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Learning to Write My Science

It is no secret that the craft of writing, scientific or otherwise, takes practice. Some folks of course write better than others, but this skill is not usually without a hefty helping of rough drafts, frank feedback, and deft editing. As a young student, I thought “With just a little more practice and a Ph.D., I’m finally going to be a good writer.” How naive that was!

Upper Cretaceous rocks that are Late Cretaceous in age. Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, Canada. Photo by A. Farke, CC-BY.
Upper Cretaceous rocks that are Late Cretaceous in age. Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, Canada. Photo by A. Farke, CC-BY.

Speaking immodestly, I’m a decent scientific writer. My command of grammar is OK, I can spell most words correctly, and I’ve published enough to know how to string together a paper within the conventions of the field. My writing today is certainly better than it was 10 years ago. But, here’s the thing…just when I think I’ve got it together, I get a helpful reminder that I don’t know everything quite yet.

A week or two ago, some colleagues and I submitted a paper for review. The project had a lengthy gestation, and lots of back-and-forth as we crafted the manuscript. One of my co-authors is a fantastic writer with hefty editorial experience–although I did the bulk of writing as lead author, he did the bulk of the editing (along with some text, of course). Drafts came back with tighter prose, queries for clarification, and helpful stylistic reminders. Beyond some fun science, it was really satisfying to learn a little bit more about how to improve the style and clarity of my writing. I liked getting a reminder that I have more to learn.

As a bit of reinforcement, this morning paleontologist Tom Holtz tweeted a link to a paper from back in 2009 (PDF freely available here; more here too) on how to correctly use terminology for stratigraphy and geological time. For instance, consider the terms “Lower Jurassic” and “Early Jurassic”. The first refers to place–e.g., the position in the rock column. The latter refers to time–that time before the Late Jurassic. Although these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, this is really quite incorrect. You can’t say that rocks are “Lower Jurassic in age”! Although I knew a bit about this from my geology training (thanks to my undergrad professors for that one), I was pleased to learn some other specifics that I hadn’t really known–for instance, correct use of the abbreviation “Ma” (referring to millions of years before the present). You can say that the Cretaceous is the time between 145 and 66 Ma, but not that it lasted 79 Ma (it lasted 79 million years, or 79 Myr). If we want to write with maximum clarity, and not have our arguments dismissed for incorrect formulation, correct usage is important.

So, here’s a big thank you to all of my friends and colleagues who keep pushing me to improve. You know who you are. And to those who are earlier in your careers…don’t worry, you will always be learning how to write, too!

Below are a handful of my favorite writing/stylistic tips that I’ve learned over the years. None of these are my own–they were all acquired in class or in reviews of my own papers, some as recently as a few months ago. What would you add?

Andy’s Scientific Writing Tips

  • Avoid starting a sentence with “There is” or “There are”. It’s wordy and often less direct than desirable. E.g., change “There is a big foramen piercing the head of the femur,” to “A big foramen pierces the head of the femur.”
  • “is present” can often be replaced with the more succinct “occurs,” or other phrases. E.g., “A big ridge is present in the middle of the bone,” reads better as “A big ridge occurs in the middle of the bone.” Or even better, “A big ridge bisects the middle of the bone.”
  • Adverbs describing adjectives don’t need a hyphen. E.g., “poorly preserved,” not “poorly-preserved”. [I just learned this one a few months ago–thanks, Reviewer 1!]
  • “Triangular” and similar adjectives describing shape stand on their own. E.g., “triangular jugal,” not “triangular-shaped jugal.”
  • Words like “big” and “small” should be quantified or at least justified whenever possible.
  • Don’t mix directional terminology. E.g., using “posterior” in one part of the paper and “caudal” in another.
  • Learn the difference between hyphen, en-dash, and em-dash. [thanks to Louise in the comments! I’m still very much working on this one.]

Owen, D. E. 2009. How to use stratigraphic terminology in papers, illustrations, and talks. Stratigraphy [a new journal for earth science] 6(2):106-116. [freely available pdf]

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