Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Inaugural post

Wine-colored pasque flower in full regalia.
It's a lovely May morning in southern Denver - what a beautiful day for my first blog post. This is my occasional blog about writing, editing, literature, and the English language, as well as any one of my passing obsessions (lately? erosion control fabric. How much of the ground as we know it is undergirt by this strange rubbery layer?)

The occasion of this occasional post is yesterday's publication of a rant of mine about age, writing, and the pressure faced by writers to produce a book. Coincidentally, the other task of mine this morning (besides registering my daughter for swim team, scheduling a heartworm test for the dog, renewing my subscription to High Country News and creating the final Power Points for my classes this semester) is to work on my novel. You might think that I was done with all that, given the tenor of my complaint. Alas, however, no; I want to publish a book as much as anyone. It's the rabbit we writer greyhounds are condemned to chase.

Today's erosion control fun fact: stabilizing agents aren't just for food products anymore! You can apply petroleum-based or guar gum-based dust control substances using the same equipment you use to spray concrete. Just think about that the next time you pass a grassy, reconstructed slope.

Till next time,

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Facing the blank page

This post originally appeared in the SME Community in June 2012.

The blank page. You might think starting an article would get easier with time or experience – but you’d be wrong. Even as a seasoned writer and editor, the thought of having to come up with something new awakens in me a sudden urgent desire to do the dishes. Or clean my closets. Or organize my files –really, anything, anything but write.

Nevertheless, in twelve years I’ve come up with a few tricks.

1. I pretend I'm talking to someone.
If someone asks you about your research, you’re not going to sit and stare at them for five silent seconds before opening up a solitaire game and seeing if you can beat your previous time, are you? No, you’re not. You’re going to just tell them what you’ve been working on. What you say might not be complete, or beautifully phrased, or it may lack that je ne sais quoi that we all hope will magically emerge when we sit down at the page – but it will be out there, outside of your head, and that’s the essential first step to writing anything.

2. Perfection is the enemy.
Just get it all down on the page. Once you’ve done that, it’s no longer a blank page, but a work-in-progress. It’s much easier to see where to fix a work-in-progress.

3. I start with the easy stuff.
Jot down a list of the materials you used and how you conducted your experiments. Write this down and viola! You’ve already got the basics of one section. Do the same for other major sections: assemble your figures and tables showing what you found. Summarize the major points: there’s the beginning of your results section. Then maybe analyze how your work compares to results other people have found, or what the significance of your results are, or caveats about your results: this is all material for the Discussion. Or write down some ideas about the context of your research. What other work has been done on this subject? What hasn’t been done? How is your paper filling in a missing piece of knowledge? That’s your introduction.

4. I assemble the puzzle.
I like to think of this stage as putting together a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. At first there's just a confusing jumble of pieces. Then you start to sort and classify: you separate the edge pieces from the rest. Maybe you build the frame – you get your abstract, your introduction, your methods, your results. Then you start to see groupings—there are a bunch of pieces with this weird purply-orange color, so you pile them together. Likewise, maybe you’re writing about a new way to process cyanide. You describe one of your results, and you think about how this result expands on that great paper by Smith et al. Of course, your process was a little different than Smith’s process – better get that in there. But maybe your process is more applicable to standard field conditions – write that down. Build your argument: why is this data important to publish now? Pretty soon, an overall picture is going to emerge.

5. I step back and focus.
Your paper at this point might be immense and sloppy – but it’s there. Now step back. Why are you doing this, again? What are you trying to say to the world? You need to get at the essence of your research: draw a one-inch box on the page. Inside this box, write a summary of your paper: what main point are you trying to get across? What’s your essential conclusion? What does the reader have to know – and what is not so important?

See? Here we are at the end, and you’re halfway to your paper.

Emily Wortman-Wunder teaches scientific communication at the University of Colorado Denver.

Materializing the methods

This post originally appeared on the SME community, July 2012.

A colleague used to call it the recipe section, but it’s more often called Materials and Methods, Experimental or Experimental Procedures. No matter what the name, it’s about as interesting to read as a basting recipe. Which is to say: writing it is the equivalent of eating your broccoli. When you’re stuck, it can be the best place to get unstuck, because it’s really just about putting one foot in front of the other, right? First we washed the samples, then we dried them. Then we put them in a solution of 5% this, 8% that, 7 %  3M solution – et cetera. I’m starting to yawn already.

The M&M section is so dull that high-profile journals pressed for space have begun putting them at the end of the article, or omitting them from the print version altogether. Most other journals still retain the M&M in the traditional place: between the introduction and the results, but even there the section is often overlooked. Who needs this section unless you’re planning on replicating the experiment in the grand scientific tradition, am I right?

Wrong. Understanding how the experiments were set up, what parameters were used, which temperatures and times were applied, is one of the most critical elements of the paper, and understanding the sexy parts of the paper – the conclusions and its larger implications for science and for life – is impossible without a solid grounding in the methods used to obtain the results upon which the conclusion rests.

Take, for example, the following responses of three different reviewers to a recent paper submitted to Minerals & Metallurgical Processing:

1. “As presented the manuscript is NOT suitable for publication. This is not meant to necessarily be a criticism of the experimental work that was undertaken, but more a reflection that the manuscript provides insufficient information, especially for the experimental and analysis section relating to the XPS. As this is germane to the whole paper, the manuscript needs to be substantially revised. As it currently stands a reader is not able to actually follow what was done – which is one of the basic principles in writing a manuscript.

For example; the experimental section simply indicates that the instrument was a PHI5500. No useful further information is given. Essential that analyzer conditions, scan times, channel widths etc are all provided.

Was the standard dual source used (i.e. un-monochromated Mg Ka radiation)? Or was it monochromated? This has a substantial bearing on the spectra. Most mono’s tend to run off Al Ka, so the suspicion is that it was un-monochromated. If that is indeed the case then the extended raw data spectrum showing X-ray satellites and background fit should also be indicated. If a mono was used then the same applies, though a narrower energy range can be shown.”

2. “What material was used in leaching? Is it ore, flotation concentrate or pure handpicked mineral?”

3. “In figure 7 a plot of molar ratio of chlorate consumed to copper dissolved is given against time. How is the chlorate consumption obtained? Nothing is given on that in the materials and methods section.”

Now, the Materials and Methods section from this paper was 376 words long – not exhaustive, but definitely there. And yet the material it presented was inadequate to understand the results obtained.

In order to write an effective Methods section, then, it’s clear that an author must do more than write a recipe. Every piece of information must be weighed carefully in light of the results and the information that is most important to the understanding of the results must be emphasized. Other material can be summarized or the reader can be referred to another publication that describes the procedure in more detail.

Methods: not as easy as they first appear – and not as dull, either.

Emily Wortman-Wunder teaches scientific communication at the University of Colorado Denver.