Professionals Must Write Ilse Genovese ACSM Communications Director ACSM / APLS 2010 Annual Conference and Technology Exhibition co-located with GITA’s 2010 Geospatial Infrastructure Solutions Conference
Professionals must write—by Ilse Genovese, ACSM Communications DirectorWriting for academic journals and popular science magazinesis a powerful tool for generating and communicating ideasand knowledge. However, many of us do not see ourselvesas writers or were never taught how to write for such publi-cations. In this seminar, I will describe some of the thoughtprocesses and “artistry” which can help you to write clearly,concisely, and captivatingly.Disseminating scienceThe computer, word processing, the spell checker, and theInternet have all had an impact on the way we generateand share information. Word processing makes note taking,drafting, and revisions easier and cleaner, helping authorsexperiment with words and paragraphs. The spell checkerwatches over our spelling and grammar, with perhaps 95percent reliability. Thanks to the Internet, we have access to Figure 1. The writing process. [Source: http://hs.doversherborn.org].information on almost any topic we may think about, and wecan share our data and ideas—the products of our researchand writing—as quickly as never before. How to write better With technology, the need to disseminate knowledge hasassumed universal proportions. But, while technology has made Pages of formatted and spell-checked text do not necessarily con-the mechanics of writing easier, the requirements that scientific stitute a collection of well crafted, coherent ideas. Too often, ancommunications be clear, concise, honest, and authoritative author who has something important or interesting to say getsremain and may even have become more critical. sidetracked by minutia, or too pedantic repetition of facts, or lack of experience in writing for science publications. As sources of scientific information, online journals andtheir more populist form, science blogs, are surging in their It is a matter of academic and professional pride to submitappeal among authors and the general public. Many of the papers which editors want to publish. It is bad manners to wastebest known science journals are published by professional readers’ time with long-winded, obscure, “muddied puddles” ofsocieties. Science publishing supported by professional writing. Obscurity is no substitute for profoundness; do not makesocieties has an unequal record, though. In some fields, your readers wonder what exactly you want to say.journals are starved of quality submissions, their volume and Some professors of English have concluded that teachingprint runs are shrinking, and resources for science editors people how to write well is impossible; that to write “reallyare scarce. Popular science publishing has hit its share of well is a gift inborn, and those who have it teach themselves”obstacles, too; newspapers are eliminating science sections (F. L. Lucas, 1894-1967, quoted in Cassell, 1955). “Still,” Lucasand science writers, and subscriptions to science magazines said, “one can sometimes teach them to write rather better.”are lagging behind those of celebrity-focused social media. In this seminar I offer some tips on how to write better for As members of the geospatial community, we have a science publications.special obligation to inform and educate others about the Writing, as already mentioned, is part artistry and part process.contributions of our professions to research and development. Figure 1 illustrates the writing process. Figure 2 shows the mainHow do we accomplish this in words and sentences which stages of writing from pre-writing, to drafting, to revising, andcarry our message clearly? publishing. professionals must write
Drafting When we jot down the main ideas in a rough form, we are writing a “draft.” A first draft can be messy, un-coordinated or repetitive, and it can contain mistakes. The first draft of the paper captures ideas and the facts that support them. It is not meant to be perfect; and it is definitely not ready for submission. Unfortunately, those less patient with revising can be (and often are) tempted to submit a paper in its early draft, hoping that the publisher’s reviewers and editors will “help them through the finish line.” Don’t submit a paper which has not been thoroughly revised; it is unprofessional. Revision During revision, we rearrange ideas and rewrite sentences to clarify the connections between ideas. At this stage, we should make a conscious effort to put ourselves in theFigure 2. The writing process. [Source: http://www.icsd.k12.ny.us]. readers’ place. Ask yourself: “Am I writing for my peers (i.e., an academic paper) or for the public (i.e., popular science Pre-writing happens during “discovery”—we read and jot down article]? The style in which the paper is written, the language,facts and ideas which we find relevant to the topic on which we and its structure will depend on your answer.want to write. We think about what we have learned and write a Rewriting is an essential part of composition; some woulddraft. Before a paper is submitted for publishing, it goes through say it is the heart of the writing process. “Getting the wordsan evaluation by peers and revisions by authors. Authors who edit right means writing as clearly as I can,” said John Irving inand revise their papers thoroughly before submission are likely to 2005, when interviewed for the National Book Award. “Therereceive fewer critical comments from reviewers and fewer edits is no reason you should not, as a writer, not be aware of thefrom the editors. necessity to revise yourself constantly,” he added. “If it looks like writing”—read ‘stilted,’ ‘ponderous’—“I rewrite it,” saidThe principles of writing explained Elmore Leonard in an interview for Newsweek in 1985. The important message here is that yes, one needsDiscovery an inspiration, and, yes, it does not hurt to have talent forThinking always comes before writing. Thinking leads to discovering