Scientific Writing Tips

Writing is one of those skills that is useful in almost any profession.  Turning a blank page into a first draft is a daunting task, this is especially true in a scientific context because a high value is placed on accurate and precise prose, but it also needs to be easy to read and understand.

In 2017, I co-authored 10 scientific publications and played a major role in the writing of many of these. By far the largest work among these the monograph on cucurbiturils. During this time, I found and tried many writing tips and techniques. Those that I found most useful are given below.

  1. Make a good outline

The writing process consists of three steps: outlining, prose construction, and editing. Each of these steps is quite intensive and should be focused on individually.  The most important of these is the outline. George Whitesides (one of the most prolific chemists ever) detailed his groups’ approach to writing manuscripts in his paper, ‘Whitesides group: Writing a paper’ and preparing an outline is key. The group I currently work in has some Whitesides alumni in it, and we use their system to great effect. The major advantage of this approach is that it allows you to collect your thoughts at a high level, arrange and re-arrange them before you begin writing. A good outline will give you the story, and make the prose much easier to write. In technical papers, a good outline gives you a bird’s eye view of the story that can help you see where the gaps are, and what the story’s strengths and weakness are. The outline should be written as early as possible so you can see where the missing data are, and see if a more compelling demonstration is needed to convince the reader of the usefulness of your science.

  1. The first draft doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be done

Prose construction and editing are both difficult skills and require different mindsets. Usually, attempting to write the perfect first draft (or even a perfect sentence) is challenging and progress will be very slow. It is far easier to come back to a first draft -no matter how messy- than it is to a blank page.

  1. Set a word target and try and hit it every day

I set myself a word target every day, I didn’t care too much about the quality of those words, as long as they represented some coherent thoughts. I also set a target for the number of words or sections that I wanted to edit on a given day

  1. Write in short sentences

Short sentences are easier to understand, especially when complex concepts are being discussed. A good rule of thumb is 30-35 words. If you think that this might make your writing too simplistic, remember that no one ever complains about something being too easy to understand!

  1. Write in your own voice

Christopher Hitchens wrote that “if something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading.” Most people can speak more fluently than they can write, so writing the words as if you were speaking them is one way that you can get words from your head and onto the page. Afterwards, you can polish these words into a better piece of prose. On a related note, reaching for the thesaurus at every opportunity can make your writing difficult to read. Good writing has a rhythm to it; words that are not naturally in your vocabulary somehow don’t quite fit and that disrupts the rhythm of the writing.

  1. Don’t overuse the thesaurus

Sometimes the overuse of words can make writing repetitive and boring. However, using different words to describe the same concept or phenomenon in different ways in the same text can be confusing. The question you have to ask is: Are you trying to make something more readable by sacrificing clarity? Clarity is usually more important.

  1. Write at times that suit you

I find that fresh eyes in the morning are better suited to the surgical work of proofreading and editing. Later in the day, perhaps when inhibitions are reduced due to tiredness, prose construction is easier and the words tend to flow more freely. For you, It might be the case that words flow in the morning, and you are a better proofreader in the afternoon. Take note of what works for you and plan your day accordingly.

  1. Proofreading techniques

Without a doubt, the best way to get some critical feedback is to have someone else read your draft. However, there are some proof-reading tricks that you can do yourself. Among these, the most useful for me was to read the writing in a different medium to the one I wrote it. For example, if I wrote on a computer, I would proofread a hard copy. Or for relatively small chunks of text, I would email to myself and read on a phone. Every time I read the text through a different medium, I would see something different.  Reading out loud is also a good technique to proofread a paragraph.

  1. Use resources

There are better spelling and grammar checkers available than Word’s inbuilt one. Grammarly, for example, does a great job of catching spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. The Stanford writing course, ‘writing in the sciences’ is a free online course you can register for that has a lot of tips on how to revise and edit a first draft; it also facilitates practice exercises and peer feedback.

Advertisements

2017 Review

2017 was a year mostly taken up by wedding planning, and arranging for mine and Meg’s families to visit us in Korea during the Chuseok vacation. It was a successful year professionally, in which I added 10 scientific publications to my CV, including a whole book. It was also the year that I discovered – despite the public nudity –  I love Korean Spas.

January. On year’s day, we went to Ox and Bone, an American style BBQ restaurant.  The year started well, professionally, with the previous year’s research work being accepted for publication. Meg and I also found somewhere to live in Pohang.

20170101_183157

In February, Meg and Muga moved Pohang so we spent a lot of this month slowly moving them from Ulsan to Pohang. The move went mostly ok, although we were confronted with a cockroach problem from a pre-owned fridge. By the end of the month, we had settled in though.

