Repost: The Impotence of bad writing.

Jun 07 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

Things are a little crazy now that I'm back in the office, but I just received something to review that made me essentially want to write this post over again, so here it is from May 11, 2009.

There have to be a hundred posts out there about how important it is to write well in science, but here's 101. I can't tell you how many students I had as a TA tell me they didn't care about writing because they wanted to be a scientist and how many more were shocked and appalled when I took off points from an assignment for atrocious grammar or spelling. I wasn't crazy about it, but I have my limits that were constantly pushed by the students. Ironically, I'm a horrible speller. However, I know this and make sure to spell-check everything I am writing that might be seen by others. I consider myself a decent writer who is always looking for ways to improve and most often I do that through reading and noticing when someone really gets their point across effectively. I look at how they have structured their point or argument and keep it in the back of my head. What did they say that convinced me and how did they get there? If you can lead the reader along so that they reach your conclusion about a sentence before you spell it out, you've done a good job.

When it comes to manuscripts, I always remark on grammar and spelling though I don't take the time to mark up everything as that is not necessarily the job of the reviewer. The gray area is when it comes to grants. In theory we are supposed to be evaluating the science (and broader impacts in the case of NSF) and not necessarily the ability of the writer to actually write, but they are inseparable. Maybe I get hung up on the writing a bit too much, but I find nothing more distracting than a poorly written grant. I have on my desk a proposal for a project including 6 PIs with a budget in excess of a million dollars and I had to put it down after reading the first two pages because the writing just sucks and it was pissing me off. Is that how you want a reviewer reading through your grant? No. Angry reviewers are bad and if they are angry because your writing is the equivalent of nails on a chalk board how likely are they to think your science is kick ass? Like it or not, your writing is a direct reflection of you as an academic and as much as I try to see through the grammatical train-wreck and missing words in the back of my head I am thinking that if this proposal wasn't worth your time to edit and clarify, why is it worth my time to read and thoughtfully respond to.

So, dear readers, repeat after me - "Both verbal and written communication are essential facets of science and should be skills that are constantly honed, just like the techniques you use in the lab or field (or PLS will send you back the charred and shredded remains of your crappy grant)."

5 responses so far

  • Anonymous says:

    I've told my students that there is two parts to having an idea.1 = having it2 = communicating it to othersIf you can't do #2 then you might as well not have had the idea.Sometimes I use the length of time Darwin sat on his great idea and almost got scooped by Wallace as an example

  • HH says:

    GMP- if you get the magnets printed, I'll buy one! I'm constantly frustrated by how often "science" and "writing" are treated like totally separate areas of study with no overlap. If we don't connect science and writing in our classes, how can we expect students to make that connection? It seems like most professors agree that this problem exists, but many are unwilling or unable to teach writing and science together due to lack of resources and large class sizes...

  • Dr.Girlfriend says:

    Writing and benchwork are two separate areas disciplines. A scientist needs to be accomplished at both. A technician can get away with just having "good hands" and data recording skills. A scientist needs good hands early in his career, but the ability to write and communicate effectively will be what gets him tenure. I think it is perfectly ok for a PI to write up his technician's paper, but it annoys me that so many grad students and postdocs get away with not taking the lead in writing their own papers.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    I make students write in my class. They hate it, but it is something they need to be able to do, no matter what they go into. I also do not write my student's papers. I help out along the way, but they do the writing.

  • V. Igra says:

    In my dept we send these pages out to colleagues months prior (usually 2or3) to sending a grant. We go over them in excruciating detail paying attention to every word. After obtaining criticism we re-write and do it all over again, as many times as it takes to get it right. Your colleagues may not have time to go over your entire grant but they can easily go over your SA page with you, get as many eyes on it as you can.

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