Jeremy recently posted a question on who are the most stylish writers in ecology. Stylish is good – scientific writing can be beautiful. But, as I mentioned in the comments, my goal is more prosaic. I just want to be a clear writer. My PhD adviser, Mike Rosenzweig, was a leading inspiration for this. I tell every graduate student of mine to read the introduction to his book on species diversity where he expounds on why it is important to be a clear writer and gives a number of quick tips. I can’t quote the whole passage here (it is pages xv-xvi if you have access to a copy), but here are two quotations to start with:
On why to write clearly (and why most scientists don’t): “Here’s another warning. Clear writing brings a grave danger: People may begin to understand you! Then they will probably disagree with you.”
And on what it takes to write clearly: “But be warned. Writing more clearly takes hard work. The more effortless it seems, the more effort it took. It all depends on whether you have something to say. If you do, you’ll care to work hard to get it across.”
Writing a piece about how to write well is one of those really hubristic, setting yourself up for failure endeavors. So let me be clear. I don’t in anyway hold myself up as a writing expert nor a great writer, although I would like to think I am (and based on feedback I probably am) at least a clearer than average writer. I expect half the readers are better writers than I, so I offer these thoughts in the spirit of use what you like, ignore the rest, and please add your own thoughts in the comments. (Plus I’m feeling guilty on how long its been since my last post, and Jeremy’s post brought this topic to mind so I’m going to go with it)
Here are some of my favorite tips for clear scientific writing:
1) Audience, audience, audience. You may be sole author, but writing is still a dialogue – between you and the reader. There is no such thing as writing that is most clear in an absolute sense. Writing is only more or less clear in the context of a particular audience. Think about your audience before you start writing. One audience’s dense jargon is another audience’s shorthand. Regularly check in on your writing and whether you think it is reaching that audience.
2) Much of writing is convention. This follows immediately from point #1. Introduction/methods/results/discussion is not the only way nor even necessarily the best way to write a paper. But it is what a reader expects. So fulfill their expectation. They’ll spend less time trying to figure out the overall flow of the paper and more time trying to understand the details of what you’re saying. Points #3, #4, #5 and #6 are at least in part about conventions. An example of a convention that tripped me up for my first five papers – the methods are in the past tense, the discussion is in the present. The introduction is mixed depending on whether describing previous work or what we do and do not currently know. Partly this is logical, but partly it is just a convention and I had to find it out from reviewers.
3) Know how to emphasize. There are numerous rhetorical devices for emphasizing a point. Repetition is a big one – when writing papers it is tempting to think you should not be repetitious. Indeed it is a fatal flaw to repeat unimportant material. But repeating your points of emphasis is your only hope to get somebody to actually remember them. Position is also important – the beginning and end of anything are the most emphasized parts. This is true for a paper, for a section of a paper or for a sentence. For example, one should always have a paragraph in the discussion mentioning the limitations you know about your work (better you get them out than the reviewers think you are ignorant of them), but this paragraph should never be the first or last paragraph of the discussion section unless what you really want the reader to remember is the shortcomings of your work. Same thing holds true for a sentence. “While travelling by train, I saw a purple unicorn standing in a meadow chewing her cud.” Rather buries the main point of the sentence, doesn’t it? Purple unicorn is so novel it tries to swim to the top, but it is ultimately buried by the preferential treatment given to travelling and chewing. Breaking a grammatical rule also calls attention. One of my favorite rhetorical techniques (to the point of overuse by me), is to start a sentence with “But”. My 3rd grade teacher, Mrs Adlof, told me never to do this. But it really grabs your attention. In the quote above from Mike he starts a whole paragraph with “But”. This was honest signalling because it was his most important point on the whole page. All of this, of course, assumes you know what you want to emphasize. Emphasizing random points is like listening to a person who doesn’t modulate their voice to help you know when to pay attention. If you don’t know definitively what you want to emphasize, then you shouldn’t be writing yet. Your time is better spent thinking and talking to people about what your main points are.
4) Be precise. Don’t say “productivity varied with temperature”. Say “as temperature goes up, productivity goes up”. Don’t say “we obtained samples” say “we captured birds in a mist net and drew 1 ml of blood”. And – one of my Achilles heels in writing – don’t overuse pronouns. “It”, “they” and “this” add very little value and should be used only when the antecedent is unmistakably clear. “This” at least allows the opportunity (which should be used) for some clarification like “this calculation” or “this result”.
