwing it out, writing another and starting the whole process over again. Talk about inefficient! Luckily, I’ve now learned to avoid all the drama and delay by purposely not deciding anything at first. That is, I quickly write three or four (or even five or six) different opening paragraphs, without passing judgment – that’s key. Through this process, one almost always emerges as the winner. But if not, I put them aside to read over later with fresh eyes.

So, not sure what a piece of data means or how to describe a certain figure you’ve created? Write down anything at all that comes to mind (remember: quickly and without passing judgment). Just dump out all the possibilities, even if they contradict one another. Then, let your words sit for a day or two, take another look and see what sticks. Who knows, you may even discover an important insight that would never have surfaced through a more controlled writing process. At the very least, you’ll have something written, which is the first step toward curing writer’s block.

Next, more ideas for putting the chop to writer’s block…

*Writing for scientific publication: Tips for getting started. A. Lin (2006) Clinical Pediatrics.

August 18, 2009 at 1:21 pm Leave a comment

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Science of Scientific Writing

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