Open Thread: Teaching & Learning to Write in Science

Feb 20 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

In science, our careers are judged by the written word - dissertations, papers, grants, reports...

Of course, you can't write a good paper without good data. Although you can perhaps present good data in the absence of good writing, but bad writing can detract and even confuse the data.

Yet, in my experience, writing is often not a formal training element in postbac science programs. In my program, formalized training consisted of one course, which met one hour a week for one semester. As I recall, we covered the basic structure of scientific papers, went over a couple of examples, wrote an abstract, edited classmates' abstracts, and did a round of revisions. As I mentioned previously, most of the learning process was on the ground training - "The time is upon us. Go forth and write."

The iterative write-edit-revise approach worked well enough for me. In part, it worked because my adviser and I communicated reasonably well. I picked up on and integrated preferences through rounds of revisions. In part, it worked because I was pretty comfortable writing. I performed well on writing assignments in high school and college, and writing was something I did in my spare time. The writing style was different, but I understood the basic mechanics and structure. It wasn't easy, per se, but was certainly doable.

Sometimes, though, writing is a struggle - from the perspectives of writer, reader, and mentor. What then? Likely no single approach works for every person, every time. It's good to have options.

What resources do you turn (writers) to? For example, some grad programs and career development offices run intensive writing workshops, self-paced courses, and peer editing.

As a writer, what do you do to improve your work? Do you rely on revisions from mentors or colleagues? Do you look for outside help? Do you hire a professional editor? I typically rely on edits from multiple people, and I prefer if one is representative of the audience to which I'm writing.

As an editor (in the broad sense, e.g. reviewing a trainee's or colleague's paper), how do you change someone else's writing? Do you make sweeping changes? Do you provide comments and leave it to the writer to change? Personally I find the former makes it a little to easy to transform someone's writing style to your own. With the exception of typographical or grammatical errors, I try to stick with comments and, if I keep repeating particular points, provide global feedback on the paper.

What are your tactics?

6 responses so far

  • My grad program (chemistry) has absolutely no scientific writing courses available. It is totally up to your adviser to teach you the ins and outs of writing, and most are more focused on the research rather than the writing. We're left to struggle through it alone with little guidance. It would be nice if all grad programs had a mandatory writing and communication course.

  • Scicurious says:

    I'm impressed that your program had something! Ours had nothing. You learned structure in journal club (though you were already supposed to know it), and everything else was just trial and error and try to write like the papers you read.

    When I edit now I try very hard to take a guiding approach, lots of things like explaining HOW things don't work and why, giving suggestions. I never correct anything, just comments. Seems to work better for people, or at least their papers improve drastically between assignments.

  • On early drafts, I will make broader comments on overall organization, paragraph structure, and stuff like that. Once it is properly structured, then I start closely editing all of the sentences on a word-by-work basis.

  • Bashir says:

    I am actually teaching science writing 1-on-1 to a UG student this semester. I'm not sure what my approach is. I basically I'm trying to replicate what my graduate advisor did for me. Of course that was over years, and involved a lot of practice. Right now I'm trying to mix up comments at different levels and get into how to write a paragraph that flows well. It's a very interesting experience and I have no idea if it will go well.

    My undergrad had a multistage writing requirement, that at the time seemed pretty onerous. Grad had nothing required but we did have a writing center. It was great but underused by science students.

  • biochembelle says:

    Joan Strassman has a recent post describing a writing workshop that her daughter ran in Memphis for grad students.

  • Catherine says:

    As an editor (and thus usually editing someone else's writing), I think a lot about striking a balance between making sure the authors have their voice and making sure the logic and conclusions of the work are as clear and compelling as possible. A second priority is to be as concise as possible without obscuring the subtleties of the work. Sometimes general comments get the point across; sometimes it's easier to go in and edit the document directly; it totally depends on the author.

    One thing I've been thinking about a little is that we often talk about research papers as 'stories', but people don't often do a good job of setting the stage (who are the characters) and drawing people in to a real story (what is the plot? What is the motivation?). Of course, I wouldn't want to read papers that are too literal of an interpretation of this idea, but I think scientists could often do a better job of bringing their work to life.

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