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Becoming a Scientific Writer (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Written Word)

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Do you read outstanding articles published in top journals and wonder how you can write something as articulate and erudite? Are you uncertain about how to organize your ideas and express them in a clear and logical fashion? Are you struggling to develop your unique scientific voice? Do your manuscripts confuse reviewers? Would you like people to remember your papers (and you) long after they read them? If so, then this talk is for you. In this presentation, I will cover aspects of scientific writing that are important in making the transition from novice to expert. I will particularly focus on topics that are not usually covered in scientific writing classes but that help a writer develop an effective, yet individual, style of discourse. Science professionals, especially those engaged in research, must be able to communicate their work effectively to the scientific community and beyond. In undergraduate and graduate school, students gain some basic writing skills. Making the transition from student to science professional and published author, however, requires more in the way of writing ability. For many who will become academicians and research scientists, writing must be of sufficient rigor to compete successfully for space in scientific journals and for grant funding. Unfortunately, writing often is viewed as a tedious chore—something you have to do to be a successful scientist—which becomes an impediment to developing excellent writing skills. In this talk, I will share some of the lessons that helped me become a better writer and, moreover, how I learned to love the process of writing.

This presentation was given in an invited symposium (Navigating a Career in Wetlands) at the 2016 meeting of the Society of Wetland Scientists in Corpus Christi, Texas.

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Becoming a Scientific Writer (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Written Word)

  1. 1. Becoming a Scientific Writer (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Written Word) Karen L. McKee USGS Scientist Emeritus (retired) Twitter: @scivideographer
  2. 2. Writing
  3. 3. Writing Tedious Chore?
  4. 4. Writing Tedious Chore? or Enjoyable Task?
  5. 5. Becoming a Scientific Writer (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Written Word) Karen L. McKee USGS Scientist Emeritus (retired) Twitter: @scivideographer
  6. 6. First, distill your message.
  7. 7. First, distill your message. Distilling Process Main finding + Significance Single Sentence
  8. 8. Message in a Bottle
  9. 9. Message in a Bottle
  10. 10. First, distill your message.
  11. 11. Always keep the reader in mind.
  12. 12. Always keep the reader in mind. Comprehension = Content + Structure
  13. 13. Always keep the reader in mind. Comprehension = Content + Structure Use Simple Language
  14. 14. Always keep the reader in mind. Comprehension = Content + Structure Use Simple Language Diction Syntax
  15. 15. “The smallest of the URF’s (URFA6L), a 207-nucleotide (nt) reading frame overlapping out of phase the NH2-terminal portion of the adenosinetriphosphatase (ATPase) subunit 6 gene has been identified as the animal equivalent of the recently discovered yeast H+-ATPase subunit 8 gene.”
  16. 16. “The smallest of the URF’s (URFA6L), a 207-nucleotide (nt) reading frame overlapping out of phase the NH2-terminal portion of the adenosinetriphosphatase (ATPase) subunit 6 gene has been identified as the animal equivalent of the recently discovered yeast H+-ATPase subunit 8 gene.”
  17. 17. “The smallest of the URF’s (URFA6L) has been identified as the animal equivalent of the recently discovered yeast H+-ATPase subunit 8 gene.”
  18. 18. Writing Principles (Gopen & Swan 1990) 1. Follow a grammatical subject as soon as possible with its verb. 2. Place in the stress position the "new information" you want the reader to emphasize. 3. Place the person or thing whose "story" a sentence is telling at the beginning of the sentence, in the topic position. 4. Use active vs. passive voice. 5. Place appropriate "old information" (material already stated in the discourse) in the topic position for linkage backward and contextualization forward. 6. Articulate the action of every clause or sentence in its verb. 7. In general, provide context for your reader before asking that reader to consider anything new. 8. In general, try to ensure that the relative emphases of the substance coincide with the relative expectations for emphasis raised by the structure.
  19. 19. Develop your unique (scientific) voice.
  20. 20. Develop your unique (scientific) voice.
  21. 21. Develop your unique (scientific) voice. Active or Passive?
  22. 22. Develop your unique (scientific) voice. “In recent years, an increasing number of researchers have turned their attention to the problem of rising sea level and its effects on coastal communities. In this article, we describe a standardized method to assess relative vulnerability of coastal areas to sea-level rise.”
  23. 23. Develop your unique (scientific) voice. “In recent years, an increasing number of researchers have turned their attention to the problem of rising sea level and its effects on coastal communities. In this article, we describe a standardized method to assess relative vulnerability of coastal areas to sea-level rise.” “Sea level is rising and threatening coastal communities worldwide, but some areas are at greater risk of flooding than others. Which ones? To answer this question, we developed a standardized method to assess relative vulnerability of coastal areas to sea-level rise.”
  24. 24. Develop your unique (scientific) voice. “In recent years, an increasing number of researchers have turned their attention to the problem of rising sea level and its effects on coastal communities. In this article, we describe a standardized method to assess relative vulnerability of coastal areas to sea-level rise.” “Sea level is rising and threatening coastal communities worldwide, but some areas are at greater risk of flooding than others. Which ones? To answer this question, we developed a standardized method to assess relative vulnerability of coastal areas to sea-level rise.” General topic Specific problem Solution
  25. 25. Develop your unique (scientific) voice.
  26. 26. Develop your unique (scientific) voice.
  27. 27. Be aware of narrative structure.
  28. 28. Be aware of narrative structure. “We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest.”
  29. 29. Be aware of narrative structure. “We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest.” IMRaD [I]ntroduction [M]ethods [R]esults [D]iscussion [a]nd
  30. 30. IMRaD [I]ntroduction [M]ethods [R]esults [D]iscussion [a]nd What I set out to study and why How I did it What I found What I think it means Story Be aware of narrative structure.
  31. 31. Abstract: Aim, methods, main result, interpretation, significance Title Figures Be aware of narrative structure.
  32. 32. Silence your internal critic. Ideas first Revise later
  33. 33. Reverse-engineer well-written papers.
  34. 34. Be a reviewer.
  35. 35. Write every day.
  36. 36. Writing is an essential skill.
  37. 37. Writing is an essential skill.
  38. 38. Becoming a Scientific Writer (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Written Word) Karen L. McKee USGS Scientist Emeritus (retired) Twitter: @scivideographer

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