Right Writing

I know I mentioned in an earlier post (maybe the first one?) that I’m working on a second project this summer.  A writing project.  (Cue ominous music.)  A former student in the lab (who is currently a third year grad student at Johns Hopkins) left behind the draft of a manuscript that he and Dr. Heideman have been trying to finish for a few years.  Dr. H. gave me the reins on it for the summer because neither he nor Jordan are able to give it their full attention right now, but hopefully with me bugging them about it and doing my best to push it forward we can submit it to Hormones and Behavior by the deadline of September 30th.

The draft is mostly made up of Jordan’s and another former student named Cori’s honor theses.  Jordan investigated levels of various hormones in the two mouse lines to see if they differed.  Cori tried to determine if a high energy diet could change R mice to a NR phenotype.  In a nutshell, Jordan measured levels of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), insulin and leptin.  He hypothesized that NR mice would have higher concentrations of these hormones than R mice, but found that there was no significant difference between the lines.  This is important because it implicates receptor systems, rather than the hormones themselves, in the regulation of fertility and reproduction and metabolism and all that good stuff.  Cori found that a high energy diet could not cause R mice to reproduce in short day conditions, but that mice consuming a more calorie dense diet actually ate less so that their caloric intake matched that of the mice eating the control diet.  Interesting, right?

But that’s not what I want to write about this post.  I want to write about how I’m learning how to write.  How many times can I say “write” in one paragraph?  (Hah.)  I’m taking an online course right now for funsies that was recommended to me by another former labmate.  Coursera is an online education website that offers (FOR FREE, I might add) a ton of classes from various universities around the country and the world.  The course I’ve “enrolled” in is a Stanford University course called “Writing in the Sciences.”  I highly recommend this course, and the website in general.  It’s an awesome way to learn about a subject you might be interested in but don’t have time to pursue in your regular coursework.

Coursera: https://www.coursera.org/

Writing in the Sciences: https://class.coursera.org/sciwrite-2012-001/class/index

I’ve only watched Unit 1 and a little bit of Unit 2 out of 8 units total, and I’ve already noticed a difference in my attempt to finish this manuscript.

A few simple rules I’ve picked up so far that make an immediate difference:

  1. Don’t let succinct verbs turn into clunky nouns or adverbs or awkward phrases.
  2. Use the active voice: “subject-verb-object,” not the passive voice “object-verb.”
  3. Cut clutter.  If it’s not informative or easy to read, you need to reword it or you don’t need it at all.
  4. What you stress in a sentence is key for its meaning.
  5. Avoid vague language, unnecessary acronyms, negatives and useless prepositions.

Bottom line: writing isn’t scary and being able to write well is an essential component of doing science.

This project has taken up the better part of my summer over the GnRH Challenge, and between the two I think it’s actually been more frustrating.  But it’s also been more rewarding because I think I am learning more, faster, than I ever have in lab.


  1. This is really interesting– it makes me want to look into Coursera.

    I remember my eighth-grade physics teacher telling me that every transitive sentence in scientific papers need to be passive voice, which I immediately resisted and questioned. It turns out it’s a bit of a debate among scientists: http://www.sci.utah.edu/~macleod/writing/passive-letters.html