5) Formatting is your friend. Modern writers have the benefit of easy access to many formatting conveniences. Journals require headings, but one should almost always use subheadings (and maybe even sub-sub-headings). Similarly, a good numbered or bulleted list is stylistically very inelegant but rates very high on the clarity scale. It is the ultimate tool for parallel construction. Bold and italics can be useful as long as they aren’t overused.
6) The battle for good writing is won sentence by sentence. A good sentence is: short, has the subject and verb together, has an active verb, has the points of emphasis at the beginning and end, and moves the reader along from a familiar launch point at the start to the new information at the end.
For understanding how to build a good sentence, I find a website on scientific writing at Duke to be very useful. The example below started from one of their examples. Compare the following 6 sentences:
a) The data was analyzed using multivariate statistics.
b) The data was analyzed using multivariate statistics by us.
c) We performed a multivariate statistical analysis on the data.
d) We analyzed the data using multivariate statistics.
e) We calculated a principle component analysis [on all seven of our variables].
f) We regressed productivity against temperature.
I hope you can see that there is a general progression towards better sentences. Specific comments follow.
a) Sentence a has no subject. Who analyzed the data?! Inquiring minds want to know. Seriously, our brains are hardwired to ask who did what from every sentence. It is jarring not to answer.
b) Sentence b has a subject but it is miles away from the verb. Sentence b (and a) are passive constructs. Experts tell you not to use passive constructs. (cf. with how I originally wrote this sentence – “You are often told not to use passive constructs in good writing”- it would have been ironic if it was intentional). This is not because passive voice is inherently evil (it has its places), but because the passive usually leads to other evils like separating subject and verb or using weak verbs. By the way, using the verb “to be” (is are were was am been) is not the same as a passive construction, but using “to be” as your main verb is also a warning sign of a weak sentence.
c) Sentence c pushes the action (analyzing) into a noun and uses a weak, vague verb (performed – this could mean anything from running a centrifuge to dancing on stage to in this case clicking on buttons in SAS – blech – terrible verb). Sentence c also has a multiple-noun/adjective collision: “multivariate statistical analysis”. Putting 3 nouns and adjectives together is barely legal if used infrequently. Using four or more in a row should get you arrested.
d) Sentence d is getting there. It now puts the continuity (the “we” who has presumably been mentioned in the 5 preceding sentences) at the start of the sentence, while also putting the novel information (multivariate stats) in the position of emphasis and novelty (the end of the sentence).
e) Probably sentence e is even more impactful and informative (analyze is better than perform but analyze is still pretty darn weak, calculate is stronger). Sentence e is probably about the best you can do for a multivariate statistical analysis (you can’t turn principle component analysis into a verb). Depending on context the phrase in brackets might be informative or excessively wordy. Or the phrase in brackets could be moved into the middle of sentence if it should be deemphasized (“We input seven variables into a principle component analysis”), or to the beginning of the sentence if it bridges to what went before (e.g. “Using all seven variables, we calculated a principle component analysis” when the previous 3 sentences were about the variables).
f) Notice that in a slightly different context we can still do much better than sentence e. In sentence f, we have a very specific verb (regressed) and we replace the annoyingly vague phrase data (or variables) with our specific instances.
The one thing I haven’t talked about here in sentence construction is brevity. Like all rules it is not absolute. I’ve written some really good sentences that are 25-40 words long. But most of my really good sentences are in the 8-15 word range. This is another of my Achilles heels in writing. I love the good parenthetical phrase, the nuance, the sentence complexity that reflects the complexity of the real world. But I fight it on a regular basis. Subordinate clauses, adjectives and adverbs, parenthetical expressions and prepositional phrases should all be examined with severe scrutiny to see if they justify their existence. And if they do justify their existence, do they deserve a sentence of their own? There are many phrases that sound erudite and thus are often used in scientific writing but are really quite vacuous and wordy. Lesson 3 (on simplicity) in the aforementioned link to the Duke Science Writing website has excellent material on vacuous phrases.
