A Critical Look at Scientific Writing Courses

The purpose of writing is to inflate weak ideas, obscure poor reasoning, and inhibit clarity.
Calvin, to Hobbes, in “Calvin and Hobbes”

Scientific writing — and the work before you start to write — is still one of my favorite subjects. I’m currently looking for ways to make this my profession (among a couple of other avenues), mostly because I think there is a lot of unrealized potential when it comes to scientific writing.

Many writing courses at the university seem to ignore technological developments. You could have a quill and a piece of parchment and still apply most of the tips and recommendations. Outliners to handle the complexity of the text, or modern writing software like Scrivener to easily compose the text, … they usually do not make an appearance.

Even worse, some seem to be informed more by classical fiction writing, which includes ideas like “free writing” to break a writers block. But scientific writing is not fiction writing, and even fiction writing can benefit from a lot of organization and structure.

I strongly agree with Alley‘s view that scientific writing is a craft (inspiration is not needed!), and with Hayton’s distinction between three different levels of writing: the content, the structure, and the words. Unfortunately, many courses focus on the last aspect, the words, and make it appear (at least to me) that the important part is to write a text that leaves a good impression and has some nice variance in the words.

Sure, a scientific text should be easy to read, although variance should be avoided, but crucially, the most important part of the text, the basis on which everything else rests, is the content. The crucial first and all-determining question is what the point or message of the text is and why anyone should care (to refer to Thomson & Kamler).

Scientific writing is not about writing a nice or interesting text. It’s about having something interesting and useful to say. Being clear in what you want to say, and to whom (what is your scientific community like?). For this, you need to get a clear picture of your content, your data/analyses/etc and need to understand your target audience (your scientific community!). The content is what everything else rests upon. And while the content is specific to each scientist, there are generalized tips that really help working with the content. One reason why I strongly recommend content outlines (or mind maps, or other structuring helps).

The structure itself is usually determined by the particular kind of text you write and non-negotiable. Journals have (more or less) clear standards (e.g., IMRAD) on how to structure the content. There are also usually standards for the way a thesis is structured (often in a similar way). The lack of variance helps the readers to quickly access information in your article or thesis. Scientific reading is not reading for pleasure and while it shouldn’t be boring, it’s not infotainment.

If these first two levels are clear, you can (usually) easily write the “words” and adhere to the quality standards of scientific writing. There are also tips that work here, if you can’t find the right words (e.g., the Academic Phrasebank, or just have a look at similar articles — for wordings, not for content!).

And sure, it’s much easier to teach orthography, or grammar, or whatever, instead of focusing on building a solid foundation. But in many cases, I think this approach is like painting the walls of a house that will likely topple over when the paint dries.

So if you want to write a scientific text, focus on the content first. Keep it flexible (e.g., in a content outline). Order it according to the needed structure. Then write a first draft. This approach does not work for everyone, but I found it incredibly useful and others have as well.

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