The task of the scientist, says Stephen Heard, professor of biology at the University of New Brunswick in Canada, comes in two parts: “figuring out new things about nature and telling people about them”. Writing reasonably well is not just some optional extra but an essential element in making a contribution.
Although he now writes about 75,000 words a year, Heard still looks at his own first drafts and says: “What bureaucrat wrote this turgid stuff?” Yet he has found ways of writing faster and more easily by considering what he does wrong and making continuous improvements.
He has now distilled his insights into a book called The Scientist’s Guide to Writing: How to Write More Easily and Effectively Throughout Your Scientific Career, aimed at “students and early-career scientists across the natural sciences (including mathematics)”.
One of the core principles, Heard argues, is “identifying the needs of the reader. It’s easy to slip into a kind of travelogue of your experiments, with all your data. That is easy for the writer but not what the reader needs. That’s where finding the story really helps.”
A good scientific paper, Heard’s book explains, tells a strong story, which “raises and answers an interesting question”.
In finding this story, it is best to “use hindsight as much as foresight. Writers who don’t realize this often cling to reporting everything they did, in the order they did it, including experiments that turned out to be blind alleys and observations that seemed relevant at the proposal stage but became immaterial to the conclusions eventually drawn.
"Experienced writers, in contrast, take full advantage of hindsight and work to determine the story they want the reader to hear…and what information the reader needs to understand that story.” They also realise that they need to sell as well as tell this story, “showing how [their] work solves a problem, or answers a question, that matters to readers”.
Another key goal stressed by The Scientist’s Guide to Writing is “crystal-clear communication”, since “writing that isn’t clear risks being unpublished, unread, or uncited”.
Even seemingly technical questions should be answered with this in mind: “Should you include a detail of methodology, or leave it out? Should you write in the active or the passive voice? How many decimal places should you give for the numbers in a table? Should your data be in a table at all, or in a figure?” Since too much detail can leave readers “torn between bewilderment and resentment”, clarity should always be the crucial criterion.
Heard has a number of other suggestions about how to “get out of your own head and into your reader’s head”. Everybody knows what they mean when they write and finds it hard to determine whether they have actually got the message across. What can help is to “deliberately disrupt your familiarity with what you’ve written” by, for example, writing a paper in the office and revising it at home, or writing on screen and revising on paper.
Along with the general principle of avoiding writing “obfuscated by too many big words and complicated sentences”, Heard urges scientists to use active rather than passive verbs (except where this infringes a particular journal’s house style). This is easy to fix, inevitably improves readability and represents a return to a vigorous style common in the early days of scientific writing.
Like many other vital skills, learning to write well depends on being willing to listen to and address criticism, whether from friends or as part of a formal process of peer review. It is only human nature to sometimes find this painful.
“Even when criticism is totally constructive and fairly phrased”, admits Heard, “it feels like being attacked. Yet even when it is not pleasantly written or based on a misunderstanding it can help you make the paper better.”
So how can we learn from feedback without getting defensive or upset?
According to The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, the best way of dealing with a review is to “read it through right away. But then stop, and do nothing else. Don’t read it again. Don’t scribble notes on it, don’t begin to make revisions, don’t vent to a friend about how your reviewer misunderstood you – do nothing. Instead, set the review aside for a day or two.” By returning to it in a calmer frame of mind it is far easier to work out what is useful.
Stephen Heard’s The Scientist’s Guide to Writing: How to Write More Easily and Effectively Throughout Your Scientific Career waspublished last month by Princeton University Press.