The Study Dude – Writing Science, Part III

Study Tips from a Semi-Anonymous Friend

There is nothing more that The Study Dude wants for you than to live with integrity, concern for other’s well-being, a sense of humble service to humanity?and a publication under your belt.

Well, in these articles, as The Study Dude, I’ll try to give you the study tips you need to help make your learning easier. I’ll also give you straight and honest opinions and personal anecdotes?even the embarrassing ones that you wouldn’t ever dare read about from any other study tip guru.

This week’s focus is on part three of Joshua Schimel’s Writing Science, a book to make any scientific writing clear, entertaining?and fundable.

Condensing to the Bare Essentials
I enrolled in a scriptwriting class and the most essential tidbit of information I learned related to chopping out repetitive and non-essential materials. In a matter of minutes, my scene could be reduced to a quarter its original size with effective condensing strategies. The other major scriptwriting insight, for me personally, was to include language with double meanings?both of which meanings are relevant to the story?to get the audience actively considering the hidden messages.

While imposing double meanings in your writing is not the one-and-only optimal strategy, certainly winnowing your material to the bare essentials can add flavour.

Joshua Schimel, a quaint, animated, extraordinarily pleasant giant in the science of writing literature, whom I had the pleasure of interviewing recently, posed several strategies for condensing your writing to its finest detail:
– As proposals entail page limits, you will typically need to pare your writing down.
– Only state the bare essentials. Slice away any unnecessary words and cut out any repeats. Unnecessary words include empty adjectives and modifiers, such as adjectives or verbs that merely repeat the word that follows. For instance, I could have chopped out “merely” in the previous sentence. (Editor’s note: Whoops. I did. I’ll put it back.) Remove any obvious claims (with nothing useful to contribute) and slice out any meta-discourse.
– If your final draft contains paragraphs with a couple of words dangling at the bottom, find ways to trim them out. This will reduce the overall use of space, helping to ensure you fit the page or word count limit.
– If you have three items in a series that basically describe the same action, cut out all but one. For instance, “I will develop, test, and apply…” (p. 161) can be reduced to “I will develop”.
– If a word is redundant, skip it.
– If you can find room to delete a whole sentence, but wish to retain some of the words, such as a phrase, integrate those few words with another sentence, setting it off as a dependent clause.
– Meta-discourse includes phrases such as “We conclude that…” or “It can be seen that…”. These elements just puff up the discourse with empty verbal calories and should be eliminated from the writer’s writing health regime.
– Whenever action arises in your writing, make sure the action is represented with a single verb, rather than a nominalization or a passive verb or verb combination. For instance, “love can be found stealthily in the weary heart” can be changed to “love usurps the weary heart.”

Editing Productively
I recently watched a Udemy course with Tom Corson-Knowles wherein he argued that writers should stick with the story-writing process and leave the editing to the professionals. That way, you can manage to write prolifically?focus on your true passion?while leaving the editing drudgery to the professional editing firms.

While I’m in full agreement with him on that count, especially if the budget warrants it, editing is part of the student responsibility. Some universities may allow students to hire editors for master’s and PhD thesis projects, but, by-and-large, the onus is on the student to edit their own document.

After writing a short book recently I banged my head relentlessly against the wall on how to tweak and preen it until I resigned to scrapping the entire book-writing project and starting anew. Part of the reason was that I had some brilliant insights into the writing process from these very Study Dude articles, and my quality of writing soared after reading professional books on the topic. So I’m delving into the project from a new lens. Fundamental to this improvement in my writing is this book Writing Science by Joshua Schimel, and Stylish Academic Writing by Helen Sword. I’ve recently had the opportunity to interview both authors for an upcoming release of a podcast on study tips I’ve created destined for iTunes. Now, to me, interviewing people of that calibre and grace, of that accomplishment and ingenuity, is a once-in-a-lifetime?savoured and cherished?opportunity.

The lively?on-fire?Joshua Schimel highlights a strategic process for editing your papers, proposals, and books:
– The editing process begins by addressing the bigger structural issues and evolves all the way down to the tiny details, such as words and punctuation.
– Use the SCFL model for editing, where “S” stands for “structure”, “C” stands for “clarity”, “F” stands for “flow”, and “L” stands for “language.” Each of these tend to overlap, so you will be addressing more than one in each pass of your article editing.
– Ensure your verbs sit snugly beside your nouns. The verb-noun close proximity concocts an easy read. If the subject goes on-and-on, you should narrow it down. The verb should arrive soon after the noun makes its appearance.
– Ensure that the final words of your first sentence (the stress position) are met with words that closely match or exactly repeat in the next sentence’s beginning position (the topic position). [This is a rhetorical device called anadiplosis, which I will discuss in my next article.]
– If similar words are linked with an “and” condense them into one word.
– Read aloud your edited piece, as your eyes are the best quality detectors of written speech.

Sharing Your Writing
As an academic, you want to share your writing with the general public. These are the people who partially fund your education: all of you and me?the public. I once had a beautifully-spirited professor who incessantly chattered about the importance of academics getting out of the ivory tower and sharing their knowledge with the very people that comprise mainstream society. Funnily, I managed to land him a contract with the National Film Board for him to convey his research out in the field in various cultures with a national television audience. Although he was destined to be the star, the vast majority of the work would fall into my hands. However, I stood to receive little or no recognition, little or no funds, and potential abuse (not from him, I should make clear)?and it had nothing to do with my thesis topic’so, sadly, I walked away. I sometimes wonder today what might have happened if the show had been filmed and aired, and whether or not a series would have been born. Yet, in my heart, I know it was the right decision. Just don’t look back. Whoever came up with that quote nailed it.

Joshua Schimel highlights the necessity of sharing our work with the public. We learn so much jargon the higher we go in academia, and I once had a professor who stated that the higher we go in academia, the less we learn. Now, she was a character: always revealing her innermost thoughts and speculations, God rest her soul. Yes, by specializing, then the higher we go, the more jargon we take in and the narrower our focus becomes, removing us from the mainstream public’s reach. The more specialized we get, the more we study and examine a tiny sliver, so removed from the big issues out there?but it’s all part of research, meaningful even in its minutia. Perhaps you will climb the ladder of academic success, and remember these words from Joshua Schimel when it comes time for you to share, with the public, your wisdom:
– Don’t worry so much that people won’t like what you write. Instead, dive into telling a story so that the public will understand. Write a simple story.
– Avoid using jargon, dense technical terms, and overly-complex explanations. Provide explanations in layman’s terms so people aren’t confused. Let people know how what you are describing affects them personally. The public likes to apply what they learn, so feed them application.
– Don’t introduce jargon or confusing technical terms at the beginning (stress position) of your sentences. Instead, introduce them at the end, following some sort of description or definition.
– Research answers small questions, typically, but people want answers to the big questions. Provide the public with detail on how your little piece of the puzzle fits into the bigger issue, such as curing cancer.
– When confronted with what to relay to the public, consider the larger issue and the audience. If your audience is the public, answer the following: what the problem is, the “so what?” of the problem, the solution to the problem, and the benefits toward addressing the larger issue. [This strategy is modeled in Schimel’s book.]

So, there’s nothing to fear. The Study Dude is determined to make right for you all the wrongs I made in grad school?one A+ at a time.

Schimel, Joshua. (2012). Writing Science. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

%d bloggers like this: