Academic scientific writing: how?
January 7, 2010 5:00 PM   Subscribe

Help me improve my academic scientific writing skills.

For last few days, I have been trolling through the web for the tips to improve my scientific academic writing (think journal papers, grant proposals, etc.). As a goal of this year, I want to not only improve my writing skills, but also want to be able to start enjoying it. This is crucial, as the writing—good and prolific writing, that is—is going to be a crucial part of the my academic career as a faculty at a large research-intensive university.

I found many tips, many of them quite worthwhile. For example:
1. Before being able to write good, you have to know what stands for good writing. So, naturally read classics as much you can.
2. Organize your writing, outline extensively, etc.
3. There are many wonderful books out there about scientific writing.
3. Develop a habit of writing. Write something each day at the same time.

While these tips are all great, I am having a hard time putting them in practice. For example, as a researcher, I do not have something to write about everyday. The research projects start with digging up the literature, then doing actual experiments, then writing about it, again going back to doing more experiments, and then again writing about it. So naturally, for 80% of the lifetime of the project, I really have nothing to write about it. So at that time, what do I write about?

Can writing anything constitute a part of daily writing routine? Anything is okay, for example, writing answers to AskMeFi posts?

Or am I just being a lazy bum waiting for the topics to actually write about?
posted by coolnik to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
I've found that teaching helps me a lot. Finding the mistakes in other peoples' work and pointing them out tactfully has improved my own work - you can read your own stuff like it's a student's, particularly if you're far enough away from deadline to be able to stick it in a drawer for a few days before re-reading.

Another thing that I think has helped my writing generally is producing articles for non-experts, for uni newsletters, websites, technical magazines, or whatever. But if you're forced to write for the general public about what you're doing, you have to work out the story for yourself and express it much quicker. I've also got a few friends who exchange writing with me and we are fairly open about opinions; pretty much nothing goes out the door unless someone else has seen it. They always spot something.
posted by handee at 5:08 PM on January 7, 2010

Yeah yeah and proof reading. Please delete the "But" para 2 sentence 2.
posted by handee at 5:17 PM on January 7, 2010

Great resolution and decision!

I don't know if reading the classics would help with academic writing. If anything, literary writing works the opposite of academic writing in terms of clarity and style of prose.

One good way to get more practice would be to do more of your writing academically. What I mean is, when you write a report for work you have done or you write to any audience anything related to your field or your work, you can just write it academically, with sections, proper referencing and captions for any visuals, and references. I do that even for the 1 page summries of how my week went that I put together for my informal meeting with my professor.
posted by i2d2 at 5:41 PM on January 7, 2010

I'll add that you should get feedback from your peers. If you're starting a career as a faculty member, ask a few people in your department to read through your grants or papers and give you feedback. They've been around the block, sit on study sections, etc and will be able to give you insight into what you're doing well and what needs improvement.
posted by chrisamiller at 5:43 PM on January 7, 2010

Improving your writing skills comes from reading good writers. Classics aren't necessarily an example of good writing, especially if you want to start enjoying it! I'd recommend such writers as Somerset Maugham and P.G. Wodehouse as light, excellent examples of good writing.

As a scientist, you may also appreciate reading some of Richard Feynman's work.

As for daily writing, off the top of my head, I'd say keeping a journal would be something to get practice with. Your daily writing probably mostly consists of keeping an extensive lab notebook (one would hope). Writing a journal, however, whether electronically (blog) or otherwise, is enjoyable in the sense that you record your own thoughts, events and activities. The most fun is going back to what you wrote and laughing/ thinking about it. Initially, you may find it a chore if you don't like writing too much, but force yourself to do it and you will find it addictive.
posted by Everydayville at 5:54 PM on January 7, 2010

It's important to remember that what makes scientific writing good is deeply different from what makes writing on AskMeFi, or writing in a newspaper, or writing in a novel good. The skills you have in the latter domain will carry over into your scientific papers, but only a little. You certainly should read the classics, but they should be papers in your field that are classics of lucid, precise, constrained writing. In my field, mathematics, I would say "Read lots of Serre" -- ask a senior colleague in your own field what the analogy is.

Writing all the time is a great idea, too. Nowadays, when I'm hashing out new ideas, I just open up a document and start writing about it, as if I were just going ahead and starting the paper. So practically every day I'm physically typing a document that has the structure and form of a math paper.
posted by escabeche at 5:54 PM on January 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

This article called The Science of Scientific Writing from American Scientist is excellent -- it breaks down Science writing in a very straightforward way and doesn't blind you with a bunch of gerund this or participle that. I've given it to a number of my graduate students and I think it has been helpful.
posted by Rumple at 5:59 PM on January 7, 2010 [8 favorites]

daily writing routine
When you're doing your lit review, write your own summaries for the sources. Abstracts for the articles, reviews for books. Not only do you practice writing, you get the literature deeper into your memory (this is my biggest problem.)

