Graduate Student Writing Series presentation, Science Writing: Practice Makes It (Almost) Perfect
Dr. Ginger Carney, Associate Professor of Biology, shares tips on writing grant proposals in science.
Thanks for coming today. When I first started as a scientist I started as a scientist because I loved science. I took a genetics course when I was an undergraduate. It was really interesting, I started working in the lab and I decided I wanted to go to graduate school, earn my Ph.D. and then run my own lab. What I didn’t know when I made that career choice is that what I would ultimately spend probably seventy or maybe a higher percentage of my time doing was writing. And I might well have been dissuaded if I had known that I wouldn’t have this wonderful. . . just sitting in my lab thinking of new experiments and executing these experiments. But it turns out that once you get to the stage in your career that I’m at now a lot of times that gets left to other people in the lab, and so I spend a lot of my time writing now and reading and that’s OK I enjoy both of those things. But I didn’t really understand when I started in science how important writing was going to be. And so the first thing that I have is just some examples of things that one might do on a regular basis as either an academic scientist or government or an industry scientist. And so one of the most important things is giving presentations. I write a lot of lectures, those include presentations that I give to classes that I teach or I go out and give seminars and tell people about my work and that of course requires writing. I give poster presentations at meetings. My students do this as well. I spend a lot of my time writing grant proposals or writing scholarly articles and those of course can be review articles or research articles. Another thing that I spend a lot of my time doing is peer review. And so I read proposals that other people have submitted to funding agencies. I read papers that people have submitted for publication and then some other kinds of things. I don’t write books but some of my colleagues do. I write a lot of recommendation letters, I write a lot of research summaries and abstracts. In my own department we have a progress report due every year. If you have a grant from one of the major funding agencies, you’ll have to tell them each year the work that you’ve done and the progress you’ve made in that work. There are a lot of kinds of things that you have to do with the science that are related to the science but maybe not the things that you expect to do when you first realize you had this drive and love for science. So it turns out that all of these examples that I’ve given to you have really one thing in common. What that commonality is, is that they require that the writer or the lecturer or whatever really put forth some sort of argument and then really backs that argument up. When you write a grant proposal or you write a research paper in particular, that’s the most important thing that you’re going to do. You’re going to make an argument to your reviewers and then support that argument with facts. So it really doesn’t make you seem all that smart if you’re always making lots of typos and if you don’t use proper sentence structure in your writing particularly when you need to provide an explanation about something really complicated like science. And of course this might make you laugh. But the reality is when you send your proposals and your papers off or when you give a lecture or something you really want to be clear. You want to have no grammar errors if possible. You don’t want to have spelling errors all over the place. You really need to think about your writing and make sure that its clear and error free.
So why is good writing important? Because you’re communicating your ideas in your research findings as a scientist. You need those ideas to be clear and that helps you limit the misunderstandings that people might have about what you’re trying to say. And for instance a proposal, you’ll get these reviews back from people who look at those proposals and what you don’t want to have happen is somebody go, “well they didn’t discuss such and such in the proposal. And then you say, “but yes I did, it’s on page fifteen because what that indicates is that while you may have discussed it you may not have discussed it clearly enough for your reviewer to understand the point. Sometimes it’s a bad reviewer, but a lot of times it’s because you’re not being clear in describing what you are trying to describe. It’s also really important particularly for grant proposals that you be very concise in your wording. Grant proposals almost always have a page limit or word limit and so you have to think carefully about how can I describe my idea succinctly. Of course you want to make sure that the information you’re providing is accurate. I’m going to posit that somebody who writes well, that helps them to think clearly about whatever they’re talking about or whatever they’re writing about. So it helps inform you and make you think more clearly about what you’re doing. When I was a graduate student there were two really painful things that they made us do in my department. One of them is that we had to give seminars basically every year on our research and for those of us who took that very seriously it made us better speakers at the end of the day. A lot of times what you’re going to do when you get into academic science is you’re going to give talks just like the one I’m giving today. The other thing that they did to is they made us write up a research report every year in our department. Our department was actually fairly unusual and doing that. What it made you do is it made you think very deeply about your research aims and goals and the progress that you were making. And so writing helps bring some of these things to a head even. It helps you think more clearly about what you’re doing and then hopefully you can help that inform your next draft of whatever you’re writing.
