Tuesday, October 13, 2009

There's hope for you yet

Just finished reading a somewhat fatalistic post over at FSP about teaching science writing (and whether it can be taught).

One particular comment caught my eye, and I wanted to write a long response so I will copy that comment here (with apologies to the author, but hopefully my response will make it worthwhile):

Anonymous said...

Oh it would be so super helpful to get some tips on how to get a grip on all this writing.
If people have any suggestions on good books to teach yourself writing..... it would be grand to share those.

I am just in the process of writing / correcting my thesis and it is all done, but according to my supervisor, the quality of the writing (not the analysis) is not so good. And I need to seriously work on this because I will fail if I cannot manage to make myself understandable to other people.... (I know she has a point, but sometimes it is hard to improve, especially since the rest of our department is a bit more laissez-faire and never gives critical feedback) :(

I think for me it is not the grammar and the writing as such. But the following points:

1) What are the exact words/expressions one should use - I seem to memorize the broad concepts and the full story rather than single definitions and their respective relations. My brain just seems more wired like that, so it is sometimes hard to translate from one "language" to the other.

2) One of the main points of my supervisor is that I try to cramp to much information into one sentence or half sentence. I should rather keep it clear and short instead of crowded and too challenging.
The reason for this is (I think): I very often feel that what I did was fully trivial and not really that interesting. So that basically everybody would just be able to glance over it and think: "oh, yeah, sure, easy, so what is your point?". By cramping stuff in, I try to prove, that I actually do know my stuff.

3) And sometimes I am just helpless in separating the relevant bits from the not so relevant bits. Discussing the stuff with other people would help and actually does help, but only if I am not under major stress (because they are important people, because there is only little time, because I am having a major self-confidence crisis) :(

4) also, because I feel I should be able to do it just like that, I probably also spend far too little time on structuring and writing well formulated sentences than I should.... (well my fault really).


I'm going to start by saying, this comment is written very clearly. You got your points across very well. So I think you have all the right tools. Also, this comment really resonated with me because you sound a bit like me when I was a grad student.

1. What are the exact words/expressions one should use - I seem to memorize the broad concepts and the full story [...] so it is sometimes hard to translate from one "language" to the other.

I had this same problem, and sometimes have it even now (and probably always will).

The truth is, if you're working on something relatively established, then yes there is specific language, and it is used a certain way by convention. You can learn this by reading papers in your field. Many of the comments on FSPs site were spot-on with this kind of advice. I particularly liked the suggestion to pick a few good papers in your field and dissect them.

But if you are working on something new, or if you are on the edge of something old and venturing into something new, you might find examples of things that are poorly defined. In those cases, multiple people use the same words, but they are sloppy about it. That is confusing for you as a reader, and very confusing if you want to write about these things but you are not exactly sure what to call them.

I ran into this during my thesis work. I was working on something that had a name. It was very well established, so it was in the textbooks with this name and diagrams, etc. But as it turned out, nobody agreed on what that name meant at the molecular level.

It turns out that the secret to science writing is also the secret to science reading: most people are taught to avoid, at all costs, ever mentioning where their work raises more questions than it answers.

So if something is not known, we are taught to NEVER say at the end of the results section of a paper:"this is still not known and will require further investigation". That is the kiss of death if you want your work published!

We are also taught to NEVER say in the results section of a paper "this is controversial."

So if you really want to know what has been done and what hasn't, you have to learn to pay attention to what is NOT said. You have to figure out what was NOT DONE. What was NOT SHOWN?

It's part of human cognition that we fill in gaps using intuition. The trick is to get enough distance to know the difference between assumptions and testable hypotheses.

Also, another thing you might try that works well for me, is going back in time.

Go back to what you thought before you started your project - because it changed as you went along. "Before" is where you audience is. They don't know what you know.

I find it helpful to go back and ask myself that eternal question in a very serious way: what was I thinking when I started this project?

For my thesis, I had to take a step back, review the old data that came before my project, and decide:

a) what was really known before
b) what was really not spelled out about the missing bits
c) what do I know now that can help me fill in the missing bits
d) how do I say that clearly.

Note that the hard part comes BEFORE the "saying it clearly." I always say the hardest part of writing is the deciding.

This brings me to the next point you bring up.

2. By cramping stuff in, I try to prove, that I actually do know my stuff.

We intuitive types tend to make what others call "logical leaps" (I can tell from what you wrote that you are like me in this regard).

We have to learn how to slow down and spell things out, precisely because they are so obvious to us.

The secret here is: these "obvious" things are not obvious to most people. And you are probably making connections that others have not really made. It's hard to see this when you're inside your own head, so the only way I've found to get out of this trap is to take several steps back.

Students tend to assume that when you write as a professional, grownup scientist, you are writing for the other experts in your field. But this is almost never the case! The best scientists are always writing for experts in OTHER fields. Think about it this way: there are not enough people in your field for them all to serve on a study section dedicated only to your little subject area. No. Most of your grants will be reviewed by people who work on something else!

With that in mind, think of the audience for all of your scientific writing as other smart people who took the basic four AP/college-level science courses (intro bio, intro chem, intro physics, and calculus). That's about the common ground we have across fields.

