During the last few months of my postdoc, I found myself writing three papers simultaneously. One of the papers contained results contributed by two students I’d supervised, so I decided that this would be the perfect time to let the graduate student dip his toe into the shark-infested waters of academic writing. I provided him with an outline of the whole paper, and we discussed which of his results to include and how they might fit into the discussion. He came back to me a couple of weeks later with drafts of partial results and discussion sections.
The discussion was hilarious. It began with the phrase “The human genome is a motley harlequin”, and became even more eccentric as it progressed. It was wonderful stuff. I loved it.
But I knew I couldn’t use it.
A little part of me died as I took out my red pen and rewrote his words in a more conventional academic style.
The student’s second draft was much less interesting, and required less red ink.
Jenny’s recent post about “the untold narrative behind the precise dryness of scientific papers”, and the discussion in the comments, brought back memories of this episode. With perfect timing, I went on to spend the next couple of days editing two new graduate students’ funding applications, and encountered further red pen fodder.
Cath prepares to crush another student’s soul
“Motely [sic] crew” (what is it with motley students?) was transformed to the more conventional “multidisciplinary team”. “Erudite shrewdness” was deleted entirely.
My exact feedback to one of the students was as follows:
On a more general note, I found that both sections had the wrong tone and style for a funding application. Part of the process of submitting this proposal is to learn grantsmanship skills, something the panel will take into account when reviewing your application. I suggest that you use a more scholarly tone that better reflects the conventions of academic writing; they are there for a reason. Specifically, phrases such as “erudite shrewdness” and “motley crew” are out of place and inappropriate.
Yeah… deadlines were approaching, and patience was in short supply. Not wanting to be a total bitch though, I followed up with “I would be very happy to review a revised version of these sections. And don’t worry, this is all part of the learning process that is grad school!”
The version that came back was much more
boring conventional, and was accompanied by a rather dejected-sounding email. Man, I felt evil. I replied with “Always remember that no-one is born knowing how to do this stuff! The more high quality research proposals and reports you can read, the faster you will pick it up”.
The conventions of formal academic writing are there for a reason. And students need to learn to (mostly) conform to them. It’s almost a code, a language that helps to convey the necessary information in as concise a way as possible. There is room for individuality (and good and bad writing) within these conventions – but not much.
Assimilation is inevitable.
Thank goodness scientists have alternative outlets (such as blogs) for
whimsy and jollity idiosyncratic and eccentric writing!