1.1- Introduction; principles of effective writing
And they spend so much time focusing on this part that they forget about just trying to get their ideas across clearly and effectively, and this leads to all sorts of problems in the writing. Or you might think that it takes years of English and humanities classes to become a good writer, and again, a lot of scientists don't have that. And read sources of professional good writing like magazines and novels, non-fiction books, not necessarily the scientific literature.
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Welcome to the first week of writing in the sciences. I’m Kristin Sainani from Stanford University. For those of you who have been in a course with me before, welcome back, for those of you who are new, it’s great to have you. This first week, I’m going to do a small introduction and then we’ll jump right into some key principles of effective writing. Some of the goals I have for this course, I’m hoping to get you to rethink your approach to writing, to rethink your writing process, and I’m also hoping to ease some fears that you may have around writing. So this first module is going to address some of those. In my course at Stanford, I always like to start by asking the question, what makes good writing? And feel free to discuss this on the discussion forum later. But for now, I’m going to tell you what I think makes good writing. First and foremost, what makes good writing is that good writing needs to communicate an idea clearly and effectively. This is even more important in scientific writing, because the whole point of scientific writing is to get your results across to other scientists, to policy makers and sometimes even to the lay public. It’s all about getting your idea across clearly and effectively. Then there is this other element of good writing and this is really what everybody associates with good writing. Good writing is beautiful, it’s elegant and stylish. And I think what happens when a lot of people sit down to write, is that they’re worried about this second element. They worried about sounding a certain way, about sounding smarter or sounding elegant. And they spend so much time focusing on this part that they forget about just trying to get their ideas across clearly and effectively, and this leads to all sorts of problems in the writing. So what I want you to do in this class is to keep your focus on one, communicating your idea clearly and effectively. I want you to worry less about that elegant and stylish part. Clear writing just takes having something to say and clear thinking. As scientists, all of us have something to say. We also have clear thinking, so this part really shouldn’t be intimidating. What’s more intimidating is this elegant and stylish part. People get really afraid that am I going to sound the right way? But in fact, this elegant and stylish part doesn’t happen on a first draft. Elegant and stylish writing happens in revision, even for professional writers. A lot of professional writing that you see when you read a magazine, or a novel, that’s been through good editing. It didn’t sound like that on the first draft, it’s been polished up, sometimes by multiple editors. So I don’t want you to even worry about elegant and stylish when you’re writing your first draft, just worry about getting that idea across in a clear and logical and efficient way. I also like to ask my students the question, what is it that makes a good writer? I’m going to tell you a few of the things that I think people associate with good writers. A lot of people, for example, think that in order to be a good writer you’ve got to have some sort of inborn talent. And a lot of scientists feel that they weren’t born with the writing gene, they were born with a math gene, or the science gene, so they don’t feel like they have that inborn talent. Or you might think that it takes years of English and humanities classes to become a good writer, and again, a lot of scientists don’t have that. Or maybe you think it takes some kind of artistic nature. Or many people think it takes the influence of alcohol and drugs, or maybe some kind of divine inspiration, some kind of muse. All of these things get associated with good writers, a lot of people think you need these to be a good writer, but in fact, I don’t think you need any of these. What I think it takes to be a good writer is that one, as I said before, you need to have something to say. You need to have something that you’re passionate about that you want to communicate. And that sounds a little bit trivial but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a student sitting in my office, I’m doing editing with them. And I’ll say I was confused by what you meant in this paragraph. What is it you were trying to say? And they kind of look at me and go, well, I’m not really sure what I was trying to say in that paragraph. They don’t know, and that’s why it’s a confusing paragraph because they weren’t actually sure what they were trying to say. So figure out first what it is that you’re trying to say. Then, of course, you need logical and clear thinking. You have to be able to present your arguments in a logical way particularly, in scientific writing. But again, I think most scientists feel very comfortable that they have both of these, they have something to say and they have logical thinking. What you might not have yet is that you may not know a few simple learnable rules of style. And these are the tools that I can teach you in this class. Surprisingly, you may not have ever been taught these before. In fact, in some cases you may have been taught the opposite. These are fairly simple rules that I can teach you, they’re easy to learn and once you’ve learned them it’ll be a lot easier for you to write in a clear, effective, and efficient way. So one of the take home messages I have for this course is that good writing can be learned. Good writing is a skill. You don’t have to be born with it. You can learn it. And as with any skill, you’ll learn it through practice. And we’re going to practice a lot in this course. Besides taking this course, there’s a few other things you can do to