This is a lot of work to rewrite a long sentence into a short one and then further work to rewrite with the issues highlighted in sentences a-f above in mind! Do you have to do this for every single sentence for every single paper? No. It does, however, mean that at points in your life when you are actively working on improving your writing, you need to go through your paper sentence by sentence, thinking about how you can improve it. Its probably also a good idea to do this for the abstract and conclusion of every paper. I have a Word macro that goes through and highlights sentences in yellow for longish and red for really long sentences, and a shadow on sentences that use forms of the verb “to be”. This quickly helps draw my attention to potential problems. Now, I don’t slavishly try to get my writing so it gets no flags. Robotic writing is not good writing either. But I find it a very helpful way to call my attention to the sentences I need to think about. I did this a lot when I was a graduate student writing my first few papers. Hopefully some of the lessons learned sunk in and carried forward, because I don’t have time to do this for every paper I write today (and certainly not every blog post or comment!). But I am going to start writing a book shortly, and I expect to spend time doing this again. Everybody needs to return to this level of attention once in a while.
My bottom line is this. The goal of writing a paper is to communicate. Communication involves things like brevity, following convention, good sentence structure, emphasizing important points, etc. In short it means saying what you’re trying to say as clearly as possible. Don’t be beguiled by the apparent erudition of complex, meandering phrases into being what is ultimately mealy-mouthed and unclear.
So, I have now pontificated on a subject on which I am not an expert and only a middling practitioner. On this blog alone, I am easily only the 4th best writer :-). I can write this only because these ideas are not particularly novel. One can find them in most good books on writing. Aside from the Duke Science Writing website I linked to above, and pages xv-xvi of Rosenzweig’s book, the paper by Gopen and Swan (1990 -The Science of Scientific Writing – just google it you’ll find PDFs everywhere) is also good.
Note that I’ve stayed away from the larger structural issues (i.e. how to organize a paper, etc.). Maybe I will come back to that someday. For now, I look forward to hearing others’ thoughts on the nuts and bolts of what makes clear writing.
For those who are curious here is a link to the Word macro I mentioned. I give it out AS IS. It should work in anything from Word 1997 to Word 2010 and on Mac and PC. It is written in VBA which is not officially supported since Word 2003, but it worked fine in Word 2010 for me today. Unfortunately, I cannot provide technical support on how to get it working on all these different platforms, but it should basically look like:
1) Download the file (you will probably get warnings as Word macros often carry viruses – you’ll just have to accept my word this is clean and click OK).
2) Open the file (WritingMacros.dot). In Word 2010 it automatically disables macros unless you click on the yellow bar at the top to enable them.
3) Open the file (word document) you want to analyze and make it the front/active document.
4) Run the macro VerboseCheck (how to do this is the part that changes a lot between versions of Word). My macro will flag sentences longer than 20, 30 and 40 words by colors (green, yellow, red if I remember). You can (and I sometimes do) change the lower limit to 15 words. It will also put any sentence with forms of the verb “to be” in shadow font.
5) Edit your document correcting hopefully most but not all flagged sentences
6) Run the macro UndoVerboseCheck to remove all the weird formatting (note that I intentionally used odd formatting like text color and shadowing so it doesn’t overwrite all of your own formatting).
People who figure out how to run this macro on their particular operating system/word version are welcome to post more detailed instructions here. And if you’re really stuck, you can post a question and see if somebody other than I can help you.
Thanks Brian – great advice up there. I’m always trying to improve my writing.
A couple of other resources have previously been mentioned on Fox associated blogs, but I think they’re worth repeating:
(1) Steve Ellner’s How to write a theoretical ecology paper that people will cite pdf link, simple rules which absolutely extend beyond writing about theoretical ecology.
(B) George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language. This essay ends with the following simple rules that, likewise, are relevant well beyond the intended audience (number v is my favourite).
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Thanks Mike – I too love Ellner’s piece. I often recommend it when I review or edit a ms that has a good idea but is lost in how to communicate a model (which is often). Hadn’t run across Orwell’s rules so thanks for passing it on. his ii and v remind of a quote attributed to Winston Churchill about “always use the short Anglo-Saxon word rather than the pollysylabic French-derived word”. I’ve never been able to find this quote so it is probably apocryphal, but many analysts of his writing have observed that he follows this rule (here and here)
Thanks for this post. Your readers might be interested in a website I designed for my own teaching, with some hints on how to write journal articles (including some suggestions on clarity, but also more general points):
Wow – a whole blog on writing a scientific ms. I really liked what I saw. An excellent resource.
