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What do you do to write better proposals, grants, and papers?

Do you think reading books about how to write scientific content is a good way to improve it?

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    Read relevant, well-written material (and lots of it) to improve your vocabulary and the recognition of “good” structure. – Solar Mike Sep 25 '18 at 3:45
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    For a bit of help with common phrases have a look at phrasebank.manchester.ac.uk. It is not much, but sometimes it can help you to build a nicer sentence. – allo Sep 25 '18 at 9:08
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    "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better." — Samuel Beckett – JeffE Sep 25 '18 at 18:10
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    @SolarMike: But how would OP know what's well-written, as opposed to merely being passably-written? – einpoklum Sep 25 '18 at 19:16
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The way to learn to write is, simply, to write.

But then get feedback on your writing and re-write in light of the feedback.

The Software Patterns community has a process called Writer's Workshops that are quite detailed. When you submit a paper to a patterns conference you are assigned a Shepherd who is an experienced pattern writer, usually with knowledge of your field. The shepherd works with you (the "sheep") to improve the paper over three or four iterations of feedback-rewrite.

After shepherding your paper may be accepted to the conference, though not for presentation in the traditional sense. The conference consists of a set of writer's workshops in which a few (8-10) authors each have their papers discussed by the other participants while they listen and take notes. The author has a very small part in the workshop other than to think about what others suggest about how the paper can be improved.

After the workshop the author can ask questions, but never gets to "defend" the work. The idea is that if others misunderstand you then it is your job, not theirs, to fix it.

The paper is then revised one more time and it is this version that makes it in to the proceedings. The whole idea is to improve the print version, not present a version prepared without help.

The patterns community is pretty close knit because of this working together to improve one-another's work.

This process was brought to the software development community by Richard P Gabriel who is both a geek (Lisp et al.) and a poet. The same process is used by poets, in fact and is quite old. RPG has written a book on the process: Writers' Workshops & the Work of Making Things

If you don't have the patterns community behind you, or if you aren't writing patterns, it is relatively easy to set up a local writers workshop and follow the process. You can do this for any sort of writing as long as you have some people with domain knowledge and some writing experience.

11

There are many ways that one can improve their scientific writing skills. Because humans learn in diverse ways, I do not know if there is one be-all-end-all solution for how to improve one's writing skills.

Two main methods that I have used (and still use) are (1) attending grant writing workshops, and (2) reading other published papers in my field and emulating their overall style. I am someone who learns by seeing and copying.

Some items to note:

  • Quality scientific writing is rarely achieved by complexity of word choice and sentence structure. In fact, sometimes the best scientific writing is achieved by relative simplicity and clarity. You are not trying to wow people with your prose and poetic presentation.
  • Quality scientific writing often has just as much to do with how you present something as it does with what you say. Observing required formats for the venue you are trying to publish in is rather critical. I once worked with a collaborator who routinely ignored our target journals' "Instructions for Authors." This made it very hard to produce quality writing with him because I was repeatedly having to parse down what he was saying into actual defined sections. Much of his writing was well done from a pure "English" standpoint; he just had no concept of venue specific format.
  • Quality scientific writing is an art that is never completely learned.
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    Regarding the "instruction to authors" of journals. Usually you write the paper without knowing which journal it's really going to. Isn't it right? – 0x90 Sep 24 '18 at 23:37
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    I would add: apart from basics such as grammar and good writing practices, see Chicago Manual of Style, one needs clarity. The best writers in my opinion have the ability to simplify complex concept into something simple or at the very least, break it down into manageable chunks. They tend to distil tonnes of info into a few key ideas/concepts. So the problem is not really about writing, but how to think. – Prof. Santa Claus Sep 24 '18 at 23:38
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    @0x90 Yes and no. I usually had a specific journal in mind, then adapted as necessary. You don't write a 39 page paper when targeting a journal that usually publishes short papers. And most papers will have a general outline of Introduction, Methods, Results, Conclusion. – Vladhagen Sep 24 '18 at 23:53
  • When emulating the style of published papers, you should take care only to emulate the good ones. There's a lot of bad writing in academic journals. One of my least favorite parts of my job is deprogramming postdocs who spent their graduate schooling soaking up bad habits from poorly written journal articles. – RPL Sep 25 '18 at 11:29
  • @0x90 - I always knew which journal the paper was going to be submitted to, and why I chose that one. And I worked very hard to write it very clearly (word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, then back and do it again). And I never had a paper rejected. – Jon Custer Sep 25 '18 at 18:35
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A very specific answer: There's an (originally) online course from Stanford called "Writing in the Sciences" that became very popular. While you might not agree with everything she teaches/suggests, I think it is a very good course. It's now all on YouTube.

5

Two ideas for you:

A writing skills course

Many, if not most, universities offer scientific writing courses for graduate students. If you're a graduate student - take such a course. If you're a post-doc or even a tenure-tracker - don't be ashamed; go attend one (not for credit).

Language editing

Ask your advisor, if you're a grad student, or a colleague you're close to and whose writing skills you appreciate, to help you by performing a language-editing pass on what you're writing. If it's too much to ask or if you haven't someone to ask - try finding someone to do this for pay; it is not uncommon.

  • Aren't there courses like that online? – 0x90 Sep 25 '18 at 6:29
  • @0x90: Perhaps, but most univesities do not have these online. – einpoklum Sep 25 '18 at 8:00
  • Providing writing feedback to others isn't just a quid pro quo -- in reading other people's work critically you improve your own writing. This is particularly helpful as a postdoc looking over PhD students' work – Chris H Sep 25 '18 at 13:03
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Yes to books. I recommend Writing Science in Plain English by Anne E. Greene, which includes helpful exercises. Other books from the University of Chicago include The Chicago Guide to Communicating Science and The Chicago Guide to Writing about Numbers.

2

Reading books is for sure one way to go. I have read many of them, and my favorites are "Writing science" by Joshua Schimel and "Writing Science in Plain English" by Anne E. Greene.

However, reading books remains a passive way of learning. In my research group, I have therefore decided to create a writing group. In a writing group, we learn together, comment on what we learned and feedback on each other manuscripts. We meet every two to three weeks for two hours.

This writing group has transformed our perception of writing. Group members will discuss openly writing methods or specific writing problems as if it was a statistical or a programming problem. We did not become writing experts, but we improved, and we keep on improving every day (as opposed to taking a lesson or reading a book).

On the Scisnack website you can find some information on writing group including scientific publications. There is also a lot of learning content, including videos, expert advice or book reviews. Also, I have created a small Prezi presentation about writing groups to motivate the new Ph.D. students to join us.

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By watching this magnificent lecture by Larry McEnerney from University of Chicago!

It is eye opening! He shows how the value of our research and the reader are essential for a writer. He argues that we already have all of the skills needed for writing, but we don't know how to do it because we've been writing only inside school system and academia. We've been writing pieces for the teachers that were paid to read it and care about us, and that is not how the world, and science, works.

This lecture changed my thinking for sure.

  • and btw, the handout that he uses in the lecture is available here – snagaburzum Dec 5 '18 at 15:10
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Scientific writing skills are mostly the same as general writing skills. Read good works of fiction, non-fiction, journalism, etc. These are easier to find, and more enjoyable, than good pieces of scientific writing.

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