improve your writing. First of all, you can read a lot. Reading is a really good way to learn to be a better writer. And read sources of professional good writing like magazines and novels, non-fiction books, not necessarily the scientific literature. Actually, your first assignment for this course is to go home this week and find time to read something that you wouldn’t have had time to read otherwise. Make some time to read something even if it’s just a magazine. And pay attention to how professional writers write. Pay attention to some of the tricks they use and try to imitate them. Do as much reading as you can outside of the scientific literature while you’re taking this course. If you have time, as I said, writing is a skill so the more you practice, the better you’re going to get. If you have a little time, at the beginning or end of each day, try to write in a journal. Can be an old fashioned journal, or an electronic journal, but try to spend a few minutes just practicing some of the techniques that we’re going to talk about in this course. I also want you to let go of some academic writing habits, some bad habits that you may have picked up by being in academia too long. I call this the deprogramming step. I’m going to try to break you of some of those bad habits. I’m going to point them out to you. A really good tip before you sit down to write about your research is try to talk it out with somebody, a friend who is not necessarily in your discipline. Oftentimes, when we talk about our research, we do it in a more conversational tone, we talk in more simple terms. We actually present our ideas better than when we sit down to write, so talking it out first can really help. Another thing that I’m going to emphasize in this course, is that I want you to actively try when you sit down to write your manuscript, to actively try not to bore your reader. And that might sound funny, but we are all in the same boat here, because we all have to read the scientific literature. You’ve probably had the experience where you’ve got this stack of scientific papers that you’ve gotta read. They’re sitting on your desk, and you’re dreading reading them because you know they’re going to be tedious and they’re going to be hard to get through and they’re going to be dull. But the scientific literature doesn’t have to be that way, we can write in a more engaging and lively and interesting way. So we’re going to try to get you to write in that way in this class. Next, stop waiting for inspiration. I have lots of students who tell me, well, I can only write on certain days when I feel inspired, when the moon is in a certain alignment and I have had enough sleep. And they have all of these excuses, why they can’t write today. Of course, this is just a procrastination technique. You don’t need any special muse or inspiration to be able to write. You do need to be prepared to write and that’s something that we’re going to talk about in this course, but you don’t need some kind of special inspiration. So just get over this notion that you have to be inspired in, and get yourself to sit down and write. Another thing that I think is really important to realize is that writing is hard for everyone. You should realize that even for professional writers who do this everyday, there’s just something inherently difficult about the task of writing. So if you find writing hard, you’re in the same boat as everybody else. Writing is hard for everyone, even professional writers. And I think that just knowing that can help to reduce some of the anxiety that you may have around writing. Also in this course, I’m going to try to give you a lot of tips to help make your writing easier. I’m also going to emphasize revision in this course. A lot of scientists don’t spend enough time on revision. They really worry over the first draft, they try to get it perfect on the first draft, and they don’t give enough weight to revision. So I’m going to try to get you to flip that. And to go through the first draft quickly, just get it down on paper, and then put your emphasis on revision. The elegance part, that happens on revision, not on the first draft. So just barrel through that first draft and then spend time revising. Another thing I’m going to teach you in this course is how to cut ruthlessly. It’s hard to cut your own words, but you have to learn how to not become too attached to your own words. You have to learn how to be a ruthless editor. I’m going to do a lot of ruthless editing examples in this course. If you send me something to edit, I warn you, I am a ruthless editor, and sometimes, people will send me something like an abstract where they say, it’s 250 words. It needs to be less than 200. Can you help me? And I, of course, take that as a challenge and I’ll send it back to them with 150 words. So to learn how to cut. We’re going to talk all about, this week, about how to cut clutter from your work. If you can, find a good editor. Somebody who can edit your work, a spouse, a friend, a significant other if they’re willing, can all be good editors. Preferably, somebody outside of your discipline, who can look at your work and give some feedback. Tell you whether it’s written at a level that they can understand. Tell you where it’s confusing, if its boring. We’re going to do peer editing in this course, so you’ll have an opportunity to find some good editors, hopefully, in this course. You might find somebody in this course who you work well with, and you could continue editing each other’s work even after the course ends. Finally, the last thing I’m going to emphasize in this course is that I want you to start taking some risks in your writing. Scientific, academic writing can feel very confining. You’re kind of forced into this little box. You’re told there are all these rules that you don’t dare break. It really boxes you in. It doesn’t let you find your own voice as a writer. So, I’m going to encourage you to take some risks. Go ahead and put something in your writing that’s a little bit funny, put something that’s provocative. I want you to take some risks, and find your own voice, as a writer.
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