Category Archives: Why Edit

Why Academics Stink at Writing

If you care about academic writing at all, I urge you to read Steven Pinker’s latest article at The Chronicle Review. It’s long, but very worth it. His central question is,

Why should a profession that trades in words and dedicates itself to the transmission of knowledge so often turn out prose that is turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand?

He goes on to demolish some of the most common explanations for poor academic writing. It’s not just deliberate obscurity, or that it’s unavoidable, or that it’s imposed by journals. It’s about communication style.

Rather than writing in a clear, classical style, most academics blend the practical and self-conscious styles. Why is this so? “The curse of knowledge, in combination with chunking and functional fixity.” You’ll have to read the full article to see what he means by all of that.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. As Pinker put it,

Enough already. Our indifference to how we share the fruits of our intellectual labors is a betrayal of our calling to enhance the spread of knowledge. In writing badly, we are wasting each other’s time, sowing confusion and error, and turning our profession into a laughingstock.

Why I <3 repeat customers

I love working with repeat customers. It’s so gratifying to know that my work was valuable enough to someone that they want to work with me again! It’s a great confidence booster that I really am doing a good job and serving my clients well.

I also relish the opportunity to develop deeper relationships with my clients over time. Today someone I’ve worked with multiple times (I won’t say who, but you can find him somewhere on the testimonials page!) called to get an estimate request on another project. I’d previously done basic editing of one of his journal manuscripts and substantive editing of his CV, and now I’ll be helping with developmental editing of a few job application cover letters. Because we were already familiar with each other’s writing and editing styles, I could confidently quote him an appropriate fee and he could confidently assess that it was a fair value for the help he’d receive.

As I outline on the “Why Choose Science Refinery?” page, I go beyond traditional copyediting of journal articles, so this type of ongoing client relationship is common for me. As another example, I could help you craft an abstract to submit to a conference, design the poster once you’re accepted, write the journal article after you get great feedback on your poster, and put related work together in your dissertation.

If you haven’t yet hired Science Refinery for any editing projects, never fear! As much as I love my repeat customers, I still have plenty of time and attention that I can devote to new clients, too. So contact me today and let’s get started. I know you’ll love working with Science Refinery so much that you’ll become a repeat customer soon too.

Website updates and listification

As promised last week, I updated* the Science Refinery website yesterday. You may notice minor changes in wording and formatting throughout, but the important stuff is listed below.

The countries of origin and first languages of the authors I’ve edited for so far are now all listed on the Why Choose Science Refinery page. They range from Belgium to Taiwan and Catalan to Swedish.

The project types and subject areas of the pieces I’ve edited so far are now all listed on the Range of Projects I Work On page. They range from academic journal articles to website copy and biology to statistics.

Finally, I put a new picture of me working at my standing desk (I’ll post about that soon!) on the home page. In it you can see this poster from The Oatmeal about “Why working from home is both awesome and horrible,” my shelf of various diplomas and awards, and the beautiful spring day out my open window.

Lauren at standing desk

By the way, don’t forget that any projects for IMFAR booked now through 5/12 will receive a 20% discount!

*Case in point about why even I need an editor sometimes: I originally wrote “made some updates to” instead of the simpler, more powerful “updated.” Blech.

My Sudden Clarity Clarence moment about PowerPoint

Today I had a Sudden Clarity Clarence moment:

Yeah, this has been noted by others before, and I’ve had the general sense for a while now, but it only crystallized into a conscious thought for me today. Here’s how.

It seems like lately I’ve been getting a lot of jobs that involve more than just my typical copyediting of scientific journal articles (like helping a student prepare for a Rhodes Scholar interview and working with political candidates to improve their brochures). If I keep making blog posts reminding people that the range of projects I work on is vast, perhaps I need to update how I pitch myself throughout the site in the first place… (Yes, this and a few other site updates are already on my to do list–stay tuned!)

