Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Taking a short break from a course in writing to post about it

I am currently half way through a short course on Successful Scientific Writing: from Proposal to Publication. I am really enjoying this class, and getting much out of it. I will, doubtless, be sharing further details on the course once it is over, but since I’ve got an hour before class starts this morning I thought I’d take a moment to share one of the very useful tools they gave us to improve our writing.
Treat your writing like a game of dominoes. When playing dominoes if the first tile placed is a 5-6 the second tile needs to contain either a five or a six spot side, which is placed up against the matching side of the first tile. This approach is also useful in writing. The first sentence in a paragraph introduces the topic, and the next sentence contains a word or words which link back to the first sentence and then adds additional information on that topic. Each subsequent sentence in the paragraph ideally contains a word or phrase which links it back to the sentence which immediately precedes it.
Likewise each paragraph, which by their very nature, often introduce new topics should contain something which links back to what has already been written in addition to providing new information. (Sometimes the “link” can be a contrast such as “However,…”.
This tool alone can make a huge difference. Before the class began we were assigned the task of writing a “200-word abstract describing your current research project. The abstract should be concrete, but simple enough to be understood by researchers not only in your own field but also adjoining fields (i.e. researchers in physics, chemistry, etc.)”. Yesterday afternoon we broke into pairs to evaluate these abstracts. One of the two I read contained ten sentences in four paragraphs. In looking over it I noticed that it didn’t obey the rules of the domino game. Therefore I searched each sentence to discover which ones were related. My suggestion to the author consisted of re-arranging his thoughts. I numbered each of his sentences (1-10) and assigned letters (A-G) to the new locations for the sentences which I felt would improve the flow of the abstract. The “map” for the changes I suggest looks like this:

A: sentence one
B: sentence five
C: sentence two
D: sentence ten
E: sentences three and four
F: sentences six and seven
G: sentences eight and nine.

One of today’s assignments is to revise our abstracts using this tool, and all of the other useful tools they’ve given us thus far. I am looking forward to seeing the changes in my abstract as a result of this course, and anticipate that future papers will be much easier to write than previous ones. I strongly recommend taking such a course from a good teacher.

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