How to develop the writing in your research group: editors share their top tips
Have you ever had writer’s block, had difficulty formulating your article’s introduction, or felt you don’t have enough time to write and revise manuscripts? You are not alone. Even though scientific writing is central to success in academia, it is a challenge for many. Experienced scientific editors shared their expertise on a recent intensive course in scientific writing. Here are some of their best tips.
“I’ve seen my text with new eyes.” “I have had a revelation – this is how I should write.” These were a couple of the comments by researchers summarising their experience after a week-long intensive course in scientific writing at Ågrenska villan in June.
“It was a great course! One important thing I learned from the course is how to create structure and clarity with relatively simple tools. The biggest challenge is expressing oneself clearly and simply, even when the subject is complicated. It is very easy to elaborate too much,” says Charlotte Ljungman, researcher at the Institute of Medicine and cardiologist at Sahlgrenska University Hospital.
Important with proper feedback
She was one of twelve participants from Sahlgrenska Academy, ranging from junior researchers to professors. The course included a lot of individual supervision and was led by four scientific editors with many years of experience. Two of the instructors, Rosie Perkins and Reghan Borer, are employed at the Institute of Medicine. The other two, Pamela Derish and Stephen Ordway, travelled here from the United States.
“Writing is a form of thinking. You don´t really know what you have found until you write it down. A large part of academic work is about writing. Even so, many people struggle with writing and do not receive proper support,” says Pamela Derish.
Pamela Derish has worked as a scientific editor for over 25 years and taught academic writing for 18 years, both nationally and internationally. For most of this time she has worked at the University of California San Francisco, and in the Department of Surgery for the past 10 years.
“Mastering a new type of language takes time. It´s important to provide researchers with the tools for providing feedback and supervising others. Unfortunately, there is often a work culture where it´s assumed that everyone knows how to write. A sort of ‘just pull yourself together and get it done’ mentality. Interestingly, no-one has that opinion on biostatistics. In that case, you are advised to meet with a consultant, since you are not automatically expected to have that skill,” she says.
Focus on the role as mentor
Beyond providing tips for formulating better texts and a more effective writing process, the course also focused on the role of researchers as mentors.
“Language has two parts, and group leaders often spend too much time on the part related to spelling, grammar and punctuation. However, a language expert can help with this. The other part of language, such as rhetorical style and how you structure a hypothesis, relates to your expertise. This is where you should focus when you read a draft,” says Pamela Derish.
Charlotte Ljungman believes that much is to do with traditions, that you learn from your supervisor’s way of working with scientific texts and then do the same thing. As a clinical researcher, she feels that writing is an important piece of the puzzle that should be given greater emphasis.
“Conducting a clinical study is a massive undertaking, with ethical reviews, study design, data collection and everything associated with this. When you are finally done, you just want to get the results out there as quickly as possible. If you think about it, it is a bit strange. When you have invested so much work on the actual study, the writing is important to avoid coming up short of the finish line. If you have packaged it well and formulated your message well, you increase your chances of publishing it in a quality journal.”
Met Jan Borén
This is the seventh time the course has been given, explains Stephen Ordway. After 45 years in the industry, he is now partly retired but has freelanced as a scientific editor for the past 10 years. Before this, he worked at the Gladstone Institutes and the University of California San Francisco. There, he met Pamela Derish and also Jan Borén, head of the Institute of Medicine, but then as a postdoc.
“When Jan returned to Sweden, he asked me if I could continue editing his articles. Fairly soon, his colleagues and his boss began to contact me. Eventually, Jan asked if I wanted to come to Sweden to hold a writing course. I panicked a bit and contacted Pam, since I had never held a course before,” he says with a laugh.
Once Jan Borén returned to Sweden and became head of department, he was keen to recruit a scientific editor. In 2006, Rosie Perkins was hired at the Wallenberg Laboratory for Cardiovascular and Metabolic Research. She edits manuscripts and grant proposals for the Department of Molecular and Clinical Medicine and now also works part-time at the Sahlgrenska Academy’s Research Support Office.