Ok, a few thoughts that I have on writing. It really doesn’t matter what career path you take. It is important to be a good communicator, it is important to be a good writer. If you’re an academic scientist, an industrial scientist, if you become a physician, if you become a schoolteacher. I think it’s really important to be a good writer because who is going to take you seriously and believe in your credentials and ability and to do something if you can’t communicate. I’m also going to say that organization, content, spelling, and grammar are always important. And I highlighted spelling because that’s one of the things that people often will let get through grant proposals if they’ve edited lots of times and maybe they’re using spell check and it’s not catching some of the vocabulary or maybe they edited for other things and just really didn’t pay attention to the spelling. I even had a colleague recently who got grant proposal reviews back that was not funded and someone even commented on the number of spelling errors that were in the proposal. This kind of thing irritates reviewers. I’m busy, you are busy, you don’t want to read a proposal that is full of errors and spelling errors are some of the easiest ones for people to identify. Sometimes I’m sure that I have errors of some sort of grammatical error in every proposal that I send but I really try hard to minimize those. And people maybe a little less able to distinguish some of those but they’re going to catch the spelling. They’re going to notice that.
I also believe very strongly that writing is improved by revision and continual practice. Another thing that I suggest that you want to do is you want to read examples of writing in whatever your field is. It’s actually very instructive to identify examples of good writing as well as bad writing because that will help you. As you read more papers you begin to see which one was more clear and which one wasn’t. That will help you learn to become a better writer. You should practice some more. When you write things you need to spend a lot of time editing. Every time I’m working on the proposal and I start writing on it again, I actually save my proposal every single day and I keep this huge running list of each day that I work on the proposal. Because some days I make some really major changes to proposals and maybe I go, “oh no I didn’t want to do that. And so if I’ve saved it everyday I can go back to the day before and change things and mix them back in. But you constantly are going to need to be re-reading and thinking and editing papers and proposals as you’re writing them. And then you want to practice some more. And you want to practice some more. That will help you become a better writer.
A few other simple writing tips that I have for you is that you want to keep it simple when you’re writing. We are not here to write poetry. We are not here to write pretty flashy sentences. Most scientists really want to get to the meat of the problem and get the information. So you want to write concise, clear sentences where you limit the flowery language, you limit the jargon as much as you can. We each have particular words and jargon that will be used for our fields, but you want to limit that to some extent. And you want to not use so many abbreviations that it makes it impossible for somebody to read whatever you’ve written, unless they’re right there in your field. It’s also frustrating particularly as a reviewer or if you’re trying to read a paper that you think might be interesting and inform your work and you can’t get through it because they have so many abbreviations in there that you can’t read it. Of course, write in complete sentences and that often is going to mean subject-verb-object.