March started with Holi Hai, an event hosted by Indians in Korea.  My birthday is also in March, we went for a bbq beef platter and had planned to go to a shooting range in Daegu. It turned out, though, that it was closed on the 4th Saturday of the month we ended up going to downtown Daegu and experienced a Raccoon café and a great little Thai restaurant. March also saw the beginning of my side project for this year, the Pohang Restaurant guide. Since starting it, we have reviewed 54 restaurants.

 

 

 

 

In work related news, a commentary article that I co-authored was released as part of Accounts of Chemical Research’s issue on Holy grails in Chemistry. After many Sunday afternoons driving around the Gyeongju area looking for a pension to host our wedding, we finally came across Pension Haemil; a lovely little pension up in the mountains. Unlike many pensions in Korea, it was quite secluded and offered some privacy.

In April, the cherry blossoms bloomed once again, the weather was not as glorious as last year, but we did at least get to visit Yeongildae even though if it was a little overcast. We also decided to visit Pohang’s premier tourist attraction, Homigot sunrise plaza, which has a claim to being the Eastern-most point of the Korean peninsula. The main attraction is a statue of a hand coming out of the sea. After seeing it, it became apparent why the promotional pictures only show at sunrise: it hides the fact that the statue is not that impressive and covered in bird poop.

 

 

 

 

A review article that I co-authored appeared in a special issue of Chem Soc Reviews. I was quite pleased with this one, not only for the content but also because I prepared the artwork that would appear on the backcover of the issue.

On May 4th, Meg and I were legally married the date should be easy enough to remember, especially given that she is a Star Wars fan. The weekend after, we had our engagement photos taken by Roz Cruz photography at the scenic Ulsan Taehwagang park.

MJ Engagement S-48

In June, Meg and I kept our yearly commitment to see at least one play a year. This year went to see Busan Theatre group’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Busan’s outdoor theatre. Our peak millennial couple moment of the year was getting our dog’s DNA tested. We found out for sure that Muga is a Jindo-mix, but the rest is Korean mystery meat.

 

 

 

 

July saw us visit Centum City in Busan, the world’s largest department. It houses many high-end shops, restaurants, an ice rink, a cinema and Spa Land. The reason we went there was to visit Spa Land. The spa has two parts, there’s the bathhouse where you can bath in different temperature baths and steam rooms. The second part is a large relaxation area with various rooms set to different temperatures and humidity, massage chairs, games room and a restaurant. Despite the initial awkwardness of the public nudity in the bathhouse,  I really enjoyed it.

In August we both crossed off visiting Jeju island from our Korea bucket lists.

September was all about wedding ceremony preparation. Although the month started with Muga hurting her back and us having to put her on crate rest for a couple of weeks. On September 30th the wedding day finally arrived. The previous day, we picked our families up from Incheon airport and then moved them down to Gyeongju on the high-speed train line.   The wedding ceremony itself, we were really happy with; Meg did a great job of organising it. For our after party, we had a Korean BBQ and drinks at the pension and many of our guests stayed the night there with us. Again Roy Cruz did a great job on the photography.

received_10103531413961889

With the wedding over, October allowed us to have some vacation time with our families First in Pohang, then in Seoul. In Pohang, we took our families to some of our favorite restaurants, a meerkat café, and for a walk along yeongildae beach.In Seoul, we took them to Dragon Hill Spa, Lotte World Tower, to try the street food in Myeongdong and on a daytrip to gapyeong, where we rode a zipline and had authentic Chuncheon Dakgalbi (spicy fried chicken).

20171004_123205

In November, the book we have been working on for most of this year was finally submitted and is now in production with the publisher. November also saw a 5.4 earthquake hit Pohang– the 2nd strongest recorded earthquake in Korea; the strongest being the 5.8 that struck nearby Gyeongju last September. We came out of it unscathed in South Pohang, but some of the older buildings in North Pohang were badly damaged.

In December, we returned to Centum city for a Christmas visit to Spa Land and to watch.  Star Wars on the Starium theatre – supposedly one of the biggest screens in Asia. Saying nothing about the movie itself, the experience of a watching a movie on such a large screen was very impressive. It wasn’t quite as good as the Imax in London that we watched a Force Awakens on, but it was much cheaper. I wouldn’t go and see everything on that screen, but the large screen certainly enhances the space battles in a Star Wars movie. At work, the CSC had its end of year celebration at an all you can eat buffet in downtown Pohang. For the first time during an Ashes series, I was in a timezone that didn’t require me to lose a lot of sleep to follow it; unfortunately, England surrendered the urn at the first opportunity.

 

 

Three Days in Jeju

This summer we went to Jeju. Jeju is kind of like the Risa of Korea.

We started in Jeju city where the airport is. With a rental car, we drove to Manjanggul caves.  These are a volcanically formed network of tubes that you can walk through, it takes about 20-30 minutes to walk the whole route there and back. It was pretty cool, and only 2000 W entry, although it was quite chilly down there.

