On writing papers

One languid Sydney lunchtime I copied a particularly egregious paragraph from one of my co-authors and emailed it to my boss, with simply a ‘!’ for comment. A few minutes later his reply snuck sheepishly into my inbox, with the single comment, “I have subjected my sandwiches to eating”, thus summing up pretty much all that is wrong with the writing in research papers today.

Actually, of course, there’s a bit more than that wrong with the writing of research papers today, but I have to use the anecdote somehow.

I used to hate reading papers (little has changed). They are invariably tedious and long-winded, with the interesting bits behind a Berlin Wall of passive tense and inscrutable and interminable sentence constructions that seem to exist merely to prevent the author saying something as simple as “I did a PCR.”

Now yes, I get that there should be objectivity, and I get that we are not writing to please ourselves, but surely there is a better way? In the day job I get to read papers from many disciplines, and there is something wrong when I notice a well-written paper; when I sit up and think, gosh, this is fun. It is painfully rare that I get past the second sentence of the abstract without the overwhelming urge to push somebody’s face (preferably the author’s) through the window, or failing that go and get a cup of tea.

With the exception of sex, science is the best fun you can have. Why, then, do you write your papers couched in such pre-Victorian language? Is it because everybody else does it? That well-written, damn it, enjoyable papers exist puts the lie to that one. It’s because you’re lazy, and you’re scared. There’s no need for it. You want people to read your paper (assuming you’re being deliberately obtuse, in which case you have no business publishing at all), and you want people to think how great you are.

So learn what it takes, and put it into practise. Take a course, if necessary. Break every one of the ten rules.

What’s it going to take, huh? Wake up and smell the roses, and write me a paper I will enjoy and understand, and rave about to everyone I know. Who knows, you might even enjoy it.

About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
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21 Responses to On writing papers

  1. Benoit says:

    Every time I’ve tried to write a paper that I’d enjoy reading, reviewers and journal editors have made me hack it to bits. It’s their fault. Ha.

  2. rpg says:

    Which simply means that more authors need to refuse to bow to the editors…

  3. No more Dr Nice Guy!

  4. But seriously. I try to write my papers entirely in the active voice (using ‘we’ or the surname of the author I’m citing, and so forth) but I do have to admit that this is very difficult to do with some parts of the Methods. Can we have a free “passive voice” pass for some of our methodological passages?

  5. rpg says:

    Yeah, Methods is not so easy to not use the passive voice with (I’m making no apologies for my own grammar at this time of night).

    But Methods *can* be written clearly, so that someone else can (a) see what you’ve done and (b) repeat it…

  6. cromercrox says:

    I have subjected my sandwiches to eating is far too lively. It should be The sandwiches were sacrifieced and ingested

    But seriously, do you guys really think that editors like having to wade through this impenetrable waffle all day, every day? At least you guys get to do some science in between. This editor would love it if scientists learned to write less stiffly. As for referees? Well, we have ways of dealing with them. If we so choose.

    (And by the way, the best fun you can have with your clothes on isn’t science, it’s playing a screaming tonewheel Hammond in a packed back-room bar to an enthusiastic crowd of blues fans)

  7. Benoit says:

    My waffles are certainly penetrable! Stiffly! But thanks for the comment Henry, I was being completely ridiculous. Of course we’re the ones who have to write this stuff better (albeit in 1500 words or less with 15 supplementary figures to describe), and it should be fun to write and read. Sometimes we need a reminder that the telling of the science should be as enjoyable as the doing of it….er, OK, maybe we should only write about the good stuff.

  8. Steve Caplan says:

    I think there is a big difference between poorly written and “stiffly” written. I agree with your comments about the lack of “fun” in reading papers, but the truth is that for most papers that are read by peers in a fairly narrow specialist arena, they are only looking for the “bottom line” in the paper, and style, format (and unfortunately grammar and even spelling) are not high among the priorities…

    With regards to this comment: “Which simply means that more authors need to refuse to bow to the editors…”

    That’s easy to say, but if you have grant funding depending on productivity, most scientists will not just “bow”, but kiss the editor’s feet…

  9. cromercrox says:

    @Benoit – seriously, I know how hard it is. On the very few occasions that I’ve actually written papers (one published in a journal, a book chapter, woeful I know) I sit down to write with the best of intentions, aiming to produce a model of elegance and lucidity, but what comes out at the end is congested and horrible.

