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):
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!