Category Archives: Why Edit

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.

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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.

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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 About.com 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.

Keep ’em short and sweet.

Short sentences are easier to understand than long ones.* Academic writers all too often forget this simple axiom. I’m certainly not exempt. (Targeting and fixing others’ long-winded sentences is much easier for me.)

For an assignment in the scholarly communication course I took, I revised a typical paragraph of mine. Here’s the original version, with an average 27.5 words per sentence:

Because the current diagnostic criteria are set up in a pick and choose manner, it is possible for two individuals to meet the definition for and receive the diagnosis of autism while displaying none of the same behaviors. This leads to a large degree of heterogeneity within the autism population. Further complicating matters, autism falls within a spectrum, reflecting that the symptoms can present across a wide range of impairment. For example, diagnoses of Pervasive Developmental Disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) require meeting fewer criteria than for classic autism and diagnoses of Asperger syndrome do not require speech delay, but both of these developmental disorders are still considered to be ASDs.

And my revision, with a svelte 12.2 words per sentence on average:

Current diagnostic criteria for autism are set up in a pick and choose manner. This makes it possible for two individuals to receive the diagnosis despite displaying none of the same behaviors. A large degree of heterogeneity within the autism population is one consequence. Further complicating matters, autism falls within a spectrum. Symptoms can present across a wide range of impairment. For example, diagnoses of Pervasive Developmental Disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) require meeting fewer criteria than for classic autism. Additionally, diagnoses of Asperger syndrome do not require speech delay. Regardless, clinicians consider both of these developmental disorders ASDs.

I could undoubtedly still improve the style, but the second paragraph is much easier to follow.

Please don’t think I’m saying sentences should all be bare and choppy–no one wants to read stilted prose either. Just keep in mind that winding sentences will lose some readers along the way.

*This isn’t the whole story, though. In a future blog post, I’ll tackle the idea of a grammatical core. I’ll show that sentences with short grammatical cores are easier to understand than sentences with long grammatical cores. Stay tuned.

“Communicating well is one of the most important things–perhaps the most important thing”

In searching for a quote to use in my trial Bunkr presentation yesterday (read my review of Bunkr here), I found this great one:

As a scientist, communicating well is one of the most important things–perhaps the most important thing–that we do, because it doesn’t matter how good your science is or how important it is: if you can’t communicate to other people why it’s important, then you won’t be able to help it reach its full potential.

~Will Cox (from his video testimonial)

“Even a superb writer needs a good editor.”

Even a superb writer needs a good editor. A merely good writer needs a superb editor.

~Dan A. Wilson

Like I always say, all writers need editors.

(That certainly doesn’t exclude me, by the way! If you ever spot an error on my site, let me know through the “My Bad!” contest for $5 off your next edit.)

Edit: Lisa M. of Madison, WI spotted that I originally said “$5 off you next edit.” I wish I could say this was an intentional plant, but it’s really just a coincidental mistake. Well done, Lisa!

“The smell of freshly pooped popcorn. A chill in the air…”

*Don’t forget about the ongoing contest for 10% off your next edit! Figure out how to parse the buffalo sentence from Monday’s post and you could win!*

Editing entails much more than correcting typos. For example, depending on the level of editing you choose, Science Refinery can work with you to make each sentence as effective as possible or even to help craft the message of a project and determine its overall organization and structure.

That said, sometimes it’s fun to catch embarrassing typos that somehow got published. Here’s one from a local paper last fall:

pooped popcorn

“The pounding beat of the drums. The crackle of the public address system. The smell of freshly pooped popcorn. A chill in the air. These are the unmistakable things synonymous with the arrival of high school football, and there’s nothing quite like it.”

Somehow I feel that football wouldn’t be quite so popular if it did involve freshly pooped popcorn…

If you find any egregious errors or sentences that leave you wondering, “what does that mean and how in the world did this get published?” please send them in. It can be instructive to turn the negative examples we see into more beautiful prose.