Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Useful or Funny, But Not Both

In academia, no matter what your field, there are two things you spend a lot of time doing: reading and writing. I have always read quite a lot and over a wide range, so I had a pretty good feel for what sounded good and what didn't, but not much of a toolbox for identifying why something sounded good or bad or how to deal with my own bad writing. To that end, I took a technical writing class last fall. I'm not going to lie; it was painful. But also, enjoyable. And thoroughly useful.

It's funny how much bad writing there is in academia. The teacher of the technical writing class never tired of reminding us that her former life was as a technical editor at a peer reviewed scientific journal (she never did say which one) but that all the journals had since fired all their technical editors (editors are bad for the bottom line) and therefore anything written in the last 10 years or so is a lot more likely to be garbage. There is also the fact that English has all but been adopted as the universal scientific language. I don't know what the stats are, but I suspect the majority of scientific writers are not native English speakers. And, again anecdotally, the advents of the internet and text messaging appear to have basically destroyed what semblance of good writing most native English speakers might have had to begin with.

So, all this adds up to the fact that there is very little good writing out there in the scientific community. Which means that when you do find good writing, it stands out. At least to me it does. I genuinely feel that people who go out of their way to stand above the crowd in terms of good writing will be rewarded (with higher citation counts, hopefully).

A (now former) colleague who just returned to China after only 3 years in Canada obviously feels that way too. He has been asking me for help with some of his writing over the past few months. He recently sent me a cover letter for corrections. Never having written a cover letter for a peer review journal article submission before, I was a little fuzzy on what tenses to use in some circumstances. One of the best ways to learn about these sorts of things is to seek out examples. Sadly, this is not a topic on which the internet has much useful to say. However, to the internet's credit, when it's not useful, at least it is usually funny:

Maybe it's that I have seen the frustration that the writer is expressing, maybe it's because I spent 6 hours today supervising an undergraduate chemistry lab and inhaled a lot of fumes, but I found the above example laugh-out-loud funny. Your mileage may vary.