What makes a great scientist? Part 7: Good writing and revising skills

Actual example of a tracked-changes ms I returned to Ester

The ability to convey cool ideas, exciting results and cunning interpretations is a MUST for great scientists. The best science is “pointless” if no one hears about it (and best science can make a difference!). From a practical perspective, it is difficult to find funds to do that best science if you cannot convince others it is “best”. This conveying and convincing often occurs in writing form: grant and fellowship applications, manuscripts, even blogs! Of course, good oral communication is also important (conferences, TV interviews, chats with potential funders/donors). But today I want to talk about written communication, after being inspired by this blog entry by Prof. Athene Donald. To be precise, I want to reflect on one aspect of written communication that I often struggle with: revising other people’s writing. The thesis acknowledgements of Dr. Ester Polaina, my first PhD student, included a mention to all of those red-marked manuscripts I returned to her. It was a positive comment (she says she found them useful). But Was I always making necessary changes? Or Did I try to say it “my way” too many times?

Great science often requires collaboration, which means you are going to be writing and revising with many people. Sometimes you may be “in charge of writing” (lead author in ms, PI in grant) and have to prepare the initial draft. Other times, you may be revising other people’s drafts. Those other people may be learning to write (students), be your peers, or occasionally may even be “great scientists”. And that’s why it gets tricky. The difference between correcting what is wrong, editing what is confusing or misleading, and editing style -making the text “your own”, is not always clear (at least for me).

We can all probably agree that if the grammar is incorrect or the statement is plainly wrong a correction should be made. If you are the 25th author in a 35 person manuscript, make that change. If you are a supervisor reading the first draft of a student, MAKE THAT CHANGE, and find the time/patience/energy to explain what is wrong about it, so the learning experience can go beyond the “accept revisions”. As a side note, if you are the recipent of those revisions, pay attention to those changes and try to learn from your mistakes. I still hear my PhD adviser’s voice saying “data is plural” when I mistakely type “data is”, so it works!

Now, how about when the statement (or organization structure) is not wrong, but instead you simply find it confusing or convoluted. Clarity should be a goal in all writing (particularly about science) and thus, I think we should revise for clarity in all cases, as with poor grammar. But the trouble is that clarity and style are intertwined. Is it unclear for everyone? or Could it be a question of style?

One approach to disentangle clarity from style may be to ask yourself how many times you had to read a sentence or section to get its meaning. Good writing should require one single read. Two passeses are probably acceptable. Beyond that, revisions are likely required. If you are revising for a peer, make changes directly (using track changes for example) or use comments. I found some people can be annoyed by reworded documents and prefer comments or side notes. I like co-authors to rewrite, to say it clearly because maybe that was my “best” sentence!. I can always decide later if I like the revised version better or not. If you are revising for a student, make those changes, and make them as revisions. Try to say it better, because saying “this is unclear” is less likely to be helpful if you are learning how to write scientific papers/grants. It is of course more work to rewrite, but then you should be teaching your student writting skills. Because good scientists need to be good writers (good at conveying information, not necessarily poetic, although that can be helpful, we all enjoy a nice, fun bit of reading).

But what about when you got the meaning on the first read, yet you think the text can be improved, Should you do something? This is where I struggle most, but I think the rule should be: if you are revising for a peer, just let it go. This is all about style and it is not appropriate to impose yours. If you are revising for a student, then I would say suggesting changes can be appropriate and perhaps even desirable. But make sure the student understands these changes are stylistic (maybe do some side-by-side session going over revisions). Students are often forming their own writing style, learning from what they read and from you (and other co-authors, peers), so use that opportunity to teach them. But be flexible. Just because you are supervising or mentoring them it does not mean they should do everything like you do!

In conclusion, I think my new approach to reviewing is going to be: always correct errors, always suggest ways to improve unclear, confusing sentences (possibly using different approaches for different people), and use stylistic corrections sparingly.

Now, let’s see how I do on this new revision for Ester…

If you want to read more about scientific writing:

Stephen B. Heard has a nice blog with many entries on writing, and recently published a book. He also made a nice list of other books available.

Coursera has several writing courses.

Of course, a great way to improve your writing is to read broadly (not just science) and practice writing (not just science).



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