30 September 2013

On science writing: Gender

An interesting little tool popped up in my newsfeed the other day which only served to fuel my preoccupation with writing style and clarity. Gender Guesser is a system which estimates the gender of a writer based on a submission of at least 300 words of text. The estimation is based on word frequencies and parts of speech. I won't talk more about the specifics of the algorithm, except to say that the original research doesn't seem to include any discussion of science writing in particular.

Being a somewhat obsessive data collector, I proceeded to submit a broad selection of my own writing to the online interface. An example of my results appears below (this result is actually from the same blog post I wrote about revising last week).

I'm not really surprised that nearly all of my writing estimates that I'm a male, often with very high (i.e., >90%) confidence for both informal and formal writing. I tested ~20 writing samples with appropriate word lengths, including posts from this blog, personal writing, and even excerpts from my last publication, for which I am sole author. At best, I am only scored as weakly female (the semantics of which are another issue altogether). The only exception is a blog post from over four years ago. 

What are the implications? The authors of the web interface for Gender Guesser note that females writing in fields which are dominated by males (of which I believe biology qualifies) will tend to score as male. Have I been trained to write in a more masculine manner? Moreover, do I really care if my writing possesses masculine characteristics? Perhaps a more important component to this discussion is what style of writing is more appealing to a wide breadth of readers, or whether readers purposely or subconsciously discern the gender of a writer from an anonymous sample. 

27 September 2013

On science writing: The reader's perspective

I have a good excuse for this most recent unplanned, unannounced blog break. During the month of September, I attended a writing workshop from George Gopen (Writing from the Reader's Perspective) and discovered that I still have much to learn about the process of writing. A brief overview of Gopen's premise can be found in a succinct article from American Scientist, but here are a few interesting points I noted:

  1. Contemporary teaching for improving writing is often focused on the unimportant parts of communication and narration.
  2. Preoccupation with good grammar and punctuation hides more effective ways to improve writing and enforces inequality.
  3. First person can be useful in scientific writing but is often imprecise ("We" didn't all hold hands and perform PCR) and can sound ridiculous.
  4. Passive voice is perfectly fine when used in the appropriate context.
  5. Just because something "sounds" good doesn't mean readers will be able to appropriately interpret your meaning (I'm especially bad about this; I read things aloud to determine clarity).

As per Gopen's recommendations at the end of the course, I selected an old blog post and checked the writing sample for several of his identified "reader expectations" (explained in the article mentioned above). My biggest problem is misplacement of old and new information, which is a very common problem among science writers.

Knowing one or more errors may be lurking in my writing has danced on the periphery of my perception for weeks, stifling my urges to put pen to paper and making me acutely aware of my failings as a professional. While this assessment may seem a bit melodramatic, I am in the midst of sending off applications for jobs, and the requisite cover letters, research statements, and teaching philosophies I've been including now appear to be suboptimal. I've begun the tedious process of revising these documents. While perfect application of my newly learned skills is impossible, I'm hoping for marked improvement...or at least the ability to write without hearing Gopen's voice chastising me.