Coursera - Writing in the Sciences - Week 3

Last week, I've learned two important things, using strong verbs and cut unnecessary words. However, due to schedule conflicts, I'm way, way behind the schedule with week 3.

On a side note, interestingly, I've managed to organize the note in a more visually pleasant way. My future blog posts will follow such visual style.

3.1: Experiment with punctuation
Why use different punctuation? To vary your sentence structure so it won't become boring and monotonous. However, the examples and discussions in this module are quite limited. I've googled around for better one.

Different punctuation marks have different separation power. Below are the list starting from the lowest to the highest separate power. Read aloud when you use these punctuation marks, it will help to focus and stress on which part of the sentence.

This module will focus on the middle four (emphasis in bold). Dash and parentheses are less formal, use when necessary.
- Comma (shortest pause)
- Colon (bigger pause than comma)
- Dash (bigger and more abrupt pause)
- Parentheses (slip something extra into a sentence)
- Semicolon (near complete stop because it separate two related sentences)
- Period (complete stop)

(1) Dash
I seldom or never use this punctuation mark. Two purposes: to add emphasis or abruptly insert a definition. We can use dash to replace either commas or parentheses. Good example to compare three different usages.
"The food, which was delicious, reminded me of home."
"The food—which was delicious—reminded me of home."
"The food (which was delicious) reminded me of home."
(2) Colon
To main purpose is to introduce a list, quote, explanation, conclusion, or amplification.

(a) To introduce a list.
"I have three sisters: Daphne, Rose, and Suzanne."
Another example I love using number in the list.
This research follows four distinct phases: (1) establishing measurement instruments, (2) measuring patterns, (3) developing interventions and (4) disseminating successful interventions to other settings and institutions.
(b) To amplify and extend independent clauses where the second explains the first.
"He made three points: First, the company was losing over a million dollars each month. Second, the stock price was lower than it had ever been. Third, no banks were willing to loan the company any more money."
(c) To explain and amplify.
"After three weeks of deliberation, the jury finally reached a verdict: guilty."
(3) Semicolon
Something that I never use in my writing. I still can't seems remember or use this properly. Surprisingly, you can interchange period and semicolon! Use semicolon in these two situations:

(a) To connect two independent clauses (an independent sentence which contains a subject and a predicate), typically between the transition words (emphasis in bold).
"Mushrooms grow very quickly; in fact, after a good rain, it takes only a few hours and you start picking them."

(b) To separate series of items where items in the list contains internal punctuation. For this case, a comma.
"Science fiction includes Star Trek, with Mr. Spock; Battlestar Galactica, with its Cylons; and Star Wars, with Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader."
As a visual cue to group items in a list. I always have problems when describing a list of items with adjectives.
"I bought shiny, ripe apples; small, sweet, juicy grapes; and firm pears."
(4) Parenthesis
Use this when you want to put optional sentence fragment in your sentences or don't want to break the flow of your sentences, an afterthought. I'm referring to my own typical writing.

(a) To specify date in the sentence where you have extra comma which will break the flow of the sentence.
"We will schedule our appointment on this coming Sunday (24th September, 2017)." 

(b) To write informally or as an interjection, a style I commonly used.
"Anyone can afford (ahem, cheap!) the amplifier."
3.2: Practice, colon and dash
Still needs more practices to nail this down and it's quite hard to remember all the rules.

3.3: Parallelism
Also known as Parallel Structure. Definitely something you may encounter before but never know its actual name. Some good examples found in proverb:
"Easy come, easy go."
"No pain, no gain."
"Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose."
"One man's trash is another man's treasure."
"A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." 
Two common types of Parallel Structure:

(a) With the -ing form (gerund) of words.
"Mary likes hiking, swimming, and bicycling."
(b) With infinitive phrases.
"Mary likes to hike, to swim, and to ride a bicycle."

3.4: Paragraphs
The key concept here is "1 paragraph = 1 idea". To elaborate, good paragraph is short (3 to 5 sentences) which encourages more white spaces (good for readability).

Apply the inverted pyramid style (see image below), similar to newspaper writing style where you put most important information at the beginning of the paragraph or writing. In the web, this is known as clickbait title.

Good paragraphs can consists of three things:

(1) Logical flow of ideas.
Three types as well, sequential in time, general to specific, and logical arguments.

(2) Parallel sentences structures.
We have discussed this earlier.

(3) Transition words (use with cautious and as simple as possible)
We use transition words in a sentence to indicate "changing gear". Popular transition words is "but", simpler than over exotic one like "on the other hand" or "nevertheless". But I'm surprised that she recommended to use two transition words ONLY:

(a) But, to signal a change of discussion.
(b) And, to further discuss some additional information.

Do not start every sentence with transition word within a paragraph. You can write beautiful flowing paragraph without using much transition words.

Focus on the first and last sentence in a paragraph. These are the only two things a reader will remember.

3.5: Paragraph Editing I
Some general advice from this module.

(1) Don't overuse transition words.
(2) Identify the main idea of the paragraphs.
(3) Identify the supporting ideas of the main idea.

One good example from the editing which illustrates brevity and reduce wordiness.

"Although the methodological approaches are similar, the questions posed in classic epidemiology and clinical epidemiology are different."
"Despite methodologies similarities, classic epidemiology and clinical epidemiology differ in aim."

3.6: Paragraph Editing II
When editing, outline the existing paragraph into several main points or sentences. Reconstruct these main points to replace the existing paragraph. The editing is shown below. It dawned to me that reviewing and editing other published literature is also crucial step to become a better writer.

Another example but shorter. However, if you pay attention to the editing, the main reason for wordiness is because the author wants to vary its writing and sounds intelligent (we discussed this is earlier post) and this impacts understanding.

3.7: A few more tips
In this module, Dr. Kristin raised an important question that I've encountered in most of my writing- repetition. To fulfill the number of pages in your writing assignment, you will inadvertently rewriting the same idea in different ways or using different words. How do you know? If you need to use thesaurus to find synonyms to avoid repeating a word in a sentence or paragraph, then you have the wordiness issue. For example, within the same sentence or paragraph, you find the words "illustrates" or "demonstrates". Another example, is "banana" or "the elongated yellow fruit". The second example is known as Elegant Variation. I have mixed feeling on this second example because for normal writing, it does add variety to writing.

If you are aware of such writing behaviour, ask yourself these two questions:
(1) Is the second instance of the word needed?
(2) Is the synonym of the word is better than repeating the word?

There are exceptions. Keywords in scientific writing can and should be repeated as those are the key concept of the writing. For example, anything in abbreviation list should be use consistently.

Learning Objectives
(1) Practice using colons, dashes, parentheses, and semi-colons.
Read it aloud and identify the duration of the pause. Then, pick the right mark punctuation.

(2) Recognize the importance of varying sentence structure.
Look into varying your transition words.

(3) Practice writing focused, organized paragraphs.
Look into Inverted Pyramid Style.

(4) Recognize that it is OK to repeat key words in scientific writing.
Look into the issue of Elegant Variation.

(5) Fix sentence parallelism.
Consistency is the key here. Follow the same sentence structure within a paragraph thus increase the cohesion.

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