Why is it so hard to write clearly? Is it because we don’t know what to say? Is it because we jettison all common sense when we write and try to adhere to some fancy form we imagine is sophisticated? Is it because we just throw any old word down right before the deadline and pass it along without review? Well, stop! I’m getting cranky about it.
The more you write, the more you will become interested in the actual craft of writing. There are tons of books and websites out there to help you. Some focus on clear grammar. Some focus on pared down writing. Others focus on how to put together a story, though they will call it a narrative. I read these books. I visit these websites. I think about my writing. I tweak some essays I write. Others I jettison because I have not discovered a story line that works.
Right now I’m thinking about writing because I just finished reading a packet of short proposals for undergraduate research from Wash U‘s SURF program. I also just read the monthly writing from my own group. Then I read a piece Jerry Coyne published in Why Evolution is True and one Dave Hillis linked to for scientists and journalists on Facebook from a meeting.
Writing well and easily is extremely important to a scientist. I think there are only two main difficulties that cause good people to fail at tenure: writing and collaborating.
Here are a few tips to get you going with the writing. (Tips on collaborating is a future topic.)
1. Learn the exact meaning and spelling of words and use them correctly. “All right” is two words. Utilize means use for a purpose other than the one the object was made for. “I used a fork to eat the salad, then utilized the fork to stab the cat.” Normally you will not be stabbing cats and so should not use “utilize.” If you are not sure which word to pick, choose “use.” Update: others say I’m wrong about utilize, so just skip using it.
2. Use parallel structure. This is a kindness to your readers who want to follow what you have to say, not do hopscotch over your complicated sentences.
3. Write short sentences in a logical order. I’ve seen sentences that have a whole paragraph of information in them. No sentence should take more than two lines. If you are a beginner, your sentences should be particularly short.
4. Use the active voice. “I kissed the cat.” is better than “The cat was kissed.” Did you get told not to use “I” in scientific writing back in high school? It is all right now, though there are other ways of writing in active voice. If you got told in introductory chemistry or biology labs that you should use the passive voice, consider it the sly revenge of the people that teach those classes and ignore the bad advice.
5. Do not use gerunds, verbs with -ing, very often. You are not doing the study right now. You did it in the past.
6. Your reader is impatient. Most readers will stop reading somewhere before the end of your piece. They might even stop in the middle of the first paragraph. Therefore you don’t get to set the scene with several paragraphs before you tell the reader why they need to know this stuff. But you want to write in a logical order, so this can be frustrating. I often write my piece the way I want to, then go back and look hard at it to see if I can move something more gripping to the beginning that will keep the reader’s attention for the back story.
7. Use transitions. They help the reader connect one thought to the next in the building of a story. Without transitions, you are giving the reader a bunch of blocks without telling her how they go together. She will not take the time for assembly.
8. Tell a story. Our brains are wired for stories. If we cannot make a story of a set of facts, we will not remember them. The aborigines remember their paths through the landscape with songs. You don’t have to be able to sing your work, but you should be able to make it a story.
9. Write the title and abstract first. Both may change, but a summary of the story can keep you focused. If you are not ready to write the abstract, you are not ready to write the paper. You may not even be ready to do the research.
10. Look back at your piece as you write it. Does it make sense? Are there whole paragraphs that can be moved or dumped? Is every sentence as clear as it might be?
11. Pay attention to work you read. How does this writer connect one idea to the next? What kinds of transitions does he use? How does she deal with the problem of when to give background information? If you want to study some really great scientific writing, pick up anything by Richard Dawkins.
12. Listen to scientific writing. This can help you understand how structure works to tell a story.
Have fun! Clear writing is hard to do.