Today I had the opportunity to work on another such “unconventional” project with Dr. Nestor Matthews. Last summer I analyzed and reviewed his recorded flipped classroom lectures and I’m always grateful to earn repeat business from satisfied customers. This time he wanted me to talk with students in his Psych 100 class during one of their writing workshops about what it’s like to be a professional editor and writer. Through the magic of Skype, I was able to be right there with them. I had a great time sharing my perspectives about science writing, majoring in psychology, and more with the students.

We both agreed from the start that we wanted more of an informal discussion than a formal lecture, so making a PowerPoint presentation was out of the question. I still needed a way to organize my thoughts and generally prepare what I was going to say, though, so I made a simple outline in Word. That’s when the realization struck: most academics (my previous self definitely included) use PowerPoint for their talks as an alternative to writing a simple outline!

The entry on creating outlines from the University of Richmond Writing Center does a great job of detailing the hows and whys of outlining and I’m sure most of you smarties already have a firm grasp on that, so I won’t bother recreating the wheel here. And if you need convincing that talks should be accompanied by slides that are mostly visual (e.g., pictures, graphs) rather than word-based, let me know and I will point you to any of the innumerable sources out there about how most people seriously abuse PowerPoint. One of my favorites from my professional development course on scholarly communication is a presentation on SlideShare called “Death by PowerPoint.”

Now I’m not at all saying that PowerPoint is useless or bad. I’ve reviewed some alternative presentation programs (Bunkr and Presenter, which I just learned has been rebranded as visme), but it is definitely possible to make a beautiful, useful PowerPoint presentation.

My bottom line here is that if you’re giving a talk (teaching a lecture, demonstrating a product, whatever!) that does call for some kind of visual aids, under no circumstances should you subject the audience to a presentation that is basically your own outline on some slides! Outlining should be a private first step, not the public final product.

The 5 Phases of the Writing Process

My friend Alex Epstein is in the process of writing a book. Many of his fans are eagerly awaiting its November release, so he often treats us to tidbits about the writing process. One of his latest was the following:

Does your writing process contain these same steps and do they carry the same emotions for you? If not, what do you do differently? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Catch-up post of recent Facebook updates

So I’ve been pretty terrible about keeping up this blog recently. I could list off some excuses like the holidays, new obligations, and prioritizing actual editing over writing about editing, but the truth is I’ve just let this slip by. I won’t promise a dramatic change (the new obligations and priorities are actually real), but I am going to recommit to posting here semi-regularly.

In the meantime, here are some updates from the Facebook and Twitter pages:

2/20/14: I ❤ Google Ngram viewer. “Should I change this author’s use of ‘indispensable for’ to ‘indispensable to’?” Rather than deciding blindly, I can check the data first! Click to see what I found then guess what I chose to do.

2/12/14: I just spontaneously shouted “I love this paper!” Good thing I work from home :). It’s a good day to be an editor.

2/11/14: Reading the methods of a paper that used HPLC is daunting and makes me glad I quit chemistry after one semester of organic. (Luckily I still know enough to be able to confidently, competently edit it after several passes.)

2/6/14: I’ve been doing mostly journal articles lately, but today I am editing a grant application. Nice change of pace! 🙂

2/5/14: My favorite error in this ESL paper so far: talking about the normally distributed “residues” (instead of residuals) 🙂

1/10/14: I’m editing a paper about altitude sickness and the author just referred to “seal level.” Made me think of the Seal as a Seal meme.

12/18/13: I’m editing a paper by authors whose native language is Korean. There were some unique errors, which led me to Googling to learn a little something about Korean syntax. Wikipedia taught me that Korean is generally considered a “language isolate” (meaning it has “no demonstrable genealogical relationship with other languages”). No wonder there were some unusual mistakes when the authors translated their ideas to English! Cool.

12/4/13: Pandora is blasting my holiday shuffle, I get to gaze out at beautiful snow, there’s tasty tea in my mug, and I’m editing a very interesting paper on IQ psychometrics. All I need is a fireplace and I’d be happy as a clam at high tide 🙂

Thoughtful writing goes beyond negative grammar “rules”

Yesterday I posted about how I sometimes let my Random Capitalization Syndrome shine through. “For me, the key is to know when it’s appropriate to unleash my RCS,” I explained, citing texts, personal emails, and Facebook posts as better venues for it than official publications and other formal contexts.