writing, but revising is the backbone of a well composed,ideas for a topic. We learn about a given topic by doing research, by clearly written essay. You skip revisions at your own peril.reading about other people’s work, and by brainstorming. It may seem like unnecessary work to you but remember, Summarizing and critiquing are two strategies often employed producing a well written text makes the reading experienceduring discovery. We summarize our findings and then we evaluate, of your audience more enjoyable and instructive.or, critique our notes to develop a “context” for our ideas. At the endof discovery we should have a pretty good idea about the subject Editingmatter we want to write about and its research context. Some Authors edit their articles after receiving comments fromauthors also settle on the title of their paper during discovery. peers on the substance of the paper—for example, the research described, the findings arrived at, the context withinPrewriting which the research was conducted. In addition, alwaysOnce we know which ideas and data are important for our proofread your article to eliminate errors of grammar, spelling,topic, we can start conceptualizing or “mapping out” the or punctuation; and look out for such grave sins against goodsequence of ideas in our paper. The ideas must build upon writing as lack of cohesion and repetitiveness.each other; they should follow logically in sentence aftersentence and paragraph after paragraph from what we knowabout the topic. The emphasis here is on the “logical thread of Publishingideas” which binds each sentence and paragraph to the one After the paper has been revised and edited, the process ofpreceding and following it. publishing begins with a submission of the paper to a journal professionals must write
of our choosing. The technical editor will conduct a preliminaryevaluation of the paper to determine whether it is suitable forpublication in the journal. Some aspects of the publication orthe paper which may lead to outright rejection are:1. The paper describes research in a field not covered by the journal;2. The paper does not contribute to research in the field in a meaningful manner; and3. The paper is so badly written that it is not publishable.Research papersStructureAcademic papers are usually structured into six primarysections: Abstract, Introduction/Background, Materials andMethods, Results, Discussion of Results, and Conclusions(Figure 3).AbstractThe Abstract is a testimony of the writer’s skills in summarizingideas. To get the Abstract right, you first need to get the restof the paper right. I strongly recommend writing the Abstractlast.Introduction / BackgroundIntroduction and Background are not interchangeable; theyshould both be used only when it is necessary to separate theresearch context (the state-of-the-art of research from literaturereview) and its historical or socio-economic background. The purpose of writing an Introduction is to “introduce” thereader to the topic which will be discussed and to provide thesetting, or context, for the discussion. Some authors may providea hypothesis for conducting the research in the Introduction.Commonly, the Introduction ends by telling the reader whatinformation will be presented in the following sections of thepaper. The purpose of writing a Background is to provide a wider Figure 3. Primary sections of research papers.context for the research described. This can involve differenthistorical perspectives, previous legislation influencing thefield, or the economic need for the research. what they do for living, and the dominant economy in theMaterials and Methods area. Still others may devote an entire section to introduceThis section describes the data used by the researcher, their the participants in the research and describe the particularsource, and the research methods employed to conduct the characteristics which “qualified” them to participate.research. Some authors may also include in this section thegeographic coordinates of the study area. Others may write Results (Discussion of Results)a separate section about the study area, describing not only In this section, the reader learns about the findings of theits geography and environment but also the population, research: professionals must write
1. Did the research validate the research hypothesis? » But chunks of referenced quotes from literature are no2. Do the findings of the research disprove or agree with more desirable. They take away the author’s “voice” and previous research findings? can distract you from the main theme of your paper.3. Does the research conducted advance science in the » Guard against repeating yourself. If you are too timid to research field? express ideas in your own words—i.e., paraphrase—your paper will turn into a stream of direct quotes. The dangerConclusions here is that you end up repeating over and over again theIn this section we “conclude” whether and how useful the same fact or observation. Repetitiveness is boring, and itresearch was and provide recommendations for implementa- definitely is not in good style.tion or future research. A well written Conclusions section » Focus on ACTORS and ACTION, i.e., nouns and activebegins with a one-sentence statement of the purpose of the verbs rather than verbs in the passive. An actor–actionresearch, continues with one or two sentences describing the syntax will imbue your prose with life, make it vivid.findings, and ends with a recommendation for the “next proj- » Don’t try to impress others. Some writers believe thatect on the horizon.” using abstract nouns makes them sound more academic. Replace nouns with verbs, whenever possible if you wantBack to the Abstract to achieve a “leaner,” fitter prose. — Example: “it is ourRemember, we said to write the Abstract last. The main expectation that” vs. “we expect that.”purpose of writing an Abstract is to provide a reader who has » Declare a moratorium on abstract nouns. They often forceno access to the full paper with an idea of what the paper is