The art of writing science

The art of writing science by Kevin W. Plaxco

From the post:

The value of writing well should not be underestimated. Imagine, for example, that you hold in your hand two papers, both of which describe precisely the same set of experimental results. One is long, dense, and filled with jargon. The other is concise, engaging, and easy to follow. Which are you more likely to read, understand, and cite? The answer to this question hits directly at the value of good writing: writing well leverages your work. That is, while even the most skillful writing cannot turn bad science into good science, clear and compelling writing makes good science more impactful, and thus more valuable.

The goal of good writing is straightforward: to make your reader’s job as easy as possible. Realizing this goal, though, is not so simple. I, for one, was not a natural-born writer; as a graduate student, my writing was weak and rambling, taking forever to get to the point. But I had the good fortune to postdoc under an outstanding scientific communicator, who taught me the above-described lesson that writing well is worth the considerable effort it demands. Thus inspired, I set out to teach myself how to communicate more effectively, an effort that, some fifteen years later, I am still pursuing.

Along the way I have learned a thing or two that I believe make my papers easier to read, a few of which I am pleased to share with you here. Before I share my hard-won tips, though, I have an admission: there is no single, correct way to write. In fact, there are a myriad of solutions to the problem of writing well (see, e.g., Refs.1–4). The trick, then, is not to copy someone else’s voice, but rather to study what works—and what does not—in your own writing and that of others to formulate your own guide to effective communication. Thus, while I present here some of my most cherished writing conventions (i.e., the rules that I force on my own students), I do not mean to imply that they represent the only acceptable approach. Indeed, you (or your mentor) may disagree strongly with many of the suggestions I make below. This, though, is perfectly fine: my goal is not to convince you that I have found the one true way, but instead simply to get people thinking and talking about writing. I do so in the hope that this will inspire a few more young scientists to develop their own effective styles.

The best way to get the opportunity to do a great presentation for Balisage 2018 is to write a great paper for Balisage 2018. A great paper is step one towards being accepted and having a chance to bask in the admiration of other markup geeks.

OK, so it’s not so much basking as trying to see by star light on a cloudy night.

Still, a great paper will impress the reviewers and if accepted, readers when it appears in the proceedings for this year.

Strong suggestion: Try Plaxco’s first sentence of the paragraph test on your paper (or any you are reviewing). If if fails, start over.

I volunteer to do peer review for Balisage so I’m anticipating some really well-written papers this year.

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