Which Words Don’t Matter?

Scientific writing is of paramount importance to any researcher looking to communicate, disseminate, seek funding for, and convey the importance of their work. The phrase “publish or perish” has become a mantra for a reason, though scientific writing extends far beyond publishing your research.

Writing is a process involving multiple chances to improve the writing and target the message for its intended audience, through edits. Scientific editing is a test of pride and ego for the author, one which I struggle with.

While most people, even outside scientific fields, are familiar with the concepts of publishing research and even applying for funding through grants, scientific writing can also include press releases, mass media articles, and blog posts. Each of these types of scientific writing involves different styles (e.g. informative, persuasive) and amounts of scientific jargon.

While I’ve worked on most types of writing mentioned, I’ve mainly been responsible for editing other people’s work. The fellowship applications I submitted this past fall were the first time I was fully responsible for writing a research proposal for a scientific audience. I allotted plenty of time in my application preparation to allow for multiple revisions, including edits by mentors and colleagues. Unfortunately, planning ahead didn’t help me when I had a 2.5 page research plan that was only allowed 2 pages of space.

In my quest to shorten the document, I met with a mentor who has been working in academic research for more than 20 years. She pointed out that as scientists, we like to think that all of our words are significant, but in editing, our challenge is to choose which words don’t matter or contribute nothing to the sentence’s purpose. She proceeded to go through one of my paragraphs and delete two or three words in each sentence, shortening the paragraph by two lines. I was baffled, insulted, and impressed at the same time.

In my editing work, I had thrown away other people’s words with such nonchalance, but never watched it happen to my words. Witnessing the destruction made me think back to how previous colleagues had reacted badly when I removed entire paragraphs of detail from their research proposals due to space constraints and consideration of the reviewer’s point of view.

As it turns out, I have absolutely no problem editing other people’s writing, but I struggle with editing my own. I find it incredibly difficult to decide which of my words contribute nothing, as each deletion seems to chip away at my pride. Writing is a struggle for me, it always has been, but I have gotten better at it through years of practice. I don’t like the idea that something I’ve struggled to write can be disposed of so easily.

As a potential pseudo-solution, I recently discovered that I tend to forget what I’ve written. I’m hoping that this will remove my ego from the editing process. If I write something far enough ahead of a deadline, I will allow myself enough time to forget what I’ve written and can then go back to the writing as if I was editing someone else’s work. I understand that this may require extensive planning ahead, but I’m willing to do so if it facilitates an objective assessment of my writing.

In time, I want to be able to edit my writing without tricking myself into thinking it’s another’s work. I expect that editing my work will become easier with more practice and with the ability to separate my ego from my work.


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