I haven’t had very much real formal science writing instruction, relying mainly on what I’ve picked up doing a lot of reading. So I was really excited to be able to take this free writing course through my school. And I want to share some of what I learn with you all if people are interested. Today I just wanted to give a video introduction on some of the main forms of writing you may need to do as a scientist. And then in the text I will give a bit of an overview of my approach to writing. Later I plan to make posts covering more technical details and tips for science writing. 

The main types of science writing you might encounter and have to write as a scientist include:

  • papers (journal articles)
  • abstracts (brief summaries of papers and/or posters)
  • grants/fellowship applications
  • thesis/dissertation
  • stuff for a “general audience”

Speaking of a “general audience” – one of the things I’ve found is that it’s much harder to explain things simply than it is to explain things in a complicated manner. In part because the more you simplify things, the more “careful” you have to be to not give the “wrong idea” because you can’t give all the context and nuance that your brain is itching to include. Another “in part because…” is that, once you’re so deep into the science, it can get really hard to know what “most people” know and what only those of us fortunate to have had an extensive specialized education and years in the field know. And when people say “general audience” they can really mean different things (such as a “scientific audience” – people with a strong science background just not in your field) making things confusing. 

side note: please try not to say “as everyone knows…” because it can make people who don’t know feel bad. I know that some people say it because they don’t want people to think they’re talking down to the audience or anything – but always err on the side of providing too much of the simple stuff so everyone can follow along, and don’t feel like you have to justify that with saying that you know everyone knows. I think it’s a bad habit that it’s easy to fall into, especially when you’re starting out and insecure, but it can be really hard for trainees to hear when big wig scientists say it and you don’t know what they say everyone knows. 

Speaking of hard – It can be hard for me to switch back and forth between my fun writing style and the formal scientific writing style. I’ve had a couple embarrassing occasions when I didn’t switch enough and got told my supposed-to-be-all-serious writing was too informal and/or conversational. 

What gets even trickier is that we’re taught to simplify our language and use the active voice (e.g. we purified the protein instead of the protein was purified). Using active voice makes it easier for the audience to quickly understand who is doing what and what happens because of that (subject, action, & consequences). And it often uses fewer words with less clutter and more clarity. 

But, growing up, we kinda got the impression that writing in dense passive voice made you sound more “scientific” and formal. I remember purposely writing like that throughout school to sound sciencey and smart. Also utilizing – er, I mean using – longer, more complicated words that mean the same thing as simple ones. And I’ve seen people do this in applications I’ve looked over as well, so I know I’m not alone. There definitely seems to be a disconnect between what’s officially taught and what’s practiced…

I still catch myself falling into the “write to sound smart” trap when I’m editing. And speaking of editing… I really hate editing my own stuff – in part because I usually am exhausted after finishing it and just really don’t want to look at it any more – and in part because my perfectionism kicks in and then I can never get it good enough. So it’s a lot more freeing not to try for perfection (so sorry for all my typos and stuff!)

That works okay for my informal bloggy stuff (and is soooo freeing!), but when it comes to “real” science writing, I do editing, and editing, and editing, and editing…

When I write and edit, I typically save drafts with the date and then the next day I resave with that date and the next day… this way if I make changes I end up not liking I can go back. And, importantly, I can add back in things that I had cut out. I have to do a lot of cutting out because I’ve always been one of those people who finds maximum page/word limits much harder than the minimums – when other people where increasing spacing and don’t sizes I was shrinking them to try to squeeze more in. My mom likes to tell the story of how we were assigned to write a report on an animal of our choice and I wrote a report on an animal for every letter of the alphabet…

I typically start out with a word dump just to get my ideas down without worrying about format or grammar or anything but then I have to cut a lot down and polish things up. I really really hate that part – I’m also one of those people who as a kid in school would do 99% of a project as soon as it was assigned and then, right before the due date, realize I’d never actually finished it… 

On a related note; the reason I did that whole A to Z animals thing was because I finished the first one right away and needed more to do. I finished it so quickly because even then, I had this tendency to work in spurts of “inspiration” and productivity. I think I might be more flow-prone than other people – I seem to enter the flow state a lot – especially when I’m writing. The rest of the world fades away and the words and thoughts just flow. Then I snap out of it, often exhausted – and definitely not in the mood to edit… When editing is necessary, I find it really helpful to sleep on it and approach it with fresh eyes. Even then it’s really hard to edit my own stuff because I tend to read it how I intended it even if that’s not how I actually wrote it – it’s so hard to catch your own typos! It’s also hard to “give up” parts you like even though it’s for the better. I just get really attached to my work – especially when I’ve spent a ton of time on it. And I’ve had some really rough experiences being told my stuff is too long and I need to cut it down before anyone would even look at it. So then struggling to trim it down and worrying I cut out important stuff but no one would ever know…

That’s all for today. Let me know if you want more science writing posts.

more on thesis writing: http://bit.ly/thesisfun

more on journal articles: http://bit.ly/averyarticle & http://bit.ly/openaccesspreprints

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