Coursera - Writing in the Sciences - Week 1

Writing is always hard for me. I always feel this invisible gap of what you want to say and how it's conveyed down in writing. Six years ago, around 2011, frustrated with this gap, I've started writing through blogging. Even since, writing have become a way for me to express my understanding in my learning as well as a medium for me to unwind (mindless ramblings). These days, while writing becomes more natural but still crappy, I still exploring numerous ways to improve my writing.

Last Thursday, I received an email from Coursera that the course Writing in the Sciences, taught by Dr. Kristin Sainani is currently opened for registration. Since I have a long holidays ahead, might as well make good use of the free time and pick up something useful along the way.

Below are some of the key points and additional notes of each module in week 1.

1.1: Introduction; principles of effective writing
What is good writing? Effective communication between the writer and the reader. And how do we achieve effective communication? Simple writing. While we want to sound smart, elegant, and stylish through our writing, the priority should be on getting your message across in a clear and effective manner. If the reader cannot understand what you're trying to say, then the writing does not serve its purpose.

Good writer have something to say, something they passionate about. In other words, good story teller. When come to scientific writing, you will need logical and clear thinking. Read anything. Read what professional wrote. Study, learn, and imitate their writing. Superhuman by Habit is the first book I can think of which have simple and clear writing. Contrary to popular opinion, I can't say much about William Zinsser's On Writing Well.

If we write like how we talk, then the writing will be in more simple and conversational tone. Academic writing is totally opposite of that, more formal and wordiness. However, talk about something before writing it down is also a good approach. As you can treat your conversation as your first draft.

Reevaluate and rethink your approach to writing as well as the writing process. Elegant and stylish writing have to go through numerous edits and revisions. You just can't get it done in one shot. Don't worry about getting your writing done right the first time. You can't. Nobody can. Even professional writer. There is no such thing as get it done right the first time when comes to writing!

Focus on revision instead of the initial draft. Get your first draft done as soon as possible. Forget grammatical rules or spelling errors. Just churn it out. Next, start the revision process. Be ruthless and cut all unnecessary words. Repeat this process until there is nothing else to remove.

1.2: Examples of what not to do
How to evaluate good writing? Ask yourself these questions. Is the writing easy to to understand? Is the writing enjoyable and interesting to read? If not, you reader will not care.

Grammatical Normalization, a fancy word where a verb, an adjective or an adverb is turned into a noun. The side effect of writing in such way are wordiness and can irritate the reader. For examples,

Unnecessary nouns:
Bad : We have a discussion on that particular incident.
Good : We discussed on that particular incident.

To-be verbs:
Bad: There is this restaurant that attracts all the tourists.
Good: This restaurant attracts all the tourists.

The lesson learned here is don't start a sentence with "There is ......", "There are ......", or "It is ......". Be aware of this during revision.

1.3: Overview, principles of effective writing
The preference to use verbs instead of nouns in writing may sounds formal but hard to read. Clear writing prefers verbs over nouns. During revision, identify those nouns in a sentence. Look for any words that end with -ion, -ment or -al.

Be specific. Be careful with your word choices that leads vagueness. In scientific writing, if you are experimenting on a particular type of fish, name the fish directly.

Don't use acronyms unless it's necessary and generally known.

What are the principles of effective writing? 

(1) Reduce wordiness. Cut unnecessary words or phrases.
(2) Use active voice (subject + verb + object).
(3) Writing and using strong verbs instead of nouns.

1.4: Cut the clutter
These two examples illustrate how we going to cut the clutter. Read aloud yourself.

Several issues were found with these examples.

(1) Verb turned into noun.
(2) Vague amorphous words.
(3) Repetition or repeated words with the same meaning.
(4) Stylistic or better word choice.

Example 1:
"This paper (provides a review)(1) (of the basic tenants of)(2) cancer biology study design, using as (examples studies)(3) that illustrate the ((methodologic)(3) challenges)(2) or that (demonstrates)(3) (successful solutions)(3) (to the difficulties (inherent in biological research.)(3))(3)"

So after revision, the rewrite looks like this.
"This paper reviews cancer biology study design, using examples that illustrate specific challenges and solutions."

"successful solution". Do we need the adjective here? Dr. Kristin raised the question whether there exists an unsuccessful solution? Because solution implies successful.

