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October 25, 2016 / jpschimel

“Writing Science” in one page: A guest blog by Amy Burgin

I saw Amy’s three-page condensation of “Writing Science” and thought it so wonderful I asked if she would make it available and write a guest blog. Here is the link. Thanks Amy!

schimel-in-a-sheet

The Making of Schimel in a Sheet: How and why I use Writing Science to teach Scientific Communication”

Amy Burgin, Associate Professor, University of Kansas and Kansas Biological Survey

As a lifelong nerd, I relish the freshness of each fall semester with rituals such as preparing for the first day of class, outlining my writing projects for the new academic year, and my now annual refresher on scientific writing principles. For the last four years, I’ve taught Writing Science or Science Communication (#SciComm) using Josh’s book, Writing Science: How to write papers that get cited and proposals that get funded. Communication skills, like those described in the book or developed through Science Communication classes, are what set young scientists apart from the pack vying for limited grant money, publication slots and tenure track positions.

I first encountered the power of the book working with my first Master’s student, Valerie Schoepfer. Valerie defended her M.S. in April 2013 and turned in what is a pretty typical thesis; it was too long, lacked a cohesive story, and generally read like a lab report. Our task was to transform the thesis into publishable manuscripts. I ordered Writing Science, gave it to Valerie, and asked her to do the writing exercises. Afterwards, she sent me a new draft that was almost unrecognizable from the original thesis (now a paper in JGRBiogeosciences). The editor added this note in his acceptance letter:

Personally I read the introduction and liked it a lot. It was tutorial enough to make this work accessible to a wide audience. As a neophyte biogeochemist and wetland ecologist, I found it very clear. I am also looking for our papers to clearly state interesting hypotheses and you do. Scientifically, the seasonal aspect of this work makes the context of the finding and their implication better. Figures are bold and easy to read. Good job. This is what I expect and hope for.”

I’ve had few prouder moments as an advisor than reading this email. It showed a student how the hard work of seemingly endless drafting, revising and editing can lead to positive peer-review comments and a publishable paper. Given that great experience, I started offering a seminar class on Writing Science. For three years, I taught it with a focus on analyzing published papers. (After the first year, I had to institute a “no papers written by your advisor or committee members” rule – analyzing your advisor’s writing leads to awkward class conversations.) This approach made for better readers, but didn’t translate to long-term writing improvement.  Consequently, I’ve modified the class to incorporate the writing exercises – the exact ones Valerie used to improve her initial drafts.  Students write ~15 drafts of an 800-word article using the book’s prompts. They then complete a reflective self-analysis to internalize where they need to improve. Not surprisingly, applying the principles to your own work yields the greatest gain in writing improvement.

At the end of the class, I deliver a “parting gift” I call the Schimel in a Sheet. It functions as an easy reference of the book’s core messages to hang beside your desk – you can see my Schimel Sheet in action from the picture of my work station, below.  The Schimel Sheet highlights the major messages in each chapter.  The quotes reflect marked passages in my heavily annotated copy of Writing Science.  That is, these are the core messages for young scientists and early career writers to internalize. There is a good amount of short hand; thus, the Schimel Sheet may be hard to understand if you’re not familiar with the book. If you’ve studied the book, it serves as a good reminder of the first principles of clean, clear, and concise science writing.

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At the end of each class, I also ask my students to summarize the book as simply as possible.  My current class constructed the best summary yet, which fit into this tweet:

tweet“Schimel Sheet in a Tweet” is (necessarily) short, but is the most succinct summary I’ve seen of Writing Science. Get to the point refers to the material in the first four chapters, which focus on establishing a story. The entire book encourages the writer to put themselves in the reader’s shoes, but this theme is particularly apparent in Chapters 5-10 on engaging curiosity by framing a knowledge gap, stating a question and creating an overall logical progression. Students learn to “sweat the small stuff” in Chapters 11-16, which provides crucial tools for fostering clearer writing.  All in, I think this is a pretty good summary of the book. [Josh’s note: me too!]

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