I would also suggest particularly for a grant proposal or something that you want to have discreet paragraphs for each major idea and transition. Don’t use contractions or exclamation points in the formal writing that you might do. You want to make every sentence that you put down on paper essential. There’s not always a word limit. Sometimes you might be able to publish a thirty or forty page paper. But nobody wants to read that, let’s be honest. And grant proposals are going to have word limits. So what you really want to do is make everything that you say essential and important to whatever point you’re trying to make in your paper or your grant proposal. You also should not generally make unsupported statements of fact or opinion. If you say something you want to have an example that backs that up. I already talked about using proper grammar and spelling. Make sure you don’t rely on spell check to look through. every paper that I write or grant proposal is full of red marks through it because of all of the scientific language that’s used. There are special programs for science; I don’t actually have any experience with using those, but they are more familiar with some of the scientific terminology that might come across. I don’t personally use them myself. I have a grammar book. I have several of them actually that sit on my bookshelf. I don’t know everything there is to know about grammar by any stretch of the imagination. And so if I write something and I’m not sure that I used the right word, did I need a comma there, did I need a semicolon. I go to my grammar book and I admit that to even my undergraduates that I teach. I don’t know everything; no one does and so keep a good grammar book beside you. The other thing that you need to be really careful about is proof reading your work. It is always useful to ask colleagues to read things that you’ve written. You may think that sometimes they don’t know enough about the experiments but they can always help identify errors in grammar and spelling and other kinds of issues like organization. And so even somebody who is not closely related to the research interests can be very helpful as you’re writing because they can help you proof your work. And then of course you want to revise and revise and revise. I had an eight page proposal, I gave you guys a little piece of that proposal that was due recently. I must have had fifteen iterations of that chopped down from a fifteen page proposal. And so you’re just constantly going back to that and revising and putting it down and thinking about it for a couple of days and coming back to it and revising it some more for clarity.
So here’s the book we are talking about. It’s called A Short Guide to Writing about Biology and the edition that we are using right now in my course is the sixth edition from 2007. I wholeheartedly believe in the statement put forth by the author, that all writing benefits from revision. So what are the components of successful proposals and manuscripts. Well the most important one is a good idea. And I don’t want you to leave here today thinking that if I’m just a great writer, that’s good enough because it’s not. You have to start with a really great idea. You also need strong preliminary data for a grant proposal or a strong completed data set for a paper. Then you need to support, either your preliminary data or your completed results and your good idea with an argument about why they’re interesting and important and where you might go from there with this. So your job and you notice I am focusing on the thing that I think most of us will spend most of our time doing which is writing proposals and writing papers. And so your job is to convince reviewers. You want to convince them that the work that you’re doing is important and interesting. That’s tough to do sometimes. It’s hard to figure out what is the argument that I want to make and how do I want to frame this? And so it’s going to depend, for instance on a grant proposal, on what funding agency are you targeting. So if you’re going to send a proposal to the National Science Foundation for instance, you don’t want to talk about how you’re going to cure cancer because they don’t care about that. But if you are writing a proposal for the National Institutes of Health, they care about curing cancer. And so that might be part of your argument for why the research is interesting. Whereas if you sent maybe a similar set of experiments to the NSF you’d figure out a different way to frame your argument and why your research is interesting.
The other thing that you’re trying to convince your reviewers of is that you have both the expertise to perform the experiments and the expertise to interpret those experiments. And then as I’ve already mentioned, you want to make sure that this work is appropriate and the argument that you’re framing is appropriate to the funding agency and even the journal that you’re targeting. Terrible ideas will not get funded no matter how well you write. Excellent ideas are unlikely to be funded if they’re not clearly conveyed, although it can happen. So if you’ve got a really, really unbelievable and breathtakingly wonderful idea, it might get funded if you’re not the best grant writer but they’re not going to get funded if you’ve got a bad idea to begin with. So writing is important and I would say even critical but I can’t provide you with some number to back up the statement that if you write badly you won’t get funded bit I’m positive that it happens because I know people who’ve gotten reviews. I’ve written some of my own about how badly a proposal is organized or written about. So when you’re writing a proposal, for example, you need to think of an interesting question or set of experiments. You need to obtain your supporting results and data and that lends itself to determining is this proposal that you have is the research feasible? Because the funding agencies really want to know. Can this work be done? Can this person execute the set of experiments that they’re describing? You want to create an outline when you’re writing a proposal of what you’re going to discuss. I always start with an outline and think about the things that I’m going write about and write a draft and sometimes that is the most painful part of the process. So what I would say to you is as you’re starting to write a paper or a grant proposal. Just get something on paper. Get some ideas down and get something there that you can work with and go back and edit. Keep working on it and keep thinking about it and keep revising. I also suggest that you get peer feedback and I’ve mentioned this before. You might want to get peer feedback at this juncture or whatever you’re doing particularly for a proposal, but you certainly would like to get peer feedback once you’ve got something pretty good on paper that you can give to a colleague who is willing to take their time to read it and help you figure out the places that you would have done a good job making your argument or a poor job. Or they might be able to help you and say, ‘you know I really don’t think this is the experiment you want to do, did you think about this experiment instead?’ Those things are very valuable as you’re getting ready and this is true for papers as well as for grant proposals. Different people are going to have different experiences and training and background and somebody might think of something that you haven’t thought about that might be interpreted to be a fatal flaw in whatever you’re doing. It’s very important to get feedback from somebody. And then course, you want to get this feedback and revise the draft to keep going and revising over and over until the deadline comes basically.
