Monday, 13 February 2012

Learning to write

As an undergraduate I wrote flowery (in the literary rather than botanical sense), rambling prose, trying to instil what I thought was a little culture into science. After having an ecology essay torn apart by an uncompromising but incisive academic, I stripped back my exuberant style and tried to write dull and conventional. My honours supervisor, Gerry Kraft, tried his best but left me largely unmarked and unlearned, from a literary perspective. Finally Bill Woelkerling, as my PhD supervisor, wore me down and taught me to write dry as cold toast, but comprehensible, scientific text. As I know now, it was a stage I had to go through. It then took me another few years to shake off the scientific shackles, back under Gerry’s tutelage, and write in a more measured, mature and mischievous way. In a way, I was back to where I started, but this time able to write proper like.

Writing isn’t easy and while scientific writing isn’t the most difficult trade to learn it can be illusive for the enthusiastic and cocky young scientist. So would I have learnt more quickly if Getting Published in the Life Sciences by three north-eastern American academics was available, and would it have persuaded me to put down such formative texts as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Auto-da-Fé and the Life of Samuel Johnson? Perhaps not but through no fault of this book.

I like the way the authors - Richard Gladon, William Graves and Michael Kelly - start with a clear statement about what they can and can’t do. ‘Use of this book, the principles within it, and the exercises within it, cannot cure bad science’, and ‘A writer cannot compensate for... bad science with an extremely well written manuscript.’ Damn! The first few literary quotes also establish their influences and a healthy disregard for political correctness; I've not sought inspiration willingly from either Ray Kroc (Founder of McDonalds), and Ernest Hemingway.

There is plenty of practical advice, in chapters on ethics, choosing authors and journals, structuring your manuscript, presenting data, revising, submitting, peer-review and proofing, among other things. They outline the IMRAD structure – Introduction, Methods, Results And Discussion – while noting that some journals have moved away from this familiar sequence. Although generally thorough their attention to photographs and illustrations, so important to fundamental taxonomic research, is superficial. They make up this oversight with lots of practical advice about sentence and paragraph structures with guidance even on the ideal number of words in both: 15-20 (13 being too few and 40 too many) and an average of 150, respectively. This sentence is a little short and this paragraph a little long. While this may seem prescriptive, they are simply trying to help the novice writer get words on the page and their first few manuscripts into print. When you start cooking it helps to follow a recipe, at least the first few times.

Monographic taxonomists (of which I've been one) would do well to heed the power of the LPU, or Least Publishable Unit. This is the ‘minimum amount of information (data) sufficient for a manuscript to be accepted for publication in a reputable, refereed journal (Broad, 1981)’. Your conclusion, expands Broad, should be original, important and based on research ‘using accepted norms of the discipline’.  So far so good. In a list of reasons why you should be a good writer: ‘It is not necessary for you to be verbose to get your point(s) across to the reader’. They back up this claim by citing Watson and Crick’s 1953 paper where the double helix and genetic replication are described in a single page. OK, but let’s see Watson and Crick sort out one of my troublesome algal species in less than a half dozen journal pages. Gladon et al. do  admit that you must give what they call a ‘competent, informed reader’ enough information to repeat the study and to judge if you’ve done things properly. That might take more than a page me thinks.

The authors’ LPU is that you should start the writing of a scientific manuscript with a few strong take-home messages and a working title. This may take time but according to Gladon and his colleagues it is the key to a good scientific paper. The take-home messages must ‘hit the reader between the eyes’ rather than be lost somewhere in a meandering discussion – the latter always being my preferred approach (yes go and look for them!). The messages should be repeated strongly throughout the manuscript. ‘Reading a scientific article isn’t the same as reading a detective story. We want to know from the start that the butler did it’, Ratnoff (1981 [in K.S.Warren, Coping with the biomedical literature 95-101]) is quoted as saying. Perhaps, but some scientific papers could do with a little suspense, or at least a plot of some kind. They counter with this gem from Robert A Day: ‘Scientific writing is primarily an exercise in organisation. A scientific paper is not literature’.  That said, they do encourage writers to avoid being dry and boring. One way, they say, is to include contradictory data – that always adds a little spice and is, strictly, the right thing to do of course.

There are important things here, like how to write an abstract. One of my pet hates is an abstract that describes the structure of paper without any of the juicy discoveries or conclusions. It turns out this is the ‘indicative’ or ‘descriptive’ type of abstract. What I prefer, and strongly encourage, is the ‘informative’ kind. Help is at hand for writing titles, including one recommendation I know gentle readers of this newsletter will snort at: ‘unless there is an unequivocal reason to use the binomial of the species used in the research in the title, you should use the common name’. Still, I get mightily annoyed by authorities being included for names in titles unless there is an overwhelming nomenclatural reason for this.  The chapter on good word usage is fun and valuable.

I like the generous use of aphorisms. ‘Science is facts. Just as houses are made of stones, so is science made of facts. But a pile of stones is not a house, and a collection of facts is not necessarily science’ (Jules Poincare) and perhaps more usefully ‘The fool collects facts; the wise man (woman) selects them’ (John Wesley Powell). Anyone who quotes Dr Samuel Johnson is a friend of mine and the line they include is his classic of literary criticism: ‘Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.’ The authors are pretty good themselves: ‘For some people and institutions, the order of authors is critically important for promotion and tenure purposes. Sometimes it is important simply to satisfy egos.’ Quite so. And ‘If the results section represents the heart of your manuscript, then the discussion section may represent its soul’.

Despite using the word ‘ensure’ here and there, and allowing the jacket to carry a line containing ‘unique guide to...’ I like this book and learned a lot from reading it. I must send a copy to a couple of ex students of mine, just to encourage them to publish mind you. At the risk of contravening their section on plagiarism, I’ll finish with another pithy quote, attributed to Red Smith: ‘Writing is easy. You just stare at the typewriter until drops of blood appear on your forehead’. 


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This book review of 'Getting Published in the Life Sciences' was written a few months ago and appeared first in the Australian Systematic Botanic Society Newsletter, No. 149 (December 2011), pp. 46-48. This week I've been  reading a great little book called 'Stylized' by Mark Garvey (2009), all about Stunk and White's little book 'The Elements of Style'. It reminds me of what's good about good writing. Still, I've resisted the urge to rewrite this particular essay. Only rarely does my writing not seem muddy on reading again. And seldom do I avoid needless words. I have the tantalising chore of good writing ahead of me.  


Image: The 1769 portrait of Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds, taken from a postcard I bought at Dr Johnson's House, 17 Gough Square, London.


*Getting Published in the Life Sciences. By Richard J Gladon, William R. Graves and J. Michael Kelly. John Wiley & Sons Inc, Hoboken, New Jersey. 2011. ix + 356 pp. ISBN 978-1-118-01716-6. UK£20.50 (paperback)

1 comment:

LucyN said...

Shall I send you my new address?