Random Bits of Technical Writing

* I am working on a paper that I think has the potential to be a really big deal. It’s so awesome! I am so excited to finish it and submit it that I literally can’t sleep. I sometimes (probably more often than I care to admit) feel like I’m falling in love when it comes to papers or proposals, with butterflies in the stomach from all the anticipation. I can’t get my darling paper out of my head, I keep thinking of the softness of its curves, the color of its data markers, the size of its axis labels… *sigh* …Maybe I need a cold shower.

* There is a colleague whom I met a year or so ago in person, but whose work I have known for a bit longer. His work is technically good, but the papers are not. For some reason, he just can’t write a compelling  narrative or choose the best examples to support the premise. Whenever I read one of his papers, I am thinking — dude, you could have done so much more with this, and there’s always a let-down, a feeling of disappointment when I am done. In the past year or two I have received several of his papers to review, all in lowerish-tier journals; obviously, I am on his preferred-referee list. The first N times (N=3 or 4) I accepted, then tried hard to give detailed constructive advice and feedback. But recently I received his paper N+1, I looked over it and I just couldn’t do it. It’s bad, it’s too little, and the figures look awful. I don’t have time for this, so I declined to review. I would like to help, but I don’t think I am helping through constructive refereeing. He would really benefit from some serious coaching, but he’s not my (or anyone else’s) student or postdoc. I am not sure what to do, probably nothing.


  1. xykademiqz, I wanted to say thanks for all your insights like the one above. I am now a tenured associate prof. Thanks to you and FSP and nicoleandmaggie and a host of other female academic bloggers for sharing your experience and giving advice. I will be back online with a different avatar sometime this year and will find a way to let you know. – DrS

  2. In Re 2nd paragraph: He needs to be paired with/share some authorship with someone who is a bit of a show/wo/man. It is also important to find one of those who is intelligent and modest enough to not try to ‘take over’ the work…but, who has a flair for the writing and presentation.

    Failing that, I think many people need to get forced into acting and writing classes to improve presentation in general.

  3. I wish I felt like that about my papers right now! Right now I’m in the “so far to go” stage with the one and “why isn’t this done already… so many stupid small things” with another and “what are we doing wrong that is making this great paper get desk rejected?” with a third.

  4. Ha ha, you do need a cold shower… I am currently finalizing a third revision of a paper that finally got all positive reviews but the refs requested a bunch of minor annoying changes. I am tired of looking at it. We are in “It’s not you, it’s me” stage. Looking forward to impending freedom to work on more interesting papers.

  5. About your colleague, I found a couple of books in our (firm’s) library yesterday that made me think of this post, both by Edward R. Tufte, stats and information prof @ Yale: Visual Explanations: Images and Qualities, Evidence and Narrative and Envisioning Information. It is an enormous shame that he hasn’t taken your (I’m sure extremely time-consuming) constructive remarks to heart; but, maybe just a gift of one of these books would open up some ideas. They are both beautiful to look at and not a slog.

  6. FYI, Tufte teaches occasional 2 day seminars. I attended one, and it was definitely worth the time. I’ll try to dig up my old blog post about that at some point. You get his books as part of the registration fee, and his presentation does a good job hitting the high points.

  7. Thanks everyone! These are all great suggestions and resources for someone who is aware that they need to work on their writing and presentation.
    My main problem is that this is a professional “grown-up” scientist who seems oblivious to the fact that he’s lacking in this important aspect. I am not his advisor or really even his friend, just a colleague who happened to notice. I think even pointing it out to him will be considered condescending, because we’re supposed to be equals. So my question is whether to broach the issue at all; probably not. But, if yes, then how?

  8. OE from above here. (Posting from mobile, not sure if registering in same way.) I’m guilty of doing random gifting of books to virtual strangers if the topic seems at all like they’d be interested, so, I figured you could just hand him one of these or mail it with a short note. Of course, no guarantee that he’d read it. But, Tufte’s books are lovely to thumb through, I’d hope he’d open one just out of curiosity.

    Too, it is really common in my field for us to send commemorative or related glamor publications around to colleagues in other firms and clients and I’m always ready to use that excuse to send someone a work that I think they need. Slightly passive-aggressive, I know, but useful.

  9. The thing that sticks to me is that you’ve been giving him this advice as a reviewer and he’s been ignoring it. If there’s anybody you should listen to, it’s a reviewer on an R&R. The fact that he isn’t suggests that he thinks he somehow knows better, which means he isn’t your problem. Next time you review him, you can suggest one of the Tufte books, but it’s unlikely he’ll actually get it.

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