I mentioned a lot of times, particularly for grant proposals, there’s going to be a page limit or a word limit. That is sometimes the tough part, right? You think ‘oh, if I had fifty pages I could really describe this and get all this information there. You’re not going to have fifty pages. For NSF you have fifteen, for NSH you have about twenty-five. For some of the other funding agencies it kind of varies in between that or in some cases even shorter. I’ve written some two page grant proposals, those are the hardest ones to write because you’ve got to persuade somebody in two pages that you’ve got an interesting idea, a set of experiments to execute and how you can interpret all of the experiments and results. That’s very tough.
So what you need to do is strive for clarity as your writing. You have to identify the most important points. You want to make sure that you state the ideas once. I’ve noticed in my own writing I might have the same idea in three different places in my proposal. You’ve got to figure out, do I really need that in those three different places for clarity or is that just extra stuff just thrown in there, maybe I can write that at the beginning and then when I’m introducing this section. But I don’t need it the third time that I’ve got it. And so sometimes you just can’t say it over and over again. People don’t want to read it over and over again. Particularly important points you might say more than once or have written in there more than once.
And then another thing and this is one of my favorite things that I emphasize in my undergraduate classes, is you want to get rid of these things that we call dead word phrases. Dead word phrases are phrases that use more words than necessary to convey a point and I underlined a few that I know that I use sometimes that I know that I come across pretty frequently in writing from my class. And so a majority of X… well, why say ‘a majority of’? Just say ‘most’. How about ‘we come to a conclusion, we came to the conclusion that X’… why don’t you just say ‘we concluded X’. Fewer in number, well that just means fewer. Some of these you read them and you start to laugh because it’s so ridiculous. But I can guarantee you that every time I write something they’re probably fifteen or twenty of these in the proposal or an early draft. So these are some things that as I’m really fine tuning my papers and my proposals these are the kinds of things that I turn my attention to. Getting rid of this chaff. Another kind of dead word is needless repetition of the same idea in different words. ‘First priority’, well that’s a priority. ‘Green-colored’, well you’re ‘green’. Of course you’re colored. ‘True facts’, those are ‘facts’. We all do this in our writing so this is one of the things that I really focus my undergraduate writing students on, is getting rid of this kind of stuff from their writing. You are seeking to say it in as few a words possible with the most meaning.
So a few final thoughts on writing proposals and manuscripts. I’ve already said all this but I’ll say it again. You need good ideas. Clear, concise writing. You need to proofread and edit the material and have someone help you do that. I recommend that for everybody. Have somebody read your draft. You need to revise and revise. Put it down for a few days, come back to it. Don’t wait till the last minute to write something, particularly a grant proposal. You need a few days to sort of mull it over and come back to it and look at it afresh. My mantra is that you don’t start off, you’re just not going write something that is going to be great. You get much better at it by writing and writing and writing. All of you are early in your careers and you’re just starting to write as scientists. It is hard at the beginning. It gets easier, it’s not easy, but it gets easier and the more you do it the better you will be at it. The one thing that really helped me as well is when I was a postdoctoral student, I actually spent some of my fellowship money and I went to a grant proposal writing workshop just as I was getting ready to start writing my own big grants, my own PI, independent PI grants. And it was really instructive because at that point I’d written some papers. I was getting better at that but I had no idea how to begin writing a grant proposal. And sometimes stepping away from your adviser and doing that and going to a workshop that is being hosted by somebody who’s very experienced can be helpful. I got a set of books from this workshop. I still use these books and their template for writing grant proposals because they really help me understand the components of a grant proposal. How to write clearly, what should be in your specific aims page is really important. So I had a good experience with that and I would recommend that you investigate on your campus, Texas A&M or where you go for your post doc, investigate whether or not there are workshops that are offered on campus or elsewhere that you might attend and go to.