I don’t really cared who analyzed the data. I clearly prefer the passive form “The data was analyzed…”
As I said – there are times and places for the passive and if you believe who did the research is irrelevant, that would be one. This is a very active debate right now (at least in ecology). If you read the instructions to author sections of different journals and look at what they say about methods, they all have very explicit instructions on whether to use active or passive voice. In the last 15 years, most journals have come to active voice, although the British Ecological Society journals are a notable hold out for the passive voice.
I personally prefer the active voice because it doesn’t let us pretend that there aren’t humans with human weaknesses doing the research. The passive voice is usually preferred exactly because it hides this.
Great post. Even though I’m usually complimented on my English writing (not a native English speaker), I know there is much room for improvement. One question: would you say that the use of first person should always be preferred, then? For example, in Portuguese, writing “Productivity was regressed against temperature” would be considered more appropriate than “We regressed…” for a scientific text.
Thanks Thiago. I should say up front that I am in awe of people who deal with these more subtle style issues when they are not in their native language.
For the first person vs passive voice, see my comment just above to Crazy Scientist. Different people have different opinions, although I think it is fair to say that at least in English and in ecology the tide is turning to first person active voice for methods.
Hi Thiago I would say it´s more usual because our academy (Portuguese speaker countries) is more conservative. But it´s also improving and specially Ecologists and productive Ecology Schools are starting to encourage the use of active instead passive voice.
I really should print this post out, and follow up on the references you provided. Like a lot of people, I learned how to write by trial and error, not via this sort of systematic advice. Of course, every such list of “rules of good practice” has its limits–but such lists absolutely have their purpose.
One minor quibble (and I suspect you’ll actually agree with me on this). You say that, if you don’t really know what you want to emphasize, you shouldn’t be writing. I disagree: I think that the process of trying and failing to clearly write down what you want to say is how you *find out* that you don’t really know yet what you want to say (or what you want to emphasize). Writing takes your thoughts out of your head and puts them on the page, and so lets you see them as if they’re somebody else’s thoughts. If something feels like it makes sense to you in your head, but you can’t make it make sense on paper, that means that the feeling in your head is an illusion. You may *sort of* know what you want to say, but you don’t *really* know. It’s hardly ever the case that someone knows what they want to say but just can’t say it (with the major exception of people writing in a second language). Trying to write things down isn’t a foolproof confusion-detection algorithm, of course. I’m sure every one of us has written things that didn’t make sense, but didn’t realize that they didn’t make sense until someone else pointed it out. But it’s definitely helpful.
You raise a good point. Writing is like playing a sport or speaking a language. There is no substitute for practice. The best guidelines can do is short cut the learning process a little.
On your second point, you raise an interesting issue of how one goes about the process of writing. There are different approaches:
1) Sit down to write to figure out what you want to say but don’t do much rewriting
2) Sit down to write to figure out what you want to write, but be open to lots of tearing up and rewriting
3) Think/talk about your topic a lot and plan out the writing carefully then sit down to write and don’t do much rewriting.
#2 and #3 are both viable approaches. #1 is not in my opinion really a viable approach (but it is what way too many graduate students think the writing process looks like)
I personally use a mix of #2 and #3. I almost always give a power point presentation on a topic and talk it over with my lab group before I ever start writing. But I certainly see surprising turns and new insights while I write, and I ride with those. But this absolutely requires a willingness to do a lot of rewriting. I think it is hard to be a good writer if you’re not open to a lot of rewriting. I think whether you do #2 vs #3 depends a lot on how hard writing is for you. The harder you find writing, the more you need to go down route #3 (not route #1!). I think early career scientists find the simple act of filling 20 pages double-spaced harder, so I strongly encourage my graduate students to focus on #3. I work a lot with them to boil their message down to one sentence *before* starting to write. But I know in my own experience, some of my best papers were ones where what it ended up as wasn’t even in my head when I started.