us to use clumsy constructions, e.g., “on the basis of” orabout. It is a kind of a “preview of coming attractions.” As “in regard to.”such, the Abstract should answer the following questions— » But, be mindful of the exceptions! — “Her needs” isin one or two sentences each: WHY the research was better than “what she needs.” Often, abstract conceptsconducted (hypothesis), WHAT findings were obtained such as freedom, revolution, change can only be(research outcome), and WHERE their effect is likely to be expressed with an abstract noun.felt (implementation). » Be concise. If an author uses phrases where a word A well written Abstract will necessarily highlight the would be sufficient, that author is not concise. If an author“heart” of the paper. This does not mean that these basic uses a pair of adjectives where one would be sufficient,ideas should be expressed by repeating, word-for-word, the that author is not concise. Words such as “actually,”Conclusions or the first paragraph of the Introduction. Use the “basically,” and “generally” are empty words and canart of paraphrasing to write your Abstract. often be deleted without in any way affecting the meaning of the sentence. » Be coherent. Coherence is a way the sentences fitStyle together. Some papers may have all the relevant ideasWriting a research paper is all about precision—precise num- but the ideas are hard to follow. The line of reasoningbers, defined research methodology, specialized terminology. seems jumbled, and the paper is not readable. CoherenceBut style matters too. depends on how well you transition between ideas, i.e.,» If you “style” your writing so that the reader does not how you begin successive sentences or paragraphs. have to wrestle with the meaning of your sentences, then A simple way to be coherent is to make sure that the you have a good style. This implies that long, convoluted beginnings of sentences dealing with the same subject sentences crammed with (often too detailed or irrelevant) “look over their shoulders at what came before.” fact are not in “good style.” » Be emphatic. Construct your sentences so that the ends» A paper brimming with technical jargon which only a pack the punch. select few can understand does not foster disciplinary » Be in control. Look for sentences which never seem to approach to research; it confuses. end. Runaway sentence can be shortened, but be careful» Free “borrowing” of ideas and fact without not to end with choppy statements about points which acknowledgment misses entirely the point of literature do belong together. There is nothing wrong with complex review and is definitely no evidence of the author’s sentences—if they are constructed using appropriate knowledge of the subject matter. It is, in fact, unethical. grammatical structures. professionals must write
One of the most exasperating thingsabout reading some texts is that theirauthors (usually students or young »professionals) do not know how tocompose well structured papers. Prof.Steve Frank, the technical editor ofSurveying and Land Information Sci-ence, and I, the managing editor, havehad the opportunity to read many such »texts. In this section I tried to highlightstylistic problems frequently occurringin papers written by inexperienced au-thors. The following example illustrateshow to use the structure of academicpapers to write better science papers.Case studyLet us assume we are writing a paperfor publication in Surveying and LandInformation Science. The theme of thepaper is “Forensic Surveying related » »to Accident Scenes,” the same asthe theme of the 2010 NSPS StudentCompetition. As is usually the case, the participantsin the contest were given ideas on topicsthey could write about; they could dis- »cuss methodology, technical standards,equipment used, safety considerations,and how forensic surveying serves to im-prove forensic work at accident scenes.They could also provide examples of ac-tual forensic surveys of accident scenes. »Pretty novel and interesting theme towrite about! Let us do it! First, we need to do research tolearn more about forensic surveying—who does this kind of surveying andwhich instruments are useful in foren- Figure 4. The structure of a paper on “Forensic Surveying of Accident Scenes.”sic surveying. Then we need to find outwhat are the recommended standards ect, and how has this technology improved (or not) surveyingfor accuracy in forensic surveying and which instruments will of accident scenes in this particular instance. Finally, we willdeliver results in compliance with those standards. Safety is write a conclusion—is forensic surveying of crime scenes thealways a consideration when working in the field, so one will best solution for such work and, if there is need for improve-need to address safety standards as well. ment, what type of research is needed to make them. The pros and cons of forensic surveying, or any technology Figure 4 attempts to illustrate how the thought processesfor that matter, are best illustrated on a concrete project. This involved in discovery and drafting “feed” the structure of anillustration will provide information on the project objectives, academic paper on forensic surveying.the reasons for using forensic surveying in that particular proj- professionals must write
