by PAUL LAGASSE
Dr. Josh Schimel is a Professor of Ecosystem Ecology in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the author of Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded (Oxford University Press, 2011). Recently, Josh led a two-day writing workshop at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) for the center’s postdoctoral fellows. I sat down with Josh after the workshop to discuss what scientists, particularly those who work in interdisciplinary fields, need to know about writing well.
Paul Lagasse: At the beginning of your book, you have a quote: “As a scientist, you are a professional writer.” You then go on to say that being a professional writer is not enough; you also need to write something that’s “sticky,” that grabs people. Can you say more about what you mean by that?
Josh Schimel: Part of being a professional writer is thinking about your writing as more than just filling in the boxes of an IMRAD structure. It’s the writer’s job to make the reader’s job easy. You need to think about the reader and how they’re going to respond to your work. Scientists are not trying to be literary when we write for our peers, but I argue that we should be using literary tools to do a better job of writing science.
PL: Do scientists who conduct interdisciplinary research face unique challenges in terms of their writing compared with those who write for someone in a single discipline?
JS: In science, we often borrow words from other fields and assign different meanings to them. Take the term “resilience,” for example. To an engineer, it means the ability to return to a stable state following a single perturbation, whereas ecologists use it to mean the ability to absorb constant disturbances without changing fundamental processes.
But nature doesn’t do disciplines; humans create them to simplify how we think about and address questions and problems. We need to recognize that scientists in different disciplines may both be working on the same issue, although they may have defined it differently. The writer’s role is to craft language so that whoever’s reading it can see that and recognize both sides.
PL: Do you see self-publishing as the future of science scholarship, and if so, what would that mean for peer review? When you’re dealing with an interdisciplinary topic, I imagine that finding a suitable journal might be more of a challenge.
JS: Some people in the sciences have been arguing about why we even need journals anymore. But I think that writers need someone to help with editing and quality control, and to put an imprimatur on what’s worth paying attention to. Many people tend to think that the purpose of peer review is just to filter out the garbage, but it also polishes the not-garbage. It provides critical outside input that really helps make the science better.
PL: The role of peer review, in that sense, becomes analogous to the role of the editor in fiction. But a lot of fiction authors have a reluctant relationship with their editors; is it the same in the sciences?
JS: Absolutely! It’s a love–hate relationship, and a negotiation.
PL: In your book, you mention the distinction between rules and principles. Can you tell me about how you perceive the difference?
JS: I argue that principles are fundamental concepts that, if you violate them, your writing will suffer. The most important principle is to write with clarity and energy. Now, there are many rules of grammar that can be applied to modulate clarity and energy, some of which are useful and some of which are kind of marginal—such as never starting a sentence with “and,” “but,” or “however.”
That said, no rule in the English language was created just to be evil. They all have their uses, and sometimes, breaking those rules have their uses, too. If you break a rule well, people won’t notice that you did the very thing that they said not to. Writing well is its own kind of science, because it takes practice and effort. It’s also its own kind of art, because your reader should never be aware of the effort behind it—only the message that it carries.
Note: parts of this interview have been edited for readability and clarity.
The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, funded through an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation, is a research center dedicated to accelerating scientific discovery at the interface of human and ecological systems. Visit us online at www.sesync.org and follow us on Twitter @SESYNC.
Top image courtesy Eric Heupel via Flickr/Creative Commons.