#8: What I've learnt about writing
This week: Reflecting on my writing process. Plus: what to know about polio, monkeypox, sex ratios, detecting snakes, when kids learn words, and more.
This is my eighth post of Scientific Discovery, a weekly newsletter where I’ll share great new scientific research that you may have missed. Check out the About page if you’re interested in why I’m writing this.
How I approach writing
I thought I’d try something different this week. I've been writing and editing science articles for several years now, and each time I notice how much easier it feels than it did many years ago when I was starting out at university.
Here are some reflections on what I’ve learnt.
1. Writing is improvable and criticism doesn't have to be taken personally.
Seeing how much my own writing has improved over the years has made me realise that writing is a learnable skill. The way I think about it is that there’s an optimal way to say what I'm trying to convey, and I just need to find it.
So I reread and rewrite what I've written multiple times if that's needed and I find criticism helpful. It points me towards what wasn't written effectively, even if I don't always agree with the suggestions people give on how to improve it.
(In other words, if you hate this post, I’ll appreciate it if you tell me why.)
2. Writing is about communicating.
This sounds obvious, but people often write (and tweet) in a way that assumes people have the same knowledge that they do.
Writing is about exchanging knowledge: you do it when you know something that you want other people to know – something that they don't know already. So you have to meet them halfway and give them the context to understand it. The context you provide depends on who your audience is.
Most of my writing feels democratic, in a sense. I want it to be accessible to a wide audience because I can't predict who it will be useful for, or who might be able to point out something I've gotten wrong or missed. Because of this, I provide a lot of relevant context and spell out each part of my thinking process.
3. Nuance can be the focus.
One motivation I had when we started Works in Progress was frustration at the way people tended to write about science, both in journalism and in academic papers.
Sometimes things were oversimplified. Other times people would just say that things were "complicated" without elaborating on what exactly was complicated or why.
Almost always, major assumptions or limitations of research would be mentioned only at the end, treated as a disclaimer, if they were included at all.
(I dislike all three so much that I co-founded a magazine.)
Here are some reasons to give nuance more focus, or even make it the focus:
It gives people context to understand and remember the points they're reading.
It helps people understand when the point doesn't apply. This can be just as important.
In some cases, the assumptions and limitations of research undermine the argument completely. Being transparent about them helps people spot this, point it out and improve people's understanding of the topic.
Of course, you wouldn't want to break down every point you make, but you probably should when they could make a big difference to the argument.
In my experience, people like understanding the mechanics of things, and they can understand them if they're explained well. A lot of pieces we publish are very technical, but written in a way that makes them interesting or engaging.
4. Writing is about being precise, not sounding clever.
When I was in school, I used a thesaurus while writing because I thought swapping in fancy words would make me sound well-read. It just made my writing confusing and often cringe-worthy.
Words often have many synonyms, but they're not necessarily interchangeable because synonyms have slightly different connotations.
Picking a precise but well-known word can help people visualise what you're saying, understand exactly what you intend to convey, and experience the sentence the way you want them to.
I still use a thesaurus all the time – I have a great appfor it on my phone's home screen – but I use it very differently now.
That’s obviously nowhere near an exhaustive list, but they’re things I wish I knew earlier. If you're interested in more specific advice on grammar and style, I'd recommend the book The Sense of Style.
Research round up
Since this is my first post in three weeks, I have a huge backlog in studies I've read and wanted to write about. Here they are, condensed.
India’s sex ratio is becoming more balanced. Previously, you could see a huge effect of ‘missing girls’, which was due to sex-selective abortion. (Pew Research Center, via India’s National Family Health Survey)
A detailed WIRED article about the recent polio cases in the US. We recently updated our page on polio at Our World in Data, with lots of relevant data.
The WHO has an interactive page with lots of data on global Monkeypox cases – the demographics of cases, their symptoms, how it transmits, and a lot more. It’s very interesting and I recommend exploring it if you haven’t already.
Cabotegavir: a new injectable HIV drug that has 88% efficacy relative to existing oral HIV drugs. But it’s currently very expensive.
Previous research suggested that there was a ‘gender paradox’ between depression and life satisfaction – that women were more likely to be depressed but also more likely to have high life satisfaction. This study explains there’s no paradox – older studies controlled for the wrong variables.
When do kids learn words? Wordbank is a huge database on this topic, based on parent’s reports of 84,000 children in 38 languages. They have an interactive website to explore all of it and it’s easy to use.
‘Pre-bunking’ (debunking misinformation before people read it) is very effective (several pre-registered RCTs)
Children are more likely to study the same subject at university as their parents did, especially their parent of the same gender (data from Sweden)
One in three British people eat meat alternatives (from a big recent Ipsos survey)
A paper from 2011 that was used as a reference for Orangutan genomes had several data mixups, like mislabelling their genders and mixing up their ID numbers. The authors published a correction, but I don’t understand why it took over 10 years to spot and correct them.
A great use for image detection: identifying snakes. This could help treat snakebites with the correct antivenom (study using a neural network to train on snake images from >700 species, although some species had only a few images to train and test on)
US university students are choosing different degrees than they were ten years ago: gains were mainly in STEM subjects, and losses mainly in humanities (research using federal data)
A new Our World in Data explorer on hundreds of food products and their carbon footprints, land use and more, by my awesome colleague Hannah Ritchie.
Lots of cool examples of how humans mimic their prey to hunt them.
The gender of people’s siblings doesn’t seem to affect their personality (based on representative survey data from 12 countries)
Another highly effective RSV vaccine with >86% efficacy in phase 3 trials, by Pfizer. Here’s a write-up I did in June about these vaccines.
The UK is seeing growing excess deaths because of pressure on the NHS that has led to massive waiting times for A&E (Financial Times)
A review that explains how studying rare diseases can help us understand related common diseases and how they arise.
I recently recorded a podcast episode on peer review, with Dan Quintana and James Heathers. It was a really fun conversation, and you can listen to it here.
A great post by Derek Lowe on the limits of AlphaFold (though it is very impressive). The structure and folding of a protein can change based on what it’s doing, like when other proteins and signalling molecules bind to it, and that’s often relevant for drug discovery.
I’m enjoying Elliot Hershberg’s substack ‘Century of Bio’, where he explains recent biotech papers. For example, this is a great post on predicting how DNA sequences affect gene expression, and how to use that in reverse.
That’s all! I hope you subscribe if you haven’t already, and I hope you have a great week.
See you next time :)
I recommend the app Pocket Thesaurus. It’s fast, comprehensive, and works offline.
Sorry! I didn’t have time to write two weeks ago because I was away in Udaipur at a conference that brought together many very talented and inspiring grant recipients from all around India. And last week I was busy working on an exciting new piece that will hopefully be out soon.
It seems to me that the most successful bloggers (Astral Codex Ten and Freddie deBoer for example) are people who possess the rare talent to write readable texts without much editing at all. The rest of us need some kind of strategy. Thank you for sharing a bit of yours!
Personally I have some hopes that AI will help us writing better texts.
I enjoyed this read very much especially being someone who is always looking to better my writing skills.
Is there any other recommendations for substack pages that speak on this topic?