One key point that relates to my writing is that I always use different words to explain the same things but in different way. For example, to buy or to acquire. Pay attention to the grammatical conjunction of and/or. Something you may not even need it. Most of the time, I just want to make the sentence longer, thus causing wordiness. As Dr. Kristin said, just use the important words to get the idea across.

Example 2:
"(As it is well known)(3), increased athletic activity (has been related)(4) to a (profile of)(2) lower cardiovascular risk, lower blood pressure (levels)(3), and improved (muscular and cardio-respiratory performance.)(4)"

The phrase "As it is well known" is known as Throat Clearing Phrases, which is a long and unnecessary introductory phrases at the beginning of the paragraph. According to Dr. Kristin, just put a citation at the end of the sentence if you want to indicates that certain idea is well known. Some examples of these dead weight words and phrases:

(1) As it is well known ......
(2) As is has been shown ......
(3) It can be regarded that ......
(4) It should be emphasized that ......

After the rewrite.
"Increased athletic activity is associated with lower cardiovascular risk, lower blood pressure, and improved fitness."

Another more aggressive rewrites using strong verb. Notice the two "and"s. (emphasis in bold)
"Increased athletic activity lowers cardiovascular risk and blood pressure, and improves fitness."

Example 3.
"The (experimental demonstration)(3) is the ((first of its kind)(3). And is (a proof of principle)(3))(4) (for the concept)(3) of laser driven particle acceleration in a structure loaded vacuum."

"is" is a boring verb. You can replace dull verbs with vivid verbs.

After the rewrite.
"The experiment provides the first proof of principle of laser-driven particle acceleration in a structre-loaded vacuum."

The main point of this module is to cut unnecessary words. Sometimes, it's good to take a break from working on your draft. Take a break and review back a few days later. We have invested so much time in writing and may hard to part with what we have written.

Also, take note of adverbs, for example, very, really, quite, basically, generally, and etc. If you write like the way you talk, you will subconsciously add those adverbs in your writing. Adverbs is not suitable for scientific writing which needs precision.

1.5: Cut the clutter, more tricks
Several more tricks have been added in this module. These are:

(1) Eliminate negatives
If you see a sentence like "He did not win the match". We can rewrite this in positive manner like "He lost the match". The first sentence is a negative sentence where the reader have to identify the key first (win) and then negate it (did not). The second sentence is more affirmative and concise. Some more examples:

Negative            Affirmative
Not honest         Dishonest
Not harmful       Safe
Does not have    Lacks

In other words, if you found any "did not" or "not" words in your sentence, consider rewrite it to be more affirmative.

(2) Eliminate superfluous uses of "there are/there is".
Most of the time, "there are/there is/there was ...... that" is unnecessary. For example,

Before: There are many ways in which we can arrange the pulleys.
After: We can arrange the pulleys in many ways.

(3) Omit needless prepositions.
Use "that", "on" or other prepositions with care. Overuse of these prepositions leads to wordy sentence.

Before: They agreed that it was true.
After: They agreed it was true.

1.6: Practicing cutting clutter
This example below illustrates one of my common mistake when writing papers.

Before: As we can see from Figure 2, if the return kinetic energy is less than 3.2 Up, there will be two electron trajectories associated with this kinetic energy.

After: Figure 2 shows that a return kinetic energy less than 3.2 Up yields two electron trajectories.

Review Learning Objectives
Review back the learning objectives with my current understanding of the notes and writing approach.

(1) Recognize that writing is hard for everyone.
I've written about this in previous paragraph and all my previous notes.

(2) Recognize that writing is a skill that you learn through practice.
My approach is always quantity over quality. Since I've already built up a weekly habit of writing about stuff I've learned for the past week, maybe it's time to adapt my approach by focusing more towards quality over quantity. Not just random rambling writing, just deliberate writing practices.

(3) Practice removing clutter from writing.
Revision, a crucial step missing from my writing process. I always publish the draft copy as soon I've finished writing. Furthermore, wordiness indicates a false sense of importance. Also, sometimes we need to write to a certain number of pages or words. Hence, to meet the requirements, you have to pad your writing causing wordiness and leads to bad writing habit. However, Enjoy and appreciate the elegance of brevity.

(4) Practice writing clearly and concisely.
Word choice. I need to work on this.

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