Mentoring graduate students to write scientifically can be extremely rewarding when one witnesses the thrill they experience from receiving that acceptance letter that an article they wrote, or helped to write, was accepted for publication. Plus, as academics, it puts a feather in our caps as well, not to mention that training the next generation of scientists is something we should be doing anyway. But often the fruit of such writing mentorship is not without some labor (or in some cases plain ol’ toil).
Graduate students come to us with a wide array of writing skills. Some are already excellent writers and just need a little guidance as to how to succinctly express their thoughts within the page limitations specified by a journal; unfortunately, some have been unprepared by their undergraduate studies and write in incomplete sentences, fail to consider the target audience, neglect spacing and punctuation, or simply quote their way through the entire article without truly understanding the material. This apparent inability to write well is compounded by many graduate students’ mistaken notion that their writing is excellent because they “earned” A’s in their undergraduate studies for their composition. So it is at this place where I’ve learned to start with novice graduate students as we begin a writing project together.
As we start writing, such as a review or synthesis article, I present them a working outline of it and indicate what section(s) they are responsible to research, read, and write. I also give them a few of my published articles that I’ve written with prior graduate students and instruct them to examine the overall organization and sentence structure before they even “put pen to paper.”
|I do this so they can get a feel for what is expected and how to do it. I also knead into our conversation that writing for a scientific journal is much different than their previous writing for a class assignment. I explain that a scientific article is a permanent record of scholarship and available to everyone, and once it is published our credibility is on the line because we are responsible for the content of what we present in the article. In addition, the article must be concise, to the point without superfluous tangents (one or two may be alright depending on the circumstances), grammatically correct, scientifically accurate, and above all, understandable. As I point out, if we have the cure for cancer but cannot express it well in our article, it will still not get published.||x||1. Clarity
2. Consider the audience
3. First person vs. third person
4. Avoid acronyms
5. Logical transitions
6. Sufficient detail
7. Read later and out loud
After their assignment of what to write is given, we break, and my graduate students are sent on their merry way to being their work with a deadline of a month or two, depending on the difficulty of the subject matter and their existing competencies. After such time, I review their written work for content and clarity, and if need be, weave my writing sections into the other components of the outline. Then we meet in person again where I review their written section(s) with them as I have already made handwritten edits (track changes works too but I do most of my writing initially by hand). This reviewing and rewriting process can go on for a few weeks to even several semesters, depending on the topic and their proficiency. I find it is during these meetings that I can explain many of the ends-and-outs of writing for publications (not to mention teaching them content). Although there are many points that I make during these meetings, presented in this blog are but a few of the most common problems I find as graduate students learn to write scientifically.
Many graduate students write to sound intelligent instead of writing to actually convey meaning. For example, one may write, “Utilization of exhaustive search engines examining the extant literature on the phenomenon of neurological expression of thought, 4,567 articles were reviewed revealing…” or one may write, “A review of 4,567 articles on cognition revealed…” Either may be used but the second one is clearer and more concise. I inform my graduate students to write as if they were conveying the information to their grandmother.
2. Consider the Audience
I mentor across two disciplines, and whether it is my nursing or psychology graduate students, I urge them to write from an inter-professional perspective so that someone outside of their discipline can also glean insights from it. I inform them that as their research and practice interests develop, they will be reading on their topics from other disciplines. Therefore, it is important to avoid discipline specific, exclusionary terminology whenever possible. As I tell my graduate students, “You never know who is going to pick up your article and read it. So write it for everyone.” By doing so, this will also help improve clarity as well as help promote readership of the article.
3. First Person versus Third Person
I ask my students, “How do you defend a lion?” They look at me puzzled. To which I answer, “By getting out of its way.” The same is said for science. Not only is it a waste of journal space to refer to yourself and say such things as “We examined the relationship between X and Y and…” or “I hypothesized that X and Y…”; by referring to oneself, it introduces subjectivity to an article that should ideally be objective. Instead, these statements should be restated to remove referring to oneself entirely from the writing (i.e., “The relationship between X and Y…” or “It was hypothesized that X and Y…” In other words, “Just the facts ma’am” (Dragnet). However, this does not apply to writing editorials; but at this stage in their career, editorials are seldom written by graduate students.