Rosie Perkins has a doctoral degree in pharmacology, but she has worked as a scientific editor since defending her thesis at Imperial College in London in 1993.
“I realized that I didn’t want to continue in research, but that I really liked writing. I felt that the best part of my doctoral studies was writing my thesis, which is probably unusual,” she says.
In 2020, Reghan Borer was also hired. She has worked as a scientific editor since 2013, both in Sweden and in the USA. She is currently working at the Krefting Research Centre and thought that the course was very rewarding.
“When listening to Pam’s lectures, I am reminded of the theories and principles behind what I do instinctively. I have also received many good suggestions for how I can provide feedback to support more long-term learning among researchers.”
An important investment for the future
According to Pamela Derish, support in scientific writing may contribute to better applications, increased funding and more publications in higher ranked journals. It can also help younger researchers to be more successful, since they will receive better mentoring in writing from their more senior colleagues.
“Even so, it is unusual for universities and individual institutes to have their own scientific editors. To do so, someone must have a vision and see it as a way of investing in the institute’s future,” she says.
Anders Gummesson, specialist at the Department for Clinical Genetics and Associate Professor at the Institute of Medicine, feels that the week has been a good investment.
“I felt a great need of the course, even though I´ve written a lot over the years. The biggest challenge for me is creating a structure in the text and formulating the argument. Now I’ve gained many solid tools to hopefully make it easier in the future.”
TEXT AND PHOTO: KARIN ALLANDER
- Think through the structure first. How should you develop your argument? A good article is organised with a clear structure.
- Use clear subheadings and decide what you want to say in each paragraph. Present one idea or one concept per paragraph.
- Express yourself as simply, clearly and concisely as possible. Delete unnecessary words.
- Use phrasebanks! They save time and help you create variation in your text.
- Consider the reader’s perspective. What does the reader need to know to understand? What would it be like to read the text without your specific subject expertise?
- Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself. Assume your reader is unfocused and just skims the article or only reads parts of it.
- Borrow a fresh pair of eyes! Ask a colleague who has not taken part in the study to read the draft. Be clear what you want feedback on, such as the logical flow of the text or statistical results.
- Assign focused time to write. Where do you do your best writing? At work or at home? Can you assign time for yourself or several colleagues somewhere else?
- Take a course or buy a good handbook on scientific writing.
- Learn to deal with feedback from others. The better you become at accepting feedback, the more you can learn.
Tips: When supervising others
- First and foremost, focus on the idea behind the article.
- Give positive feedback and encouragement.
- Discuss the content and structure carefully, don’t focus on the grammar.
- Be specific. Avoid formulations like “the text doesn’t flow”. Be concrete and give examples of where the text stops working and why.
- Choose your battles! Avoid critique based on the idea that your style is the right way to write.
- Be clear from the start that the text will be revised many times.
- Formulate your comments from the reader’s perspective. For example, “I think that reader can get stuck here” is more helpful than direct criticism.
- Discuss the text together, instead of just sending drafts back and forth. This often is more fruitful, creates new approaches and contributes to better learning.
- Find resources! What help does the institute offer? Is there specific expertise within the group? Find someone who is particularly good at checking language or improving structure in the text?
- Inspire each other! Create a folder with examples from your field, preferably with notes on how the text is structured, the role of each paragraph and why the paragraph is good. It takes some time to produce this type of knowledge bank, but ultimately saves time since it will help new researchers.
- Create your own peer review group.
- The Science of Scientific Writing. Overview on how to make your writing accessible to others.
- Tips for how to write different parts of an article:
– The results section
– The results when the method section is last
- Academic Phrasebank (University of Manchester)
- Concrete language tips and exercises:
Duke Graduate School Scientific Writing Resource.
- Additional reading and grammar:
– Links for junior researchers, senior researchers and tools for checking grammar