How to write and revise gets into a whole ‘nother huge area. As you say, I think different approaches work for different people. After having thought and talked about the study for a while, I can usually just sit down and write it up, starting with the Introduction, ending with the Discussion, and revising as I go. But that doesn’t work for a lot of people–they either find it difficult to get started, or they find themselves writing and then deleting what they’ve written, so that they never get anywhere. One suggestion for such folks is to start by making a really simple outline. It can even be a short list of bullet points you want to make. Then flesh it out a bit–turn the outline into a more detailed outline. Elaborate the points a bit, break them up into “points to make in Introduction”, “points to make in Results”, etc. Note key references where necessary. Start laying out what figures go with which ‘Results’ bullets, and so on. Then make that outline more detailed still, ideally down to the level of “here’s the point of the first paragraph of the Introduction, here’s the point of the second paragraph of the Introduction…”. Then flesh out each of those bits of your detailed outline into a paragraph. Viola–you’ve written your paper! You’ve done so by breaking the task down into small chunks, and by starting with a focus on the key points you want to make.
Lots more that could be said on this, obviously, and that has been said in many places. Anyone have any favorite sources of advice on how to approach the writing/revising process?
I love this! You starting a new internet science meme, Jeremy?
Banjo–you’ve done an experiment!
Euphonium–you’ve solved an equation!
I also like this blog post on how to write a scientific paper (aimed mostly at new grad students).
Thanks for pointing this out. Echoes many of the same themes I highlighted about emphasis (although more at the whole paper scale). Also, per my discussion with Jeremy above, this clearly comes down on the side of path #3 – plan your paper out carefully before starting to write with some very useful details about how to do this.
Regarding the Rosenzweig quote, I guess I never considered that bad writing could originate from people trying to avoid having people disagreements, but I can see it. People do have ulterior motives on all kinds of things.
To me the most important thing, by far, is that the writer very very clearly emphasize the most critical points he is making, and very very clearly lay out the logical structure at which he came to those conclusions. If that’s lacking, I’m outta there pronto.
Things like active vs passive voice, exactly how things are phrased etc–I believe those are largely unimportant red herrings. I do agree that sentences should be VERY direct and to the point, and that shorter is generally better. Short of that, I don’t care. I care about how clear the logical structure of the paper is, the epistemology of thing. And how important the topic is in the first place.
I agree of course about the end goal. And you raise the good point that as time becomes ever more precious our papers are more and more judged by how accessible they are to a time limited person- in short how clear they are.
But I can’t quite agree that writing style is completely unconnected with whether you get there or not. One regrettably cannot just write a paper in broad strokes, one has to write it word by word.
a) and b) would be improved dramatically by acknowledging that data are plural….. even if they are passive, it should be, in both a) and b), “The data were analysed….”
[e.g. It was versus They were]
I stipulate that most grammar books would agree with you, but it is actually a matter of debate even on the most proper grammatical grounds. A good summary of the issues is here or if you trust the Wall Street Journal and the Guardian more than a blog post see this. As the links explain, data is a mass noun similar to “information” that does not have a plural, and if you want to say there “are data” you really need to say “how many data” rather than “how much data”, and not many people would say that. But in the end, I go most with the fact that my writing is for the purposes of communication and therefore conventional usage is best (essentially the argument given by the Guardian style authority). There are obviously some things that are still wrong no matter the conventional usage, like using I as the direct object. But I personally don’t think matters like which vs that, between vs among, etc are central to good writing. I am happy to allow others to write the way they see fit.
Many of the things that people roundly assert as bad grammar are also matters of debate (e.g. it is not improper to split an infinitive, this just gained a lot of traction because of the Strunk and White style guide which has many other erroneous grammar assertions mistakes). You could also get into a whole flaming blog war on the Oxford comma (I’m pro Oxford comma).
But such is nowhere in the proximity of the goal of this blog nor the post. I mostly went on this long just for fun and as a caution against correcting other people’s grammar. But I don’t want to derail this into a grammar debate. I will let Andrew have the last word if he wants, and then am giving fair notice that I will cut off any more posts on proper grammar.
This posting and the commentaries have been useful, many thanks. I have a few tips/ideas I try to impress on students (undergraduate and postgraduate) about their writing which may be worth considering (I was also going to mention Orwell’s “rules” but someone beat me to it):
1. Don’t consider writing as something that happens after the research has been done: writing is an integral element OF the research. The idea of “writing up” results is one that should have been put to bed a long time ago.
2. Avoid using the same word or phrase in adjacent sentences. Use a thesaurus to freshen up the writing by widening the vocabulary of the paper/report.
