Posted by: unlikelygrad | August 2, 2010

an experiment

When I was a homeschool mom I took to heart the advice of some more experienced moms, who told me: “If you want your kids to be good writers, have them read a lot.” This made a lot of sense to me because I read boatloads as a child, a hobby I kept up as an adult, and I love to write. (I am working on both fiction and non-fiction projects in my spare time.)

A few weeks ago, Dr. Hand-Waver was trying to clear out some shelves in her office, and she offered me her back issues of ES&T. I accepted these because I wanted to try an experiment. If reading lots of good literature has turned me into someone who can write beautiful fictional prose, would reading lots of scientific papers make me a good scientific writer?

My goal for this experiment is to read 2 papers a day. I tried to read at least 5 a week before, but I was only reading things that were at least marginally related to my thesis research. This time I am reading everything.

If the topic of the paper is related to my research, I analyze it for content. Is there anything here I could use to refine my methodology? Is there anything wrong with their methodology–for example, did they forget to control for any factors? Is there anything I could use as background material for my seminar?

If the topic of the paper is not related to my research, I read it purely for style. What makes a paper an easy read? What makes a paper hard to understand? I did take a “writing for chemists” course as an undergrad, where matters of style were discussed in detail. But that was 17 years ago; I don’t remember much. So now I am re-educating myself.

eta: And now I see that Southern Fried Scientist suggests that you should write a paragraph a day. I like this advice and will add it to my experiment.

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