Popular science articles diluting the message of their essays. This must also be done without obscuring the truth. A phrase such as “the evidenceThe same maxims apply when writing articles for science suggests” or “this is a highly probabilistic theory” puts amagazines—think before you write, chose a topic which will subjective qualification on the argument referred to. Allowinginform and educate, do research to educate yourself in the one’s views or perceptions to “color” science will not lead tosubject area (if you are not an expert on it), write down the an accurate translation of science.pertinent facts and ideas, write a draft essay, revise copiously, The punch line of a popular science article is in the firsthave it reviewed by peers, then do some more revising and paragraph. How we phrase that paragraph, and even itsediting, and, finally, send it off to the magazine’s editor. first sentence, are signs of our artistry in writing popular There are some differences, of course. The target audience science articles. A dry, wordy beginning will not serve; theof popular science magazines is the public, which implies first paragraph must “hook” the reader to want to continuedifferent purpose of writing, different language, and, some- reading the rest of the article.times, different style, compared with those characterizing an Predictably, there is no single technique to arouse theacademic paper. readers’ interest. Some authors will present the “angle” in A scientist writes to present new research or to evaluate a form of a question, others might express it in stark, almostthe impact of research and present an argument for or against staccato phraseology, and still others may use tighter, conciseit. Popular science articles are written to inform the general wording which creates a feeling of expectation. I find thatpublic about some piece of science and how it affects their even though I have a clear, concise angle and know what Ilives. The author has to “translate” the science so that thegeneral reader can appreciate it. The starting point is to remember that you are talking to anintelligent person who may not be a scientist. Popular sciencearticles are generally shorter than research papers, and often,they dispense with the formal structure of sections. Instead,the message—the reason for writing the article—is spelledout in the first paragraph and the rest of the text is devoted toexplaining the science and evaluating its impact (positive ornegative consequences) in real life. Popular science articles are usually written with more “pas-sion.” The style is conversational and its purpose is to focusreaders’ attention on an issue. To do this successfully, a writerof popular science articles has to be able to convey the meaningof specialized terms in “plain” English. One can never completelyescape using specialized terms, but those used should always beexplained, without using technical jargon. Popular science writing is not only more passionate, it can also Figure 5. Meeting transportation challenges with GIScience.be more difficult to accomplish because it requires more “artistry.” [Source: www.esri.com]This begins with selecting a topic “angle” for the essay. The selection of an angle is often subjective, but that want to say about it, I experience a mental block until I havedoes not mean that it is random, or without a well defined “written in my mind” the first sentence for my article.purpose. Popular science writers should address issues Popular science articles are about general truths or patternsthat are compelling and relevant to a general audience. To rather than nitty-gritty detail; in other words, they have to bewrite a compelling article on a compelling angle, they need accurate, but not necessarily precise. To give an example,to have good understanding of the competing theories or the precise measurements of a research paper—e.g., “82.2tangents which might have a bearing on the angles they have percent of respondents identified geomatics as the area withselected. most growth potential”—are transformed into figures we can Experienced writers of popular science will refer to visualize in our minds—i.e., “most respondents (82 percent)competing theories and arguments without digressing and identified ….”). professionals must write
One very effective way of making the complex understand- in Europe where cathedrals are part of the cultural landscapeable to non-experts is to explain technical terminology with but not in Asia where people are familiar with temples or re-metaphors. Metaphors add “spice” to the writing and help ligious shrines.us to translate terminology in a way that it is easier to re- Translating science into popular science is not a task formember. the faint hearted. It requires good knowledge of the subject For instance, one can liken our perceptions of gradual and you want to write about, imagination, and an extremely gooddramatic climate change by using the metaphor of a rowboat. command of technical and idiomatic English. You will knowThe boat is rocking gently back and forth as you push the when you have written a good popular science article whenwater with a paddle up the rim of one side and then the the readers forget that they are reading science and think,other. One could go like this forever, right? But, one day, you “Wow, I did not know this. What a fascinating story!”push a bit harder on one side, the boat rocks a hair too far, isswamped with water, and sinks like an anchor. The messageis that while the climate changes gradually, radical change Conclusioncan upset status quo very quickly and dramatically. Writing about science for research audiences and the general Two warnings about metaphors. Don’t get caught up in public is challenging but not impossible. The challengemetaphors; this makes you sound as if you are writing for your usually becomes more manageable with experience. Theown amusement. Over-representing concepts in metaphors rapid expansion of the principles of GIScience into most fieldscan also suggest that you have grave doubts about the of research, economic development, and policy makes itreaders’ ability to understand science unless you transpose imperative that we disseminate our ideas and knowledge byevery concept into daily experience. writing for academic journals and popular science magazines. Always, tailor your metaphors to your audience; the meta- I will not repeat here all the principles of good science writing.phor will only be effective if it is embedded in the cultural and However, if you remember to be clear and to the point, andeconomic reality of the readers. For instance, using the image write in your own words and style, about what you know orof a cathedral to describe the human mind will be understood interests you, I want your paper.