    @Steve – the only entity who has ever kissed my feet, to my certain knowledge, is Canis croxorum. You have been warned.

  10. stephenemoss says:

    Cromercrox – re: the sandwiches. We’re no longer allowed to used ‘sacrificed’ because of associations with pagan rituals. The sentence should read ‘the sandwiches were humanely killed and then ingested via the oral route’.

  11. Austin says:

    Steve M’s version is close, but too brief and comprehensible, and lacking evidence of ‘regulatory and oversight footprint’. It should probably say:

    ‘Sandwiches were euthanized in accordance with Schedule 1 of the Comestibles Welfare Act and then ingested via the oral route, with at least fifteen cycles of mastication. All procedures were approved by the Institutional Bread-based Human Nutritional Products Review Board’ .

  12. cromercrox says:

    I discovered a new word recently, meaning the action of pharynx in ingesting and swallowing food – glutition.

  13. Erika Cule says:

    With the exception of sex, science is the best fun you can have.

    Reminds me of one example from the ever-entertaining Overheard at Imperial Facebook group

    A: I love Biochemistry
    B: More than sex?
    A: Aren’t they the same thing?

  14. @stephenemoss says:

    Cromercrox and Austin

    For a moment I thought that your comment that ‘what comes out at the end is congested and horrible’, was an unnecessarily graphic conclusion to the tale of the ‘euthanized sandwich’. And I imagine by now that rpg is thoroughly regretting ever having mentioned sandwiches in the original post.

  15. rpg says:

    No, it’s all good.

  16. ricardipus says:

    One possible antidote to long-winded language is having to re-submit a 4,000 word paper (say) to a journal that requires it to be 1,500 words in length (say).

    Unfortunately, on the one occasion I had to do this, it took a long and babbling manuscript and turned it into a terse and unintelligible one. But that’s just me, I’m sure it would work beautifully for more talented writers.

    Can I add “walls of text in Supplemental Methods” to the do-not-do list? Even worse than reading the Methods, getting confused and not understanding what was done, is having to read 100 pages of Supplemental Material with the same result.

  17. Maybe that’s not what you’re saying, but I’d guess that enthusiastic writing will not be the same as scientific writing. In other words, could it be that the kind of writing you’d like to see does not belong in scientific papers?

    Exaggeration often helps to make the point: “I did a PCR and we got this totally awesome band at 500kb, while in the control it was at 1000kb, proving the deletion. This fantastic discovery will surely cure all cancers soon.” Short, to the point and fun to read – but not very scientific. Now obviously, nobody would write this, but for me, a dispassionate (boring?) reporting style is essential to prevent me from becoming suspicious of the authors.

  18. rpg says:

    I think there’s a world of difference between the example you give and boring. You can be dispassionate, yet interesting and well-written.

  19. cromercrox says:



    No, that’s it.

  20. suzy pepper says:

    I’m currently writing the very first paper that I plan on submitting for publication. I want it to be enjoyable, and I don’t want to write in that horrible, dull manner that most other researchers seem to write in, but my advisor is taking all the fun out of it. I can’t wait until I’m in charge. All my papers will be fun, then.

  21. akc says:

    Next post should be examples of these fun papers, because I don’t think I’ve seen anything matching your description in my field. Our best one (lately) was including the Snark throughout, but one of the reviewers objected to the alice in wonderland referenced title (I think missing the point – the editor got it and allowed it). On the other hand, I’ve had coworkers object vehemently to a title because it was a reference to popular culture (they supposed; and it was) and blamed this for the subsequent rejection of the paper.

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