Next, we drove towards our hotel (Co-op city hotel) which was close to the foot of Seongsan Ilchulbong., the bowl-shaped mountain formed by a volcanic eruption. The roof of the hotel has a rooftop bar and some jacuzzis which you can rent for 30 mins, but most impressively it has a beautiful view of the mountain.

In the morning we walked up Seongsang ilchulbong. It is quite an easy walk but takes about two hours especially if you stop for photo ops. The summit has an impressive view of the interior of the bowl, and on your way back down you get some lovely views of Jeju.

For the rest of the day, we drove around the coast of Jeju and made stops at a couple of waterfalls. The first was Jeonbang falls, its claim to fame is that it is the only waterfall in Asia that falls directly into the ocean. It is really impressive, you walk around the bottom of it and paddle in the water where the waterfall mixes with the ocean water.  The second was cheonjiyeon falls, which has a very nice walk leading up to it. The waterfall itself is quite impressive and scenic, but not as dramatic as the Jeonbang falls. After that, we went to our hotel near sanbangsan mountain.

On the last morning, we went to a neat little spa, Sanbangsan hot springs. It is quite similar to most Koren spas but it also has some baths which are heated by a volcanic hot spring and is filled with carbonated water. They also have outdoor swimming pools and baths with the carbonated water. On our way back to Jeju city we stopped by a beach for lunch and a walk; the beach was beautiful with white sands and black volcanic rock.

20170826_143910

We didn’t have time to go to see the lava columns. We also didn’t hike up  Mt. Hallasan mainly because that will probably take up most of a day and it was the height of summer too.

Jeju is definitely worth a visit at least once if you are staying in Korea for a reasonable amount of time. Although it has a lot of tourist attractions/museums (such as a teddy bear museum, a sex museum, and mysterious road), it is the areas of outstanding natural beauty that make it special. Three days is probably enough to see everything if you plan your time well; if you want to see Mt Hallasan, then add an extra day. Renting a car is also a good idea, so you don’t have to rely on the buses.

 

 

 

The Time We Ate Blowfish

Pufferfish (or blowfish) is considered a delicacy in East Asia; it is also one of the most poisonous vertebrates in the world.

It’s commonly known by its Japanese name, Fugu; many people know it from the Simpsons episode where Homer accidentally eats a poisonous part of the fish.

 

 

 

 

We didn’t realise what it was when we went to the restaurant, we just picked a restaurant that was close by because we were short on time. It is a tasty fish, the sauce is very spicy but the flavour of the fish still comes through. The grilled version we had is very low risk for poisoning; blowfish sashimi is higher risk, some people specifically eat it for the tingling lip sensation that a small amount of the toxin gives.

We also reviewed the restaurant on the Pohang Restaurant Guide.

Blinkist

I recently got a subscription to Blinkist, an abstracting service that lays out the take home messages from non-fiction books. They claim that you can get the essence and key points of any non-fiction book in 15 minutes.

There are two things I find this really useful for: Management of my reading list, and refreshers on books I’ve already read.

In terms of to-read list management, I find it useful to be able to get an overview of a book that I want to read and see if I’m going to learn anything new from it. For example, I often read popular psychology books but I find a lot of those books draw heavily on ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, so I’ve already read that then I’m not going to learn much more from reading a book that covers much of the same material. Likewise, books on relationships often cite John Gottman’s work.

I very rarely find time to re-read non-fiction even though I might want to. 15 minutes to get a refresher on the content is very useful.

I don’t see it as a replacement for reading a book. I don’t think there is any substitute for reading the long form in order to follow an author’s full train of thought or see how conclusions are reached.

They have two levels of membership, the main difference between them is the top end membership allows you to download audio-blinks and sync across devices. The standard just allows you to read the ‘blinks’ on your device. I’ve got their standard membership ($40) and I only went for it because I had a discount code. I’m not sure that it is worth it at the moment unless you have a lot of demands on your time, mainly because of the library size; however, their library is continually expanding (20 or so a month). If you don’t have time to read or re-read every book on your to-read list then I think its a good investment. You can get a 1-day free trial too.

Update: After using Blinkist for several months, I’ve found that I’ve read a lot more fiction in that time as a result of the time freed up.

 

 

Cherry Blossom Season 2017

The start of the warm weather and springtime brings Cherry Blossom season in Korea. We went to Yeongildae Park near Postech to walk around see the Cherry Blossoms. It wasn’t quite that dramatic this year, the colder weather meant that the trees bloomed at different rates. Last year they all seemed to bloom at once.

It was a little bit past peak bloom when we went but we still got some pretty pictures of the cherry blossoms and the pond.

20170409_151714