3. Remember the Rule of Three: Say what you’re going to say; say it; say what you said. This goes back to the point about repetition not necessarily being a bad thing.
4. Restrict using “I” or “we” at the beginning of sentences. Occasionally is fine but when it’s repeated constantly (as I’ve seen in Methods sections) it just becomes boring. This particularly applies to job applications and CVs: I’ve received applications for posts in which EVERY sentence begins “I” and they make for tedious reads.
5. Don’t get it right get it written. Jeremy makes a similar point above: get your ideas down on paper, however roughly, then worry about going back and improving the writing. It’s an iterative process. No writing is ever wasted even if you end up throwing it away.
6. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, especially in the Introduction and Discussion. Sentences such as “What is the best approach to investigating….x?” can draw the reader into the story you’re trying to tell. And all scientific papers are essentially stories; they just happen to be factual!
Great post, and many good links and comments – thanks everyone!
When writing on a manuscript, I usually want to use at least 2-3 hours, uninterrupted, per session. Maximum length of time depends on whether the deadline is looming or not. Assuming there’s plenty of time still, in my first stab I always start with the skeleton (Intro, M&M, Results, Discussion), and try to add all the sub-(sub-)headings I think I will need to tell the story I want to tell, in the way I want to tell it.
Then I try to write more or less continuously for as long as possible. If I encounter a dead end, or realise that two sentences/paragraphs don’t link very well, I put in a ‘place-holder’ in square brackets. This can be as simple as [refs!] if I’m making a point that I think needs to be referenced (but where, for the love of my coffee, I can’t remember where I read it!). Or it can be as complex as a mini-text of its own along a slight tangent, or an open question, or simply a reminder to link back to this argument in a later point in time. I try to avoid doing ANYTHING that takes away from the task of writing, right here, right now. I don’t look up references, or read a snippet of a paper I think could be useful. And I certainly don’t do literature searches for new references.
The chunks of text I produce like this can sometimes be very close to the final version – and certainly more coherent than the drip-drop writing that is mixed with all of the other tasks we are faced with during a normal day in the office.
Afterwards comes the fun of replacing the place holders with meaningful content, and of editing.
For each manuscript, I keep an additional document, usually called ‘tidbits’, where I put anything that i think could be useful, but which I don’t want cluttering the actual manuscript I’m working on. If it turns out to be useful, it’ll find its way into the manuscript one way or another (e.g. I scan this document every few days). This document also serves as a space/graveyeard for sentences, sections, etc, that I cut out from the main manuscript. Often they turn out to be useful somewhere else.
But when it comes to writing clearly, I’m also still a beginner! (and will likely remain a life-long learner).
What I’d also like to see is a discussion of whether to include numerical results primarily in graphically, versus table, format. I strongly favor the latter generally but it seems that many people are exceedingly fond of graphs.
Personally, I would favor both table and graph and cut the intro and discussion if necessary. They are after all the results which should be the central feature of the whole paper. I also increasingly hear people say put a graph in the paper and the table in the supplemental material which works for me.
I agree with the general thrust of that Brian, although to me the M/M sections is the most critical part of a paper. This might not have been the case 30 years ago and more, but these days, so many papers use some type of complex analysis that cannot, or should not, be assumed to be clearly understood by all (or even most) readers, that I think excruciating detail as to exactly what was done (and why!) is warranted. Shunt some of that detail into a supplement if absolutely necessary (but as little as possible and some journals still don’t have electronic supplements). If the methods are not valid, the paper is not valid; the reader needs to have that information to make a valid judgement on validity, and if that means erring on side of what some might consider tedious explanation, well, then so be it. Too many words wasted on discussion sections in particular, but also introductions.
I agree with you on the importance of methods – if you are having to cut something, cut the intro & discussion. These are too long in 9 out of 10 papers.
I’d say graphs whenever possible. Much easier to digest visually. Everything I’ve ever read on presentation of scientific information says the same, especially these days when you can put your raw data or summary tables in an online repository for any readers who want them. What do you see as the strengths of tables over graphs?
I do agree Jeremy that, if the available evidence indicates that people favor graphical formats generally (and I agree that it seems to), then one really should pay attention to that rather than just doing what he/she personally favors. It’s a surprising result to me since I frequently feel I get more information from tables, but so be it.
