Coloring outside the lines in science writing

by Janice Nigro

A great irony in science is how generic we scientists often write about it. We use clichéd lines. “To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to show X…” Or “However, X still remains unknown.” Or my favorite, “Such and such cancer is the most aggressive tumor type in adults.”

In the last case, it’s almost always the first sentence of any article on cancer. The sentence is usually followed by a full paragraph that we could simply cut and paste from probably the first clinical article ever written on the topic. And cancer is not a trivial topic.

Now I must admit that I have used those exact sentences in some of my papers. Some of my most treasured pieces of work that I dedicated many unpaid-for hours to. I’m not sure what prompted me to use some of those phrases other than I didn’t spend enough time thinking about how to do it some other way.

As an avid reader of science, I used to not think a lot about those specific sentences. When I read scientific articles in journals, I am looking for information. I kind of have a formula for reading them; I read the title, maybe the abstract. I then look closely at the images and read probably only the last paragraph of the discussion. It’s not really reading; it’s more like internet reading where you are often just looking for a quick blast of information.

But that’s all changed now. I am a science editor. As an editor, I read every single sentence more than once in the science articles that I edit. The science I read is great. It comes to me from all over the world, and the spectrum is much broader than what I chose to read when I was working at the bench. I learn amazing stuff. It’s super interesting how culture influences research. But that’s another topic…

The problem is a lot of the fabulous science is buried in these formulaic sentences and article structure that gets the job done. Is it difficult to write papers? Yes, it is! And no matter what your mother tongue is. It’s even more difficult to help people write their papers which is probably why we don’t get so much training on how to do it.

So I struggle. I struggle with how to help people present their fabulous data in a way that gets it noticed without having to declare it’s original.

I struggle more with how to educate scientists to do it better in their next paper. It’s not fair to just be a critic. I can give you some basic structure about writing science articles, but when you sit down, how exactly do you do it?

My gut response is to be emotionally attached to the work that you are trying to write about. And don’t be afraid to show it.

I have a clear history of not being able to stick with something that has no meaning for me. I have a PhD in biology, but I got a D in my first biology class in college-it wasn’t very interesting. I dabbled in a lot of different projects when I lived and worked in Norway, but low grade gliomas kept calling me. I finally got into stride with a project when I decided to go for it, and probably completed a project that I am the most proud of in my life.

I think it’s important to work this out before you even start your experiments because it is ultimately the key to writing up your work successfully. There is a lot of advice out there on how to write scientific papers, but honestly the best advice I can give you is to choose to work on something you feel moved by. It’s simply not easy to write about work that you are not that interested in.

Good writing of any type comes from emotion.

But when you sit down to write, how do you start to do that? Think about what possessed you to work on the topic in the first place. For me, my work was fundamentally a clinical issue, but the biology of my topic has also moved me for many years.

Ask yourself some of these questions. What’s an amazing fact about the field so far that got you interested in the project? One of the most hated questions I ask is “Why did you do this project? Or why did you think this idea would work?” Although we trivialize these questions, they are fundamental to our success in writing and well, in science in general.

For example, I recently wrote a paper on a brain tumor model. The basic technology to do that is nothing new. So I took a different approach. I am amazed at how much genetic information is out there, and how we have superficially mined these databases so far. So, while I didn’t start to talk directly about brain tumors, I talked about the problem we have with the genetic data and how it’s not attached to any underlying biology. At least not beyond knowing that mutations are associated with cancer. But fundamentally this is why I did the project-to learn something about the biology of the tumors based on their genetics. That gave the paper a purpose beyond a description of the model.

I don’t think a lot of the work we write about as scientists demonstrates that we have an emotional attachment to it. We write as if we belong to some sort of a cult repeating lines until we get to the end where we make a grand but vague declaration about what we will do next. It’s perhaps an unfortunate consequence of the industrialization of science.

So go out and write your next paper with these thoughts in mind. Even though we have a basic format, Introduction Methods Results and Discussion, we have a lot of room for coloring outside the lines.

Don’t try to think about how your paper should be written; write what you want to be written. In your own words, we will be able to see what makes your work unique, different than all the rest.

You won’t have to tell us then that it’s the first.

©Janice Marie Nigro/janikiInk.com

Looking for a scientific editor or writer? Contact Janice Nigro at Janice Nigro Ink. I have published in Cell, Science, and Nature, and articles I have edited have appeared in Cancer Research, PLoSONE, the Journal of Surgical Oncology, and Oncotarget.

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2 thoughts on “Coloring outside the lines in science writing

  1. I always enjoy reading your writing. You explain everything so clearly. I may not completely understand all of the scientific terms but it holds my attention to the end!

    • That’s a huge compliment coming from you…thank you so much. Sometimes it works…I still feel like every post is an experiment, but it’s fun to try!

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