Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Serious writers write, inspired or not

I have many reasons for writing this blog. One of them is to practice writing.

As a scientist, I think my main task is to communicate. Usually as written reports but also at conferences and in classrooms. Although gathering and analysing data is a crucial part of scientific inquiry, it is a little bit pointless if I can't transmit what I learn to others. In an effort to be better at that, I take pointers from two sources.

The chain

 

This post about the Jerry Seinfeld's "Don't break the chain" method is why I put my writing online.
The main message is that if you want to be a great comic, you need great jokes. To have great jokes you need to write lots of jokes to get better at it and to be able to pick the better jokes from the ok jokes. To write lots of jokes, you need to write often - this is where the chain comes in. If you have a wall calendar and make a big cross on every day you write, the crosses form a pattern. After you write on a few consecutive days, you want to keep writing so you 'Don't break the chain'. It's a way to consciously create a habit.

This blog is a public place where it is obvious if I'm regularly putting up content, it's obvious how productive I'm being. I have to write complete post, not just 'to do' lists. I have to write for someone else, not just notes for myself. This means I need to express ideas clearly and fully.

In the same vein, the  NeuralCode  meetings mean I must research and prepare material on scientific computing every week. I also post related articles to the feed as a way to engage the members of the group and send support material to the email list. It's a way of getting to where I want to be.

I hope to be someone who gives lectures and tutorials on scientific computing. I am really passionate about modernising research and the practice of reproducible research. To one day be that person I need to have a body of work that shows I know what I'm talking about and can express that well. I also need to practice expressing those ideas. Because just like writing a joke, even if the original idea is great, if it practiced and honed it can be taken to a whole new level of great.

Scientific writing

A main theme is to simplify your expression and to follow the simple rules of good writing. The purpose of scientific writing is to communicate clearly. Einstein is reported to have said that if your science is any good, you should be able to explain it to a child. Part of this is using the clearest expression that conveys precisely what you mean. Using a complex and obscure word where a simple and common word would have the same meaning is something that creeps into our writing. It sounds more scientific. We read it in the papers of senior researchers. Knowing what big words mean gives us a sense of actually knowing something in a field where we are usually in a state of having no idea what's going on. So we hide behind the big words and cling to them like mantras so we don't feel like such fakes.

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Unfortunately this makes understanding some literature harder than it needs to be. Obviously there is a need for very specific terminology at times, terms that may be very specialised and require the reader to search out the meaning if they haven't come across them before. There is a balance that needs to be found.

A great bit from the scientific writing course:

- from William Zinsser's book On Writing Well, which is a great book to pick up to read for this course if you have time.
He says,
"The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to it's cleanest components.
Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word,
every adverb that carries the same meaning that's already in the verb, every passive
construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what.
These are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.
And they usually occur in proportion to the education and rank (of the writer)."