I think the main reason I favor tables is that one can get precise values from tables, whereas with graphs I often find myself +/- guessing as to exactly what those values are. Granted that only sometimes is such exact knowledge important; in general I guess that I find tables to be a very systematic way of presenting values, and I like that. They can also save space, for example in the case where you have say, three variables, all with some relation to each other. A single table can present all the information that would require three different bivariate graphs to represent. Granted however that this problem can also be solved by a well done 3-D graph, but these are sometimes difficult to create in my experience, at least good, easily grasped ones.
I don’t argue though that there’s a strong subjective element to how different individuals prefer to have technical information presented.
Nine times out of ten I’ll use a graph, though tables are useful for presenting large amounts of complex information (not just numbers) that are not easily visualised. If you’ve not encountered him, Edward Tufte’s writings are worth checking out in relation to good why graphics are important and how to use them effectively: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_tufte
I won’t rise to Brian’s well argued grammar-baiting, but offer two more things 🙂
First, http://conservationbytes.com/category/writing-tips/ is quite interesting – I’ve been trying it with new PhD and masters students. Seems to be working. The focus (torture) on coming up with the main message and building around that is great (and humbling).
Second, I think it was Doug Bates (mixed models in R fame) who said (or quoted a friend; can’t find the original at the moment): If you want to hide some information and ensure people don’t see it or treat it with with respect, put it in a table. If you want to showcase a result and drive home an important message, make a figure. But offering information on means and variability, which ensures the future benefits of meta-analyses, can be most effective via text.
I really like the conservation piece. It is very concrete – almost recipe-like. It seems incredibly useful to just get students through that first paper or two.
PS – I recommend your Beginner R book to many people – you’re clearly in the half of readers that I mentioned who are a better writer than I.
Pingback: Dynamic Ecology (and Oikos Blog) year in review | Dynamic Ecology
Pingback: Advice: a compilation of all our advice posts, and a call for new advice topics (UPDATED) | Dynamic Ecology
Great post! Here there are a couple of useful links I’ve previously found:
“Fourteen steps to a clearly written paper”
One of the tips I like most is : read it aloud. Somebody tried it?
I sometimes read my blog writing aloud, or at least imagine myself reading it aloud. That’s a common tip for detecting awkward phrasing and run-on sentences especially.
Late to the game on this. Has anybody else ever found that reading a document over in word, you miss a bunch of typos and errors, but when you go over it on the same exact screen, when it’s a pdf, that you catch the errors? I can’t proofread a .doc effectively. I don’t have to print it, but doing it in word is a problem (I’ve found the same with my blog – I only catch things in ‘preview as published’ not in any kind of working draft.)
Thought so. It’s a minor disability I can live with.
Pingback: Happy Birthday to us! | Dynamic Ecology
Pingback: Teaching Tuesday: Writing in Ecology | Small Pond Science
Pingback: William Shockley on what makes a person who publishes a lot of papers (and the superstar researcher system) | Dynamic Ecology
Pingback: How to write a great journal article – act like a fiction author | Dynamic Ecology
As an Editor I was saddened to see that the Duke site appear to be unaware that data ARE plural ;-); otherwise some very good points
We actually had a good exchange about the grammatical number of data in the comments on my earlier writing post.
I must have missed that one – will now look
Hi Simon – I got lost in the wordpress interface.it was the comment thread on this post – with Andrew Beckerman
great job breaking down the sentences in a-f. Super helpful for someone who is always trying to make more concise sentences
Pingback: An homage to the writing style of Dr. Peter Adler -Or- How to write good science well. | BioDiverse Perspectives
Pingback: An homage to the writing style of Dr. Peter Adler -Or- How to write good science well. | Eco Bio III Millennio
Pingback: Clear writing | Nick Fountain-Jones
Pingback: Friday links: the one body problem, crowdsourced data analyses, and more | Dynamic Ecology
Pingback: “Usability” As an Indicator of Website Success | worldwidewiles
Pingback: Keep it simple - Word choice, Sentence structure, and Paragraphs | Dr Ingrid de Ruiter
Pingback: Fluffy = No no | 3040 and Beyond
Pingback: The 5 pivotal paragraphs in a paper | Dynamic Ecology
Pingback: Friday links: what is the (dissertation) matrix, bidding for preprints, and more | Dynamic Ecology