So you don't have to spell out absolutely all the basics, but almost. I think at the beginning it is helpful to practice spelling out every single thing, if nothing else than to name the assumptions YOU are making, about what is obvious, and what is really known.

Yes, at the beginning you will feel like you are writing for 5th graders. Like you are writing a dictionary. You will feel as if you are being condescending. You will get over this feeling, but it might last a while. At the beginning, you are just aiming to be clear and not get ahead of yourself. It will be boring, and you will want to jump ahead. But you have to make yourself do it without skipping any steps. You know if you randomly skip steps in a protocol that your experiments don't work, right? It's the same thing with writing.

Eventually, as you become more practiced, you'll be more comfortable with thinking of it this way: you're writing for new grad students.

You want them to see why you like your topic, and why what you did is cool. It has to be accessible enough for them to understand it without looking up every reference you cite.

And it is good to over-write, at least in the first "vomit" draft. Write EVERYTHING at the beginning. That is what editing is for. Which brings me to your next point (which I am separating into 2 parts for clarity!).

3a. And sometimes I am just helpless in separating the relevant bits from the not so relevant bits. Discussing the stuff with other people would help and actually does help

Yes. This is where giving lab meetings is good. But if you don't get to do this very often, or don't want to do it yet, there are other ways to get where you want to go.

Talking to strangers about your project is great practice. And when I say strangers, I mean people on the subway. People you meet in the waiting room outside the dentist's office. Random people. Also, talking to friends from home who are not scientists is really useful.

You will find that even people who initially sound excited when you say you are a scientist get bored really fast, so you have to get to your point quickly and sound exciting (!), and/or you have to make a simple analogy with something in daily life. Even the most obscure things can be explained by a cute analogy.

Even if you can't use your cute analogy in a Very Formal Written Document, it is a useful exercise for focusing your thinking.

For example, for my work I have the "please ask me more" accessible answer, and the "please don't ask me more" inaccessible answer. I use them depending on my mood.

So if I want to be friendly and show what a generous martyr I am:

Me: "I work on X disease (which affects your grandmother and killed your cat last year)"
Them: "Really! What exactly do you do?"

If I want people to leave me alone:

Me: "I work on bloggedy-ology thing you've never heard of" and I make no effort to explain what that is.
Them: "Oh" (and then walk away).

So you see what I mean? The same thing happens with writing. You want people to understand enough that they feel engaged and want to know the answers to the obvious questions (which you fed them)!

So this "talking to strangers" exercise will help you answer the following questions:

1. What is the coolest thing I did in science
2. Why should anybody care
3. What is the one thing I want them to remember when I am done talking about this

Even better is to explain it to someone, say a non-scientist or a younger student (undergrads are great for this!) and then listen to them explain it to a third person.

Yes, it will be awkward and probably comical at first. But it will help you understand how to teach your subject, which is essentially what you're doing when you write about it.

You are teaching what you did, why it is cool, why they should care, and what is the take-home message.

You just happen to be doing it on paper in a relatively stylized and potentially soon-to-be-outdated format. ;-)

3b. but only if I am not under major stress (because they are important people, because there is only little time, because I am having a major self-confidence crisis)

Okay, this is a separate issue. Who are these so-called "important people"? Don't talk to them yet.

Like I said, find other people. Talk to your family, your dog, your neighbor. Talk to a tree. Seriously. I always practice my talks alone before I give them, and I always talk about my work before I write it up. This means my laptop monitor has heard a lot of my random babbling (and it still loves me! Awww).

It also means I get a lot of my awkwardness out before I talk to real people, especially before I talk to important people.

You think articulate people are always articulate? No way, no how. The best speakers and writers I know all practice, practice, practice what they will say, and they edit how they will say it.

Then, when you get some of that precious quality time with Important People, you won't be shy because you'll be well-rehearsed and comfortable talking about your work in a succinct little soundbite (theoretically, anyway).

4. also, because I feel I should be able to do it just like that, I probably also spend far too little time on structuring and writing well formulated sentences than I should.... (well my fault really).

This is not really how it's done. The best, most efficient writers I know all do a "vomit" draft, written conversationally just like you wrote this comment. Just the way you would talk to a friend.

Then you go back and see if the logic makes any sense. See if you skipped over things and didn't spell them out.

Then you go back and spell everything out.

Then you go back and see if all the missing bits are really filled in, or if you missed a few more. And then you fill those in.

At the VERY END, you go back and work on re-structuring your sentences.

But plan on several rounds of drafts and editing, editing and drafts.

Structuring your sentences will not help with the overall organization if you're getting ahead of yourself and not spelling things out. Gotta see the forest for the trees. Then you come back later and fill in the veins on the leaves.

Oh, and one final point, now that I've droned on and on and on.

There are many kinds of writers, but it is VERY hard to find good editors. If your advisor is saying "not so good", that is not constructive feedback. That is vague, negative criticism without specific suggestions for how to improve!

Personally, I am on the warpath against these PIs who think that re-writing every sentence is "teaching". ARGH!

