Write as if you were blogging! Or perish?

#This is a first draft, will be updated shortly (11:44 PM, Pacific Time)

Warning: This is a ranting post, but it is not negative, I promise! It’s more like the daydreams of a frustrated author, with some futuristic aspirations (not so futuristic or ambitious for some). The post is partly inspired by “Beyond the PDF” Workshop.

I’m currently working on a manuscript (no surprise. Isn’t this what I’m doing most of the year. “Scientists are forced to write more than they read” Phil Bourne, 1/20/2011-Beyond the PDF workshop) that I absolutely need to finish by February 1, and I have been struggling for the past 5-6 months with the flow of that manuscript.

As of today, the Introduction section is almost done; the methods are written as well; the Results section seems to be complete and the discussion is outlined. However, every time I go through the results (and this applies to the past 3 months), I find something I don’t like, I start a new analysis, then I re-arrange the data, consequently rearranging the text, which leaves scars and bumpy transitions, etc.

One problem I’m having is the massive amounts of data and the uninterpretable nature of many of them. If I could just put some of the data as they are and put a dialogue box below them saying: I’m helpless here, this is open to public debate; suggested interpretations are welcome #crowdsourcing . Why not? That would be idea. Why would authors hide “unnecessary data” or data they have no clue about just because they cannot write anything about them, simply putting the clichĂ© “data not shown?” Perhaps 2-3 weeks after publication, another paper will come out and let everybody be able to discuss this piece of data, still in the context of the published manuscript. Or maybe a reader from a distant discipline (e.g., astrophysics) will look at the uninterpretable figure or table and smile saying: Oh no! This is so obvious. It means so and so #Itoldyouso

The other problem that has been frustrating me even more in the past couple of weeks is the organization and somehow the writing style. If I could just write it as if it were a blog post! It would have been much easier. What does this mean?

  • Write as if I’m telling a story. Use plain active voice. Use some informal expressions and not regret it. Just not be refrained by the format too much to the extent of being crippled. I usually finish an average-length blog post in a couple of hours or less. If I write an article this way, it can take a week rather than 3-6 months.
  • Link to things I’m talking about. Quote already written things from wherever they are written, and not bothering to rephrase their statements yet not claiming any credit for finding the quotes.
  • “Tag” people while writing. They may be people that can help interpreting that paragraph better. They may be cited authors who are alive and have online accounts.
  • Leave some questions unanswered. Some sentences unfinish… (hmmm?)

During one of Beyond The PDF sessions, in response to Anita de Waard’s analysis, Phil Bourne expressed some “regret” on revising one of his students’ articles and enforcing some changes to make the manuscript look more “professional.” He was wondering whether he should have let the student express excitement about the findings in an informal way. A tricky question, isn’t it?

I am not sure if writing liberally is a good solution. It’s easier, more direct,

On the other hand, the article is not just a story. Those who made the IMRaD/IRDaM systems made them for a reason. Some readers approach the article just to find the reagents used in the experiments. They want the methodology separate and clear. Another thing, think of readers from non English-speaking countries. They may not necessarily get the subtle expressions, laugh at the jokes, or understand the slang without a handy copy of The Urban Dictionary.

Bottom line: I need to close my Word doc right now, open a new one, write as if I’m blogging the full story in one page, non-stop. Then, I’ll take that back, project it on my already written Results section, translate spoken jargon into scientific jargon, and whatever will not fit in my blogged story will need to adapt or perish!

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About Ramy Aziz

Assistant Professor of Microbiology and Immunology, Faculty of Pharmacy, Cairo University, Cairo, Egypt & founder of Egybio.Net
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