Monday, May 11, 2009

The impotence of bad writing

There have to be a hundred posts out there about how important it is to write well in science, but here's 101. I can't tell you how many students I had as a TA tell me they didn't care about writing because they wanted to be a scientist and how many more were shocked and appalled when I took off points from an assignment for atrocious grammar or spelling. I wasn't crazy about it, but I have my limits that were constantly pushed by the students. Ironically, I'm a horrible speller. However, I know this and make sure to spell-check everything I am writing that might be seen by others. I consider myself a decent writer who is always looking for ways to improve and most often I do that through reading and noticing when someone really gets their point across effectively. I look at how they have structured their point or argument and keep it in the back of my head. What did they say that convinced me and how did they get there? If you can lead the reader along so that they reach your conclusion about a sentence before you spell it out, you've done a good job.

When it comes to manuscripts, I always remark on grammar and spelling though I don't take the time to mark up everything as that is not necessarily the job of the reviewer. The gray area is when it comes to grants. In theory we are supposed to be evaluating the science (and broader impacts in the case of NSF) and not necessarily the ability of the writer to actually write, but they are inseparable. Maybe I get hung up on the writing a bit too much, but I find nothing more distracting than a poorly written grant. I have on my desk a proposal for a project including 6 PIs with a budget in excess of a million dollars and I had to put it down after reading the first two pages because the writing just sucks and it was pissing me off. Is that how you want a reviewer reading through your grant? No. Angry reviewers are bad and if they are angry because your writing is the equivalent of nails on a chalk board how likely are they to think your science is kick ass? Like it or not, your writing is a direct reflection of you as an academic and as much as I try to see through the grammatical train-wreck and missing words in the back of my head I am thinking that if this proposal wasn't worth your time to edit and clarify, why is it worth my time to read and thoughtfully respond to.

So, dear readers, repeat after me - "Both verbal and written communication are essential facets of science and should be skills that are constantly honed, just like the techniques you use in the lab or field (or PLS will send you back the charred and shredded remains of your crappy grant)."

13 comments:

  1. Thank you. I thought I was the only one who gets all anal-retentive and cranky about bad writing. It totally clouds my ability to evaluate the science.

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  2. Pit - impoRtAnce of good writing, impotence of the bad. Come on, I thought it worked.

    AA - I try not to let it cloud my evaluation of the science, but I'm not so sure I do a good job of ignoring incomplete sentences.

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  3. Well, you did admit to being a horrible speller :)

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  4. LMAO PiT

    PlS, I couldn't agree more. in fact in the FAQ of the NIH "HowTo" it says spell check and grammar check for readability (of course, the new site means I can't find the link...). A poorly written grant reflects badly on your abilities. I full agree. If you're too lazy or inept to write properly why should I trust you to research properly. I expect my scientists to be fucking ANAL.

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  5. I don't understand how come of these people got through college, much less graduate school and job interviews, with the level of crap they put out.

    If the science is boring, or the grant is formatted slightly differently than I am used to, that is one thing. But when the whole document is clearly just a piece of half-assed shit, what the hell was the point of submitting it?

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  6. "in the back of my head I am thinking that if this proposal wasn't worth your time to edit and clarify, why is it worth my time to read and thoughtfully respond to."

    Amen.

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  7. Dude....so true. I would add that it's not just a style issue. I just got done reviewing a poorly written proposal and it impaired my ability to understand the science. If I can't understand what you're writing, how can I objectively evaluate it and determine whether your logic makes sense and if what you're empirically measuring actually is valid given the concepts you're testing? Add the annoyance issue (and boy do I find it both annoying and insulting to get poorly written 'final products' to review) to the mix and honestly you might as well not have written the damn thing because there's no way in hell I'm giving you a positive review! Sigh.

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  8. RT - I don't normally gets grants that are so bad that it obscures the science but have had my fair share of manuscripts like that. I think we do our undergrads a disservice by not forcing them to do more writing during their careers. I'm trying to push it fairly hard with my grad students who, to their credit, are receptive to it. I still think we need to stress it earlier. I agree though, a sloppy grant is not going to get a good review.

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  9. Wow, were we reading the same grant? Same thing happened here....

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  10. Gnuma - if we are reading the same grant, can you just submit your review twice and cover me this time. I'll get you back in the next round.

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