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tl;dr

Posted on 2013.08.24 at 14:15
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So, my thesis.

First problem with it is that what I wrote was not clear. Simply a matter of not being specific with my language, and leaving out important details that the reader wouldn't know.

So, the thesis goes to my second supervisor. Now the problem is the thesis does not sounds 'scientific enough'. This is the final touch needed to get top marks.

The difficulty I have with learning how to write is that there do not seem to be any hard and fast rules to follow. For the basics, there are the rules of grammar. But this is the type of stuff that makes for good (scientific) writing:

"It must flow"
"Clear and concise"
"Must not look like stream of consciousness"

But how do I make it flow? How can I make it concise?

One thing she said was something like 'Using scientific language is important because it's the style of published articles. The more you read, the more you pick up the lingo. So if you write in 'layman language' it's clear you didn't read enough. This shows you don't really care about neuroscience enough, and therefore are not deserving of the H1 (high mark).

Of course this one really ground my gears. Not care about neuroscience? Who does she think she is talking to over here? My thought process went over to the PhD students who were excellent writers but struggled in other aspects of research. These are the ones getting scholarships while I cry in the corner.

I think she said that for exactly that reason. Because she went through it and started pointing out the problems. She picked out paragraphs and made them more concise by summarizing what was said without losing meaning.

For example I wrote something like "The mouse was killed two hours after being exposed to the stranger mouse. The mouse was killed with an overdose of lethabarb" and she turned it into "The mouse was killed with an overdose of lethabarb two hours after exposure to the stranger mouse." I don't know what the name of that problem is, but I do it a lot. I think this comes from over correcting for sentences which are too long, making them difficult to follow.

I also explained I don't like to use too much jargon because it sounds pretentious. But she explained that the reason we use jargon is to reduce the word count, making the writing more concise without losing meaning. We don't have time to read massive long articles. We want knowledge, and we want it now. And this is audience dependent. For example just yesterday I was demonstrating at work. One worksheet question used something like "affect of temporal variation between stimulations" and I got so many questions asking me to rephrase the question. It basically means "how does changing the amount of time between the stimulations effect the results?" The first sentence is more concise, but its useless if the reader doesn't understand it. The aim is to reduce the time spent reading while maximizing understanding/meaning. Jargon is useless if the reader has to find out the meaning of it, or even worse if they tune out.

The tricky thing is getting it just right, and this also depends on your audience. My supervisors were saying "a bloody professor will be reading this, not an undergraduate student!".

So the advice was basically 'stop being lazy and get used to summarizing!' And it's true, because I'm not used to writing like that. For example, I never bother to read back on livejournal entries, because the audience is basically me in the future and maybe 1 or 2 people. So I want it to follow my thought processes. But a thesis is not a giant livejournal entry.

tl;dr I must make my thesis into one big tl;dr summary.

Comments:


I filter myself through soil
Threshold reached!! zebrallama at 2013-08-24 11:34 (UTC) (Link)
I showed this to my wife, because she's a linguist who knows about all this stuff (and is also interested stuff you're interested in, like animal welfare).

Here's what she says, verbatim. She asked me to post this because she hasn't got a LiveJournal account. And I've put the paper she refers to on my web server at http://bunny.xeny.net/temp/Halliday%20-%20Some%20problems%20in%20scientific%20English.pdf

----

Hi

It seem to me that the key problem your friend describes is the need to use a written style of scientific argumentation rather than a spoken style, which means using lots of nominalisation - shortish sentences packed up with information in large noun groups like "the effect of temporal variation between stimulations". This kind of language turns a number of different events into a thing - it's one complex noun ("the effect...") in writing instead of a sequence whole clauses with verbs in them, the way it usually is in speaking (when x happens, and then y happens, z will probably happen) etc.

I'm attaching a paper by the wonderful linguist Michael Halliday that talks through all of this.

It also shows why science needs this - it's not really summarizing that's the issue, although it's related to summarizing because it's about packing information from previous sentences (or from prior understanding of the topic) into the next sentence so you can build up an argument blow by blow.

THere might also be some websites that can help go thru tips on how to get the balance right and how to write 'expanded noun groups' or 'expanded nominal groups' for writing better science - try the University of Sydney's Learning Centre site. The resources here called 'wrise' are good. http://sydney.edu.au/stuserv/learning_centre/resour.shtml

Dr Alison Moore
Lecturer, English Language & Linguistics
Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts
University of Wollongong NSW 2522
T + 612 4221 4949
W www.uow.edu.au/arts/language/ELL<http://www.uow.edu.au/arts/language/ell>
W www.ieri.uow.edu.au<http://www.ieri.uow.edu.au>
Nervous
Threshold reached!! nervous_neuron at 2013-08-27 11:29 (UTC) (Link)
Wow, thanks so much Dr. Moore.

I must say I almost fell of my seat when I saw this reply. Especially when I'm mainly writing this for myself and I get a very helpful reply. And thanks for the paper, I've downloaded myself a copy and just started reading. And Sydney Uni's website looks like it has some helpful stuff.

The paper mentions that both native and non native English speakers have similar problems with scientific writing. Something I've noticed for sure, and I've had someone joke with me for getting writing tips from non native speakers.

I'll pass the paper around to my supervisors and lab mates after I've read it, if you don't mind. I found a copy on scribid that's not copyright protected.

Thanks so much again!
I filter myself through soil
Threshold reached!! zebrallama at 2013-08-27 15:50 (UTC) (Link)
That made me beam. I wasn't sure Alison's reply would be helpful ... I think she's a complete genius at linguistics, but you never know when advice is really going to be helpful and when it's just going to be annoying!

"Especially when I'm mainly writing this for myself" - That's the beauty of LiveJournal, isn't it? I've been finding all your posts interesting, but usually I don't have anything to say about them.

In one of my classes last year, two of the top three students were non-native speakers. And that was a humanities class!

(BTW, that copyright warning is over the top. You don't have to worry much about copyright protection when you use papers for purely academic purposes. I guess the details are complicated, and vary between jurisdictions, but almost all academic uses are allowed under the Fair Use provisions of copyright law.)
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