Writing well is a continuous challenge. It’s even more difficult when writing in a non-native language. Although I’ve been writing papers for more than 10 years, I am still learning how to write better with every paper I read or write. I figure, there’s all the more to teach the students I work with.
Many students have great difficulties with putting their thoughts on paper. Writing has many pitfalls. Grammar can be complex, especially when writing in a foreign language. But it’s just as hard to structure the logic of sentences, paragraphs, and an entire paper.
Given that papers are what the world sees of our work, scientific writing is our bread and butter: we’d like our papers to be perfect. As the group head, we have to do our best to teach our students well.
I’ve found that many writers make similar mistakes. And I’ve found that telling them once or twice doesn’t usually do the trick of making sure these mistakes don’t show up in their future writing. This has led me to prioritize writing in my group by implementing regular lessons on different aspects of writing in our group meetings.
Making writing a priority in your lab
#1: Weekly grammar lesson
For some time, we had a 3-5 minute lesson in the group’s weekly meeting. Each week, a different group member prepared the lesson. In the beginning, we used a book that described common grammar and word choice mistakes in short, comprehensive chapters. Later, we picked questions that came up during reading or writing; the person responsible researched the solution to our question by searching on the internet, or by asking a native speaker.
#2: Weekly sentence analysis
Another great way to learn about writing well is to discuss bad sentences. There is an abundance of bad sentences in published papers. Even the table of contents summaries of Science Magazine have some gruesome grammar mistakes. It’s actually quite fun to try and spot them, and we’ve often had a good laugh about what the sentence did say, compared to what it was supposedly intended to say.
An even better source of bad sentences are the writings of our own group. Whenever I write or revise, I copy sentences (including my own) with typical errors for the next group meeting.
With each sentence, we first let everyone take a shot at what’s wrong. We then discuss why it’s wrong, and how the sentence could have been written better.
Discussing bad sentences lets us go beyond just word use and grammar mistakes, and we look at sentence clarity, logic, word order, etc. One can even look at entire paragraphs, though then 3-5 minutes won’t do it.
As a result of our writing-better-sentences practice, I now often get better sentences from the start when I revise papers we write in the group. And when there are errors, I just have to give a short reminder of what’s wrong.
#3: Make an assessment of writing style part of your journal club
Sometimes, you read a paper that just reads well. It’s worth losing a few words about it when the paper is discussed in the journal club. Ask the presenting student to pinpoint what is so good about the writing. Rather than looking at details in grammar and sentences, the points raised when talking about well-written papers usually focus on the large-scale organization of the paper: the flow of logic; the way the discussion picks up the topics that the introduction raised; the order of topics in methods and results; clarity of writing; organization of figures; etc.
Making writing style a topic in the group meetings emphasizes that a well-written paper can shed very positive light on a research group. It encourages team members to make improving their writing a goal for themselves.
#4: Discuss reviews of your group’s papers
Discussing peer reviews is probably the highest level view on writing you can have with your team. Seeing reviews will prepare more junior scientists like new PhDs for what to expect when they submit their work. They get to know the tone of reviews and learn to distinguish harmless from serious criticism. As a consequence, they learn to anticipate which parts of their own paper may be prone to criticism, so that they can address potentially difficult parts of their study accordingly already in their first draft.
There’s a lot to learn for every PhD student, and still for many Postdocs. Even as experienced writers, we can still improve. Showing that writing is a priority, and having short but regular writing lessons in your group, can boost learning.
How do you improve writing in your group? Comments, tips, and experiences are welcome!
Some books I’ve found useful in learning how to write better:
Bugs in Writing, Revised Edition: A Guide to Debugging Your Prose by Lyn Dupre: short chapters that each focus on a common mistake in English writing. Written by an editor of scientific papers. Great as a start for weekly “writing better” lessons.
The Reader’s Brain by Yellowlees Douglas: A book that takes a close look at each hierarchical level of a paper: sentence parts, sentences, paragraphs, paper as a whole. Comes from a neuroscientific perspective and bases writing tips on how people read. A bit too much of that, for my taste. But the writing tips are really good. It also features an appendix of “everything you need to know about English grammar”.
Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded by Joshua Schimel: Focuses on structuring your paper. The credo is: your paper is a story. For instance, it has great examples for how to start a paper.
The Elements of Style by E.B. White & William Strunk: a classic of English grammar and writing. Newer texts criticize this book here and there, but by many it’s considered the gold standard. It’s more compact that Bugs in Writing, but could also serve as the basis for weekly lessons. If you buy it, do not be surprised by its size: it’ll fit in your pants’ back pocket. (No, this doesn’t mean that there’s little in it. It’s small print.)