There are some good books about how to be your own best editor, so I recommend starting there. Also, consider asking some other not-too-important but friendly people to give you feedback about where you're making sense and where you are going off on tangents.

There endeth the lecture. Go forth and scribble!

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7 Comments:

At 5:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good post. However...

So if something is not known, we are taught to NEVER say at the end of the results section of a paper: "this is still not known and will require further investigation". That is the kiss of death if you want your work published!

I say this all the time in my published work. This is code for: "I'm working on this already, so you should stay away from competing with me here." This statement is also a subtle request for future funding in the specific future directions area.

The other reason to say this is that it gives an excellent lead-in to your next paper. Paper 1: Here are the results of x. If only we knew the results of y... Paper 2: here are the results of y! If only we knew the results of z... etc.

Also useful if the reviewers ask for more work that you don't want to do. You write back, "Reviewer 1 has an excellent suggestion for future studies which we are actively pursuing, however, we feel these studies are beyond the scope of this current manuscript." Then you put your nod to the reviewer in the main text by suggesting further investigation in the area. (Trust me, this works.)

We are also taught to NEVER say in the results section of a paper "this is controversial."

I agree with this advice. :)

 
At 7:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The best way to "teach" yourself how to write is to critically read the literature. Then critically read your own work. Then, ask yourself, "Does my writing fit with what is published in the top tier journals in my field?"
It's a process but it seems to be more of a leap than a gradual process. It doesn't help when your confidence is low but tell yourself that you kick ass. Because you actually HAVE something to write about and something to say and give to science. The confidence thing is paramount and usually at it's lowest when writing your dissertation/thesis (well, also when you are a postdoc but don't want to make you more depressed). At some point you take yourself out of "student" mode and enter "scientist" mode and maybe just start changing how you view yourself - it will happen.

Find another peer that has good writing skills and get help from them. Sometimes it is simple like not using a bunch of "ings". Good luck!

 
At 10:21 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 5:52,

I wrote that because it has NEVER worked for me. I'm just saying. The editor says you have to do EVERYTHING the reviews suggest, no matter how inane, irrelevant, expensive, time-consuming, or un-doable. There is no "yeah thanks we'll do that next time." There is only "this is not suitable for publication in our journal, try somewhere else."

Anon 7 AM,

The top tier journal writing in my field is often not good at all. So I don't recommend doing that. I prefer older ("classic") papers.

However, I like the rest of what you wrote. =D

 
At 11:49 AM, Blogger Rosiecat said...

I've been lurking around your blog for some time, but now that I'm a postdoc (PHEW! Made it!), I want to say hello!

I like a lot of the advice you suggest here. It's true that introducing the basics of the field is key to steering your argument toward the cool findings that you've uncovered. But the key is to STEER the argument: make sure that everything you mention has a purpose and that it's not just a regurgitation of facts. I practically have conversations with myself about this: "I need to tell them about X because X is part of the hypothesis we used to generate Y result."

I was lucky that my graduate PI taught me how to structure scientific arguments, but I wonder if a good persuasive writing course could teach scientists how to do this? Really, that's what we're trying to do in our science writing: persuade the audience that we have something novel and interesting to say.

Your point about practice, practice, practice is a piece of advice I got as a grad student from another grad student. It remains one of the best pieces of advice I've ever received. Also, tapping into peer networks for critical feedback can be incredibly useful. That's exactly what I did to practice my job talk, and it made a HUGE difference in the quality of my talk. It fits well with what you said about writing for experts in other fields: your science friends understand the structure of science talks, and they are in a great position to tell you what works and what doesn't. They'll find holes that you don't even know exist ;-)

 
At 1:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good advice. :)

For what it's worth, I agree with Anon 5:52. I routinely say in the discussion that "future studies will be needed to further elucidate" blah blah blah...it not only means "stay away; i'm already doing this" but to me it tells reviewers, "Yes, i *do* realize that the research totally begs the question...I just don't want to put that in this manuscript."

 
At 3:04 PM, Blogger FrauTech said...

Just wanted to thank you for the very well thought out post. I can see so much of this being important in non-research writing as well. How long do you think it took you to get to this point, or did you always have decent/intuitive writing skills?

 
At 8:01 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Rosiecat, Absolutely. Persuasive writing course, steering. Right on.

FrauTech,

According to my parents, no. If you ask them, I was always a terrible writer. Hence my amusement that I not only have a blog and a few published papers, but some people seem to actually read and understand things I wrote. ;-)

Seriously though, I think a light-bulb went on when I was writing my thesis and reading several books about scientific writing and writing in general.

Even still, I had a good editor helping me at that point, and it took me several more years and another teacher to feel confident giving talks and being able to organize a coherent, engaging, memorable story.

Writing-wise, I don't know if I'm really there yet. I understand much better what to do, and what kinds of mistakes I tend to make. It doesn't stop me from making them in early drafts, but at least now I know what to look for and generally how to fix it.

I still prefer to do things that way, though: messy first draft, followed by fixing. I don't know if the first drafts are any better than they ever were, but the fixing has definitely improved! I used to rely totally on other people's editing, and I no longer think that is necessarily the only or best way to revise.

 

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