Sunday, February 03, 2008

Dr Vector lives up to his name

As a vector, that is.

I suck at responding to memes. Darren gave me a Thinking Blogger award back around the Kazanian and Julia gave me another one in the mid-Aptian, and I haven't even publicly thanked them, let alone passed it on. So thanks, you two. You're both much better and more productive bloggers than me. Much love.

I'll pass that award on soon, I promise.

But in the meantime I'm going to leapfrog to a newer meme, for which I was also tagged by Julia, called the Writing Meme.

The rules:
  1. List 3 writing tips
  2. Tag 3 people whose writing style you admire
Julia wrote, "I want Matt's sauropod-paper-writing insights", so here goes:

1. Strive to produce not Least Publishable Units, but Most Publishable Units. Don't approach your manuscripts with the attitude, "What could I cut out of this to send somewhere else", but rather ask, "Is there anything else I could put in, either to give this paper more lasting value or because I know it's not worth writing up by itself and I may never get a better chance to say it?" Admittedly that's a tough row to hoe, and I feel like I only properly followed it once (in my Acta paper), but it's a noble goal.

2. In contrast to what I just said, if there is something short and sweet that you could knock out in one shot, don't make excuses and don't wait for the muses. Just go for it. I wrote the first draft of this paper in a single six-hour session. It's a shorty and, as before, it's my only example for this tip, but it felt great at the time and doesn't feel too bad now, either.

3. Write as informally as you think you can get away with (i.e., without sacrificing the science). Your papers will make better reading and more people will read them. There's a reason people still read The Origin for pleasure. Here's a simple heuristic: if reviewers aren't criticizing you for being informal, your prose is too stilted. Reviewers frequently knock me for being too informal, and that helps me find the balance. YMMV.

What the hell, I'm going for four. Memes mutate, right? This is the one that you're most likely to have heard before, but it bears repeating.

4. Play Frankenstein. Don't be married to the structure that you had in mind when you started writing. Feel free to move sentences around in paragraphs and paragraphs around in papers. And by "feel free" I really mean "steel yourself to the abhorrent thought of cutting up your beautiful rainbow children". Because they're not beautiful rainbow children. They're just words. And the sooner you Get Over It and learn to rearrange them in the order that best suits the goals of the paper (not your goals as a doting prose-parent), the better your writing will be.

And as long as I've broken the rules, I might as well go for broke. Here's the one you're least likely to have heard before, but it's something I feel strongly about.

5. Accept the fact that you are going to get things wrong. If you're not wrong at least occasionally, your science is boring (HT). You're not working close enough to the bleeding edge. There's a larger point here, too, which is that science only progresses by discovering new stuff, and that process inevitably means that some old stuff gets modified or reversed. As long as you are participating, that will be your fate at least once in a while. Don't be sloppy; don't invite error; but when it happens, don't kill yourself. I can't think of a single established scientist that I respect that hasn't been wrong about something. Admitting it and moving on is part of being a professional, and a grown-up.

My three tags are:

1. Brian Switek at Laelaps--I want to know how he writes so damn much all the time. It's embarrassing!

2. Mike Kaspari at Getting Things Done in Academia--He already writes a lot about writing, but in particular I'd like his thoughts on what makes for good collaborative writing.

3. Mike Taylor. His prose always seems to flow like water, and I'm not just buttering him up because he's my brother and co-blogger. Read his papers and see for yourself. He doesn't have a blog of his own, but maybe he'll co-opt an SV-POW! post to impart some wisdom (with the obligatory sauropod vert picture thrown in just to keep the letter of the law).

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8 Comments:

Blogger Mike Taylor said...

Matt wrote: I can't think of a single scientist that I respect that hasn't been wrong about something.

Hey! Are you saying you don't respect me?

3:35 AM  
Blogger Mike Taylor said...

If there is something short and sweet that you could knock out in one shot, don't make excuses and don't wait for the muses. Just go for it.

Hahahahahahahahahaha!

I can't believe you dared post that.

(Note to outsiders: Matt and I have half a dozen short-paper manuscripts in Collaborator Hell. And a couple of long ones.)

3:36 AM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

Hey! Are you saying you don't respect me?

Sorry, that should have read *established* scientists. And now it does.

(Note to outsiders: Matt and I have half a dozen short-paper manuscripts in Collaborator Hell. And a couple of long ones.)

Well, clearly they were things that couldn't be knocked out in one shot, so they are irrelevant to that discussion. C'mon, dude, this is basic logic.

9:25 AM  
Anonymous Laelaps said...

Sorry I'm late; I just got the tag. Most of what I write isn't of much consequence, anyway, and if there's a secret it's a secret to me! Most of it is just trying to keep up with what's going on in my head, and writing helps me work through things a little better than otherwise. Of course, maybe I just sleep-blog...

1:42 PM  
Blogger Julia said...

Excellent. Thank you for doing that. I feed heavily off the advice of those who have gone before me.

3:20 AM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

As do we all.

7:51 AM  
Anonymous Pat Holroyd said...

Matt, excellent list. All my favorite pieces of writing advice in one place. I was putting together a similar list for a seminar on Friday, but now I can steal yours!

9:13 AM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

Why, thanks!

9:23 AM  

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