Other comments and quibbles:
- Okay, on point, 1, it's before you can write WELL, but mostly, I disagree - readng classics (I assume you meant in your field) has nothing to do with writing new classics. Reading literature has nothing to do with writing science.
- But, if you read something relevant and respond to it in a "oooh! zing!" way, cut it out, keep it.
- I second the first response by handee about writing for laypeople.
- Also, peer review is a huge help.
- When doing said peer review, reading aloud can help you identify awkward phrasing and unclear arguments.
posted by whatzit at 6:00 PM on January 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm a science/medical writer. To me, science writing in journals and grants constitutes persuasive technical writing. Here are a couple of points that have helped me:

-Find a skilled editor (i.e. writing mentor) who will take the time to completely edit your work. This is the most useful way to become a better science writer.
-Use the most appropriate words for what you are trying to say. For example, if X happened for a greater period of time than Y. You could use one of the following three examples: "X occurred longer than Y", "X occurred for a longer duration than Y", or "X occurred for a greater duration than Y". The 3rd one is correct because "longer" implies length and time has no length. Science writing has a ton of these rules (<> -Make what you say be as succinct and streamlined as possible without being a data dump. You are conveying technical information to a technically-minded audience; however, we are all human and appreciate guidance through the content with brevity, diagrams, and figures.
-Read the style guidelines for the journals of interest in your branch of science.
-This is a lifelong lesson that we all could be better at. Tell a story that you, as a scientist, think will be important to convey and that you think other scientists will appreciate. Write with vigor and confidence, but temper it with objective reasoning.
posted by surfgator at 6:25 PM on January 7, 2010

One thing that has helped me improve my scientific writing a lot is doing tons of drafts. Instead of spending hours agonizing over crafting the best paper possible, I just write it to get it done. As soon as I finish, I save it as draft 1, open it back up, track changes, make edits, and save it as draft 1 edits. Then I open it up, accept all changes, and start on draft 2.

This way, I can see how the piece of writing evolves over time. For some papers, I've had as many as 20 drafts. Instead of trying to write something great all at once, I do it as a more protracted process. It takes me about the same amount of time, and I can observe the process better.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 6:33 PM on January 7, 2010

I've found that reading more papers, and trying to analyse why I like/dislike them, has helped me quite a lot. It allows me to see what good writing actually looks like and gives me something to emulate. For example, I now know that author X writes in short sentences that are terribly irritating, while author Y writes in long-winded, laboured, sentences that usually fail to explain a technique clearly. For grant applications in particular it would certainly pay to get hold of a few successful ones and emulate their style. I'm sure people in your department would be happy to let you read theirs.

Once you've figured out what constitutes good writing, regularly reading (and commenting on) other peoples work-in-progress is also extremely helpful. I find it much easier to be critical of other people's writing than of my own because I haven't invested so much in it. In my research group we have weekly meetings where members take turns to present their work, pass round drafts of manuscripts for critique etc. We all learn from the feedback of the group. Perhaps this is something you can instigate. It can be a bit stressful exposing yourself to criticism. However, you'll get criticism at some stage anyway (e.g. via peer review) and it's better to get it earlier, than later when it might be accompanied by a rejection letter!

Another thing you could consider is blogging. It's not my cup of tea, but a few friends of mine have started writing a collaborative science blog. They tell me that it has helped their writing no end. If you're shy about exposing your work to the general public you can always make it private, and simply use it as a record charting your rapidly improving writing skills.

In terms of quality control of your writing, you would probably find it useful to have a short lag between writing and submission to public scrutiny. What I do is write an article, or section of an article, until I'm vaguely happy with it. Then I leave it for a week and come back to it afresh. When I read through it after a break like this it is much easier to spot things that can be improved. After this first stage I'm happy to pass it on for colleagues to scrawl red pen over.

Specifically, to my mind, good scientific writing depends primarily on two factors. The most important of these is structure: your writing must be presented in a logical order. I find that beginning with a bullet-pointed outline helps a great deal, as does writing the article up first as (say) a 20min talk. The latter technique forces you to ruthlessly strip out all the superfluous details that can detract from your main message. Secondly, after structure, clarity is king: avoid jargon, be concise, and be consistent with terminology. My former employer has some advice specifically for writing grant applications here [pdf].

I think that these techniques generally become easier the more you write, so the best advice is undoubtedly to write as much as you can, and not stress too much about it. Just get the information on the page, it doesn't matter if your first draft is crap. It's much easier to edit something into shape than it is to write it in the first place.

Uggh! This long-winded post would probably not pass my normally exacting standards, but it's late, and I've just finished my 3rd glass of wine.
posted by jonesor at 6:38 PM on January 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

For example, as a researcher, I do not have something to write about everyday.

Writeups in your lab notebook? A friend used to use their lab notebook as practice for a career in Regulatory Affairs, by detailing everything as clearly and concisely as possible.
posted by benzenedream at 7:42 PM on January 7, 2010

There is a strong argument that you should start writing the 'Scientific Publication' at the same time you start the 'Scientific Project,' as opposed to your supposition that you should wait until the experiment is 'done' before you start writing.

This argument is soundly advanced by Harvard Chemist George Whitesides, in a paper titled simply, Writing a Paper. [pdf]

Don't wait until your boss tells you to start writing, just start writing.
posted by u2604ab at 7:45 PM on January 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Darn; Didn't preview and didn't encode the link right. Try this LINK. [pdf]
posted by u2604ab at 7:47 PM on January 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you're in the social sciences, I would recommend reading "Writing for Social Scientists" and "How to Write a lot" by Paul J Sylvia. The latter quite literally talks about "how" by keeping track of your word count etc.
posted by iNfo.Pump at 8:25 AM on January 18, 2010

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