I gave you a back-end sample of one I sent off. Many funding agencies will give you an option of fonts to use. Don’t use the smallest one. Your reviewers do not want to read the smallest font that the funding agencies will allow you to use. It’s hard to read, it’s annoying and I always start off at 12 point font and try to write my proposals in 12 point font. I don’t always end up in 12 point font. But don’t go down to ten. I don’t like to read that, nobody I know likes to read that.
But anyway the goal here was to figure out how to get this thing down to one page. Five lines down I have a whole sentence I just deleted that I decided wasn’t that important. I’m explaining to my funding agency who my research personnel are going to be. And so I am talking about the fact that so and so who was my research assistant for four years prior to beginning graduate school will do something. I realized that they didn’t actually need to know all of that information. It wasn’t that important when I needed to get it down to my page. It wasn’t really important that this person was my research assistant for four years before beginning graduate school. All that really mattered is that X was in the lab and X was going to train the students. And so you have to go through and you have to figure out how important is each statement that I’m making here. I have a sentence about halfway down that talks about Ms. X who has contributed to the project by providing evidence. What did she do? She showed something. There’s an example of one of these dead word phrases that I’ve gone and gotten rid of where I had almost an entire sentence dedicated to saying nothing basically. This is the kind of thing that you do when you’re working on a grant proposal. Once you have your major ideas down, you’ve got your major experiments outlined, the arguments that you’re going to make. Then you have to go through and get rid of all the stuff that just really doesn’t matter. And I had some nice examples in the body of the proposal where I said something like three different times in the proposal. This was an eight-page proposal, I had seven pages to put my research in and I said the same idea three times. I thought well, I’m just going to say that once, at the beginning of a particular section that I’m talking about. I’m listing off this litany of equipment. They don’t actually need to know that. I’ve already told them that my lab is equipped for genetics and molecular biology. That implies that I have all of these things that I’ve listed like thermal cyclers and the gel imaging system, the spectrophotometer. If I’m equipped to do experiments, then I have these things. And so the things that were important that I tell them about where the things that were unusual like I have a very special microscope. I have some special equipment for working with fruit flies that other labs would not have. And that was the equipment that was important to tell them about. This proposal is an eight-page proposal, seven of it was actual descriptions of experiments. That seven pages actually came from a fifteen page proposal that I cut down to seven. And so I really had to think about how am I going take the same experiments and the same ideas and now put them in seven and that is a tough thing to do.
I try not to abbreviate things and I continually try not to use nonstandard abbreviations. This proposal was particularly difficult to do and so I made some abbreviations here on these pages that I might not normally do. Like I abbreviated the name of a conference that we go to. Normally l would have probably written that out but I was really pressed for space. I just think it’s real important to have something either online or on the bookshelf that you can have access to because I forget how to use a semi colon and that kind of thing and so it’s good to have those. Between-Among and Affect-Effect. I’ve got a whole list of words that I provide to my undergraduates of things that we commonly mess up when we’re writing. So these writing books that are either biology or chemistry specific or science specific will help walk you through what a science CV looks like and how do you present data in a paper and that kind of thing and talk about interpreting results and statistics. Thank you for coming today I appreciate your attention.