Monday, December 04, 2006

other people's writing

Major tasks in the past week have involved reading and critiquing other people's writing - in one case it was an NSF proposal and in the other I was reviewing a paper. Fortunately both are now submitted and I should be off the hook from reading other people's stuff for a few days. But for now, a few thoughts from my addled brain.
  1. Many people aren't great writers. Sentences that are too awkwardly constructed, or redundant show up with surprising frequency even in work that is supposedly ready for publication. Some people write around the point they are trying to make, leaving their readers to do the hard work of figuring out what they are trying to say.
  2. People have very different house-keeping standards from mine. References in multiple formats, Xs left as stand-ins for numbers (e.g., XX sq. mm), figures misnumbered or not referenced. I'm not sure whether sloppiness like this reflects the general way things go "out the door" from these people or whether they know that S and I are careful proofreaders who can't stand this sort of thing and won't let it slip through.
  3. It can be really hard to turn off the editor in me and focus on critiquing the science. And vice versa. Maybe it's because I used to be an editor, but I get so hung up on fixing sentences that I have to force myself to pay attention to the science at hand. But other times I am annoyed enough by the science that I'll let whole pages of bad writing slip by me.
  4. Giving constructive criticism is a lot harder than just noting awkward sentences, vague wording, or poorly-explained ideas. From my limited experience reading reviews, I know that I need to be constructive and specific in order to be helpful. But sometimes I feel like just highlighting an entire paragraph and saying "yuck."
  5. I'm still struggling with the level of detail that I am supposed to go into in various situations. Obviously, my level of investment in my research group's proposal should be greater than for the paper review, but what does that mean in terms of my comments? Do I have an obligation to try to fix every problem in the proposal but not in the paper? (neither of them involves funding for me) How about when the writing in question my undergraduate's thesis? Then where do I draw the line between teaching him better writing skills and rewriting too much?
  6. Reviews take a lot longer than I wish they did. Is this true for other people? I probably spent 1.5 days reviewing the paper, and by the end I was very cranky. Maybe it's because I picked all the low hanging fruit first and left the meaty scientific issues for the end.
Tomorrow I think I'll play with data.

3 comments:

volcano girl said...

Two quick comments -

Sometimes I feel like I do more talking and writing about science than actually doing science research! I love collecting and playing with data, but it's the follow through that really counts in the long run.

Writing is a struggle. I used to be a poor writer and had to really work at it to be effective. Some people can think in fully formed sentences, but for the rest of us, it takes hard work.

(Glad to hear the terrorist threat (a.k.a foggy pregnancy brain) was not as dangerous as some would think!)

Anonymous said...

I hear ya, I always underestimate how long I have to spend on a review, and usually how much caffeine it will take to get me through it. My trick:

1. On the first read through, I correct all the annoying grammar/spelling errors (and really, in this day and age of spellcheckers?), awkward phrases/sentences/paragraphs, sloppy editing, etc.

2. On the second read through, now that I know the places where bad writing would distract me, I concentrate on the science.

I have seen good science buried under bad writing, but often when the science is bad is when I usually run into the redundancy and long-winded "beating around the bush" stuff.

Anonymous said...

they should hire an editor first, so it is in good (grammatical) shape when it gets to you :)