Good writing is a skill. I’m not saying I have it, and remember, this is a blog post, maybe the fastest form of writing and reading ). As a skill, it requires practice. And, as Graham says, “Writing doesn’t just communicate ideas; it generates them. If you’re bad at writing and don’t like to do it, you’ll miss out on most of the ideas writing would have generated.”In fact, writing posts like this one is helping me to review and polish ideas I didn’t know I had about writing till this very moment. I’ll start with the most obvious, and will get more subtle/interesting as the list grows.
- Get your relevant Manual of Style. (e.g., Chicago/APA). APA wants you to buy it in book form, but I think this is one of the resources that should be online.
- Get Oliver Strunk’s elements of style. It’ll recommend some rules of thumb that may well be obvious (e.g., avoid passive voice. Reduce the use of adverbs to a minimum) but overlooked. There have been several editions, and the older ones can even be found online.
- Read Graham’s essay On how to write well. This concise piece packs a punch. It’s about essay writing so its advice may not be ideal for a journals paper but it’s fantastic for all other chunks of text we end up producing at the end of the day. Particularly research grant applications, where the reviewers are not experts on your topics and want some clear writing.
- Get a competent professional editor, even if your English is very good. This can work wonders, if only because a professional editor will write down comments about your style that you should use for future papers. Professional proofreading may accelerate the process and wipe out some easy criticisms. Your university may have a writing center where these services are available. If yours doesn’t, you can hire someone at rentacoder or elancer.
- Get as many people as possible to read your draft. There are some communities focusing on improving your writing, and giving detailed feedback; I couldn’t find one that’s about scientific writing, drop a comment if you know one. If such a thing doesn’t exists, we definitely need to create one.
- Read it outloud backwards. I heard about this in the chronicle forums (sorry, I can’t find the link). It really works, even though it may be boring after a while. It’s the closest that an author can be to reading with the reader mindset. If you are too busy or feel ashamed reading stuff outloud, you can use a program to convert text to voice. The impersonal voice may actually help. Then, you can play the resulting audio file at a speed faster than normal. You can also use the player to move back and forth between problematic sections. This way, you can annotate where you need to do edits. If you want a free program that converts text to voice and works well, try Dspeech. It even lets you output an ogg file, my preferred music format. You’ll need a decent SAPI5 voice (you usually need to pay for those).
Know who you are writing for. If you are writing an off-the-mill journal paper, that’s the editor and the reviewers first, -you do want to get it accepted-. If you think what you have on your hands has the potential of being a high impact article, do not write for the reviewers, but for your field or even maybe the entire research community that may benefit from what you say.
I find the honesty of the following devastating. Types of reviewers according to Scott Adams (Note: in case you don’t know, Scott is a famous cartoonist; no, I couldn’t find a more authoritative source):
Assuming scientists are human beings, it seems to me that most peer reviewers would fall into one of these categories:
2. Biased egomaniac
3. Nice person who doesn’t want to make people feel bad
4. Too busy to put any quality thought into it
5. Person with low self-esteem who doesn’t want others to succeed in his or her field
6. Coward who doesn’t want to rock the boat
I suppose some scientists have plenty of free time, no biases, and would be happy to see colleagues succeed beyond their own careers. But seriously, how many of those scientists could there be? I don’t know any non-scientists who could fit that description.
Avoid distractions. That may mean no internet, no email notifications (gasp!)… ideally, you could try switching workspaces completely. You could move to an isolated cubicle at the library, where alternative activities to writing are close to zero. For maximum effect, you can use a program that lets you type, but little else. That is, all taskbars, gizmos etc in you OS are ignored: just a blank screen and your blinking cursor. Insert references, formatting, etc in your standard word processor later, on a second pass.
Music listening may count as a distraction, if you have to DJ for yourself, or adjust the volume often. If you must have background music, make it so all tracks have replaygain values, and resist the urge to alter the playlist (or change CD if you are still not enjoying your music collection from your computer).