One of my many duties at work is to help the students learn how to write scientific manuscripts. Once in a while it really is just proof-reading and suggesting stylistic changes. Unfortunately, most of the time it makes me turn into the old biddy who claims that back in the mystical days of my youth, we knew how to write scientific papers. I don’t tell the students this, of course. Nonetheless, it seems odd that they’ve been reading scientific papers for several years and somehow still be so bad at writing them.
I’ve never taken a scientific writing class, or even a college writing class. Nonetheless, I’m fairly good at it, although I am the first to admit that it can be slow and painful at times. I have my weaknesses, including a fairly terse style, a tendency towards overly brief introductions and discussions, and a lack of self-promotion. I picked up most of these bad habits from my graduate advisor.* Anyway, I learned the same way everyone learns. I picked up the general style from reading papers and theses. When I wrote my first paper, I gave it to a few friends to critique, and then gave it to my advisor to read. He returned the manuscript with a bunch of changes – I was kind of traumatized by how many there were, but my friends told me this was normal. Now that I am on the other end of the process, I realize that it was only minor stylistic changes – when a manuscript needs a lot of changes it’s all but impossible to write down all the corrections in the margins and space between the lines, or return it as fast as he did. Subsequent papers required fewer changes.
Anyway, now that I’m on the other side of the process, I don’t get a lot of manuscripts which can be quickly edited by hand using only the space available in the margins/double spacing. Sometimes it makes me want to tear my hair out. The most common problem is wording things the exact same way as it would be described verbally in a presentation. The other common mistake is to be too verbose, too often.
Like poetry, scientific writing has its own pentameter. With students who are fairly good writers but are novices at scientific writing, it’s relatively easy to teach. These are not the students who make me want to tear my hair out. Anyway, I describe what the general problem is and we go over a paragraph or two and discuss how I would reword it, and then I have them practice for little while and help them when they get stuck. Eventually, they pick up the cadence and conventions of it and then go edit the rest of their paper. However, other students just don’t catch on easily, and the above approach is mostly useless. They just keep on doing the same sort of things, even after multiple manuscripts. They end up with lots of corrections from me and their labmates, and get frustrated, especially when everyone comes in with slightly different corrections.
I suspect that they think I am trying to make them write like me, but that’s not it. If it’s well written, I will mostly leave it alone, even if I would’ve written it very differently. In the end, it’s all about telling a story about the science and not distracting people with bad writing or a disorganized or confusing paper. If you get those things down, no one even notices your writing style. My boss and I have different writing styles, but when we write proposals or papers we don’t end up making very many stylistic changes on each other’s sections. It looks surprisingly seamless.
* You may notice that I am pretty verbose in my blogs and emails – I change my writing style according to what I write. I am still pretty weak on conclusions, though.