4. Avoid Acronyms
A common problem graduate students grapple with is the overuse and inconsistent use of acronyms. Acronyms place a cognitive burden on the reader and hinder comprehension which is detrimental to effective writing; the goal of effective writing is supposed to be that the reader can easily comprehend the meaning of the author. If the reader has to memorize 12 acronyms along the way, it is unlikely that the further meaning of the article will be remembered. Also if an acronym is used sporadically and then the acronym term is spelled out, the reader may doubt whether they memorized the acronym correctly; at the very least it is distracting. In addition, acronyms may be confusing. Once I was reading an article that used the acronym STD, which seems straightforward since I study HIV but I was actually reading an article on “SubThyroid Disorder” so every time my eyes hit those three letters, my brain automatically registered “Sexually Transmitted Disease” which I found very disorienting as I read this article. In general, I simply instruct my students to be kind to the reader and don’t make them have to unnecessarily memorize a bunch of acronyms; if acronyms are to be used, then they should be used sparingly and consistently.
5. Logical Transitions between Sentences
I know it may seem apparent but it clearly is not, so I’m going to say it first – “Each sentence should naturally and logically flow from one to another.” Unfortunately, a few of my graduate students contend with what can be classified as circumlocution. Severe circumlocution is actually a psychiatric symptom found in drug and alcohol abuse when folks may be describing a concept such as a tree but instead write about that “green thing, usually green but sometimes different colors in autumn if it is not coniferous or dead and it grows and birds live in it but necessarily; squirrels can too. However, it needs water and light but it is not like other plants even though birds can live in other plants, at least some. But this is tall, but not at first but can be and when it is it can be used for lumber but also to make fire.” In other words, some graduate students write around what they are trying to say and EXPECT the reader to try to figure out the meaning of their words. The job of the scientific writer is to convey the meaning as clearly and succinctly as possible without sacrificing too much relevant detail for the reader to evaluate the value of the content in the article. So what I say to some of my graduate students struggling with this is, “Imagine each of your sentences being a pearl and each pearl being connected to another pearl and so forth. Now imagine all those pearls being connected by a thread of logic and clarity. That is how your writing should be.” Likewise, the logical thread should naturally flow from one sentence to the next; in fact, the logic should be so clear that the next sentence should be expected, almost anticipated. It takes time and plenty of practice to do this effectively (it has taken me years to get where I am and I’m still practicing).
6. Sufficient Detail
As alluded to in the prior point, scientific writing requires a delicate balance between brevity and details. Thus, problems I have often observed is that some graduate students err on either being too brief or supplying too much detail in their description of a study or rationale. I believe the key is to provide just a few of the most important facts of the study and then move on to the next point. For example, I have seen statements like this – “Smith (2007) found older adults to have memory problem.” Obviously, this is too brief. A better way to say this with a few methodological details is “In a cross-sectional study of 512 community-dwelling older adults between 60-90 years, Smith (2007) found 68% indicated experiencing memory complaints that were moderately to severely troubling.” Any more detail than this would be too much (usually, there are always exceptions).
With some of my graduate students, I ask them to read certain sections of their writing out loud to me. After which, I ask them to explain what they meant. The funny thing is that they often can’t, especially if it has been a week or two since they wrote it. Clearly, if they don’t know what they meant, the reader won’t either. I say this time and again to my students, “When you write, put it away a few days and come back to it and read it.” The point being is that something magical happens to the brain and we can see not only mistakes in our writing that we can catch and correct, we even see places to improve upon it and make it clearer as well as adding new insights to the content. I also highly encourage my graduate students to read their work OUT LOUD, or better yet, have a friend read it for clarity and provide feedback. This is a very effective tool in picking up on changing tenses in an article, which is another problem graduate students and faculty (including me) wrangle with in their writing. These two simple techniques are essential for good writing. I’m sure my hall mates at work have thought I’m talking to myself (and I am), but it is the price to pay for publishing. And as I tell my students, “I’m hard on their writing now, so the reviewers will not be hard on it later.” So far, it seems to work!