Then I found a great post in The Chronicle’s Lingua Franca blog by Geoffrey Pullum that fantastically echoed my message. Most grammar advice is framed as an absolute “don’t-do-this-don’t-do-that brand of usage bullying.” Instead, writers “need answers to open interrogatives about when to do what, and why, and how.” So it’s not that RCS should always be banned, it just needs to be used in the right place and time. Same goes for other “rules” like not ending sentences with a preposition.

As Pullum eloquently put it, “You have to steer between the Scylla of sounding like a tweet by an excited high-schooler and the Charybdis of sounding like a great-grandfather in a starched collar.” A good editor will help you do just that to produce a final product that’s appropriate for its intended context. We spend a lot of time thinking about when, how, and why to do the whats of grammar.

The importance of feedback from a naïve reader

Today Science Refinery reaches a milestone: the first guest blog post! The below is from Morton Ann Gernsbacher, Ph.D., Vilas Research Professor and Sir Frederic Bartlett Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She’s a cognitive neuroscientist who for 30 years has studied human communication.  Learn more about her exciting research on her lab website and connect with her on Twitter.

By the way, on the About Lauren page I mention a seminar on polishing scholarly communication that turned out to be one of my favorite graduate courses. It was taught by Dr. Gernsbacher! Please join me in thanking her for her contribution.


You’ve analyzed your data. You’ve crafted a compelling story. You’ve translated that story into APA style (or whatever style manual your discipline follows), and you’ve asked your co-authors to read over the paper to catch typos. [LM: Or you’ve hired Science Refinery to do your basic editing! :)]

You think you’re ready to submit your manuscript. But you’ve missed a step.

The most important source of feedback on your manuscript comes not from your co-authors. They already know what you were trying to convey even if you weren’t successful at conveying it. The most important source of feedback comes from readers who are naïve to your methods, message, and manuscript.

Over 20 years ago, my former PhD student Matt Traxler, now a Professor at the University of California, Davis, and I empirically demonstrated why it’s important for writers to get feedback from naïve readers.

Matt and I conducted a series of experiments using Tangram figures such as these. One Tangram 2group of participants (whom we called writers) had to write a description of each of these figures. Another group of participants (readers) had to use those descriptions to select each figure from a group of lure figures that the writers had not described.

Tangram 1

In essence, we were measuring how accurately writers could convey the exact message that they intended, rather than convey a related, but inaccurate, message. Such inaccuracy is the bane of scientific writing.

We discovered that one of the most productive ways to improve writers’ accuracy was to give those writers feedback on how accurately their readers had identified the correct figure. Armed with this simple feedback (“your readers were 40% accurate”), our writers improved in their second attempt at describing the same figures.

Providing two rounds of feedback doubly improved our writers’ accuracy. What’s more, armed with two rounds of feedback, our writers improved in their abilities to describe a new set of figures. What was key is that the writers received feedback from naïve readers – readers who were unaware of the exact figure the writers were trying to describe.

In the same way, you can improve your accuracy in describing your research. What’s key is to receive feedback from naïve readers – readers who are unaware of the exact message you are intending to convey, rather than readers who are your co-authors. And, most importantly, whenever a naïve reader tells you that your message isn’t clear, it is by definition unclear. Revise.


Every paper, poster, and presentation should be previewed by a naïve reader (or viewer) to ensure message clarity. When you’re in need of a fresh pair of eyes, look to Science Refinery.

Muphry’s Law

You’ve likely heard of Murphy’s Law (that’s Sod’s Law, you UK lot): anything that can go wrong will. But did you know there’s an editorial version, too? Muphry’s Law is the “principle that any criticism of the speech or writing of others will itself contain at least one error of usage or spelling.” (See this article for the etymology and some fun examples.)

I’m all too aware of this phenomenon. That’s why I instituted the “My Bad!” contest.  If you spot an error anywhere on my site, I’ll reward your eagle eye with a $5 discount off your next project. ALL writers–even (especially?) editors–need editors.