Who are you writing for?

It is widely acknowledged that a to pursue a successful career in science requires the hide of a rhino (or, as I put it in my first ever post, the skin of a sunfish…). Receiving, giving, responding to, and gossiping about criticism are such an integral part of the job, that to take such things personally is a recipe for misery. Over the years I think I have got better at reading criticism of my own work at one step removed, and - although of course I swear as much as anyone at idiot reviewers who cannot seem to appreciate my genius - it takes me fewer deep breaths now before I can knuckle down to the task of patiently and politely pointing out the error of their ways. But it turns out I do have an Achilles’ heel.

Regular readers will know I have an interest in good writing, and whether or not that has rubbed off on me to any great extent, certainly I take pride in my sentences. In moments of weakness I even allow myself to think that, of all the stuff I do in the course of my job, writing paragraphs and drawing actual graphs are the two areas where I might possibly - occasionally - excel. (Not Excel, please note. Never Excel.)

So when someone criticises my writing - not the content, not the science, but the writing - well. It hurts.

Here’s some feedback on a recent manuscript from a new collaborator:

My main comments related principally to the prose rather than the content of the ms. I found it very difficult to follow and think that general readers will have an even harder time.


There follow some constructive suggestions that, of course - as is the way with all criticism taken personally - I scoffed at and ignored entirely. But - as is also the way with all criticism taken personally - I have continued to mull them over and wonder grudgingly if, perhaps, there might be something to them. See what you think:

The prose is confusing. Paragraphs should be able to stand on their own. If I were to skim the paper by reading the first sentence of each paragraph I don't think I'd understand the paper very well. The opening sentence of a paragraph should not require the reader to got back to the previous section to understand… For the discussion in particular, but everywhere really, the opening sentence should basically state for the reader what the paragraph says, while the last might summarize it.

Now this runs entirely counter to the way that I like to write, where paragraphs run seamlessly from one to another, each forming an integral part of a coherent whole. Far from standing on their own, paragraphs should - in my literary world - refer back to previous ones and coax the reader on to the next.

What has kept pulling me back to my collaborator’s words, though, is the realisation that I am thinking here as a reader-for-pleasure. But how many scientific papers do I actually read for pleasure? How, indeed, do I read a paper? Very rarely from beginning to end. No, I skim, searching for key points and primary results. Would that reading-for-duty purpose not be better served if paragraphs were stand-alone? If the first sentence of each were effectively a sub-sub-heading? Would that not help me to process more efficiently the filling of the sales pitch--science--sales pitch sandwich that is the scientific paper? (Of course in some outlets the science might be more accurately considered a wilted, neglected side-salad to the sales pitch’s sirloin, but I digress…)

Given that a golden rule of good writing is to consider your audience, self-contained paragraphs perhaps don’t sound such a daft idea, even if I might have to hold my nose to write 'em.

One stand I will continue to make, however, is against over-zealous copy editors. I think we’re so used to bowing to academic editors’ every whim, that we sometimes forget our power as authors (especially once a paper’s been accepted) and let every Philistine needlessly ‘correct’ our carefully split infinitives. It’s useful, I find, to have some supporting evidence when arguing that a sentence simply reads better with ‘And’ at the beginning, the way you wrote it. Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style is a current favourite, with snappier options to correct some ‘corrections’ here and here. I have also recently successfully argued against a journal's policy of not including websites in the reference section. My argument was that so much of our science now is reliant on the contributions people make to Open Source software projects that correctly referencing R packages is the least we can do to recognise this. My experience is that when you make these arguments clearly - rather than just seethe about them in private - journals listen.