Hello Dave: Writing For Science

My friend, Dave, and I worked on a podcast last year.  We have not really continued it, since both of us ran out of time to dedicate to recording and editing new episodes.  If you would like to check it out, it is called “X and Why” and available for download on your favorite podcast app.  You can also get it from the website xandwhy.xyz. Recently, Dave wrote a blog post about writing. It was quite insightful and very interesting.  We agreed that we should be doing more writing and that this is the first in a series of back-and-forth posts that we will publish. Dave’s first post can be found here. You might want to read that before reading more of this, since it will be a response.

One of my sisters is only 6 weeks younger than I am.  We went through school together, and my parents thought it was best to treat us as equal as possible. This means that we were placed in the same level of classes for as long as possible. The big problem with this was that I was a pretty slow learner in many subjects, while my sister was a superstar in every subject. In math, my 4th grade teacher said that I would never do anything math related, while my sister was acing everything math related.  In middle school, I struggled to get a C- in Advanced English, which is where my sister was placed. She deserved it. I clearly did not. My mother used to be extremely frustrated when she would quiz me on my spelling words. It was a pretty tough time for all of us.

I used to be an avid writer in middle school, too.  I wrote about super heroes. They were very imaginative, with characters that suffered greatly for their powers. I got well-deserved Cs on the stories, with red ink everywhere. In high school, I turned to writing about much more depressing subjects and writing poetry. While the ideas were interesting (maybe), they were written horribly. I recognized this in high school, but didn’t know how to improve them.

When it came time to go to college, it was clear that I was not going to be a writer.  I, instead, took every physics class that I could.  I took programming and math classes. One of my favorite classes that I took in college was “Data Structures”, which is currently a programming class that is dreaded by almost all computer science students that I talk to. I loved that class. English, on the other hand, I don’t even remember. I know that I had to take some sort of reading class and some sort of writing class, but I have no idea how I did. I hated writing.

When I graduated from college, I expected to have a job doing some sort of programming or some sort of physics-related thing. I did not expect to write. Then I started graduate school.

I wrote my first paper in my second year of graduate school. You can find it here. When I got the reviews back from this paper, they included phrases similar to “this was the worst written paper that I have ever reviewed.” I am not exaggerating at all.  They were incredibly brutal. It was quite demoralizing. This paper was eventually accepted for publication, and an amazing thing happened. We had to send in a double-spaced hard-copy of the paper to the American Geophysical Union, and a copy editor actually marked it up.  They sent it back to me, and I had to make all of the changes that they noted.  This was a brutal process, but it taught me some of the things that I was systematically doing incorrectly. AGU continued to do this for many years, so every time I wrote a paper, I got a fully edited paper from AGU, which taught me grammar and style. The copy editors of AGU taught me to correctly write scientific papers. Now, when you write papers, AGU doesn’t return copy edited manuscripts, since it is all done electronically; you simply send them the Word (or LaTeX) file, and they make the changes.  I think that this is very sad, since I learned so much from this process. I also learned a huge amount from spell checkers, which have saved my life.

I am now the teacher and not the student.  I edit my student’s papers and bleed all over them.  My students and I still get pretty nasty comments from scientists, but I am not overly concerned. I have actually hired copy editors to read over my papers and edit them.  They typically don’t find more than a few issues, while the scientists typically find 10s of suggestions for grammar.  I make these changes that the scientists suggest, but most of the time they are being overly picky about things. For example, my last paper was returned with a statement like “the first sentence in the paper had a split infinitive, so I basically couldn’t proceed with reading the rest of it.” For those who are not in the know (which was me before that moment), a split infinitive is when you put a descriptor between the noun and verb (“To boldly go…”),where you are supposed to have it after the verb (“To go boldly…”).  Wikipedia says that it is a common practice to split infinitives and it is perfectly acceptable (or, it perfectly is acceptable? :-). Ah, scientists.

Now, I am a writer. I have to write.  I write papers.  I write proposals. I write blogs. I write annual reports. I write proposal and paper reviews. And reviews of reports. I write and write and write more.

I still struggle with writing.  When I stare at a blank page and have to write a paper or proposal, I don’t know what to say. So, I force myself to write something easy to begin with – like the descriptions of the figures. This is easy. Then I write the methodology, which is also easy. Then maybe the discussion and conclusions. The last thing that I ever write is the introduction, since this is the most free-form and is the hardest to make flow. It is also the first thing that anyone reads and sets the whole tone of the paper. If you mess it up (split infinitive), the reader is discouraged straight away.

That is my writing story.

You (Dave) asked a bunch of questions about science, but I feel like I have written too many words to keep people’s interest already, so I will answer these in a separate post in the next few days. It is a good topic that you have started with, and I am very interested. I just thought that I should respond to your initial post with my own story of my writing journey. Thanks for suggesting this, Dave, and I hope that we can continue this longer than the podcast!



About aaronridley

Professor at the University of Michigan, Department of Climate and Space Science and Engineering.
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