Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Finite Space

A common complaint when a student has to write something (a proposal, a short paper, an abstract, a fellowship application) with a strict word limit is that the length limitations are so restrictive that it is difficult to get the main point across.

A common complaint when a student has to write something longer (a long paper, a thesis) with a more generous (or no) length limit is that there it's hard to know how to structure such a long document.

A common complaint when a student has to write a medium length document.. never mind, you get the point.

Some documents are long, some are short. This is something that most of us in academia deal with all the time. Learning how to make your case in a concise, convincing, and interesting way (written or spoken) is an important skill. Learning how to hold a reader's interest in a long document is also an important skill.

Learning how to do these things with content and not relaying too much on ATTENTION-GETTING FORMATTING and empty phrasing ("The implications of these results are very significant for many reasons") is also an important skill.

I have had students say "I could have written a better proposal if I'd had more space." I do not find that excuse compelling even though it is well known that writing shorter documents is more challenging than writing longer ones ("If I'd had more time, I would have written a shorter letter", T.S. Eliot).

Even so, you should be able to deal with whatever restrictions you are given. Everyone submitting a proposal or abstract or paper to the same program/conference/journal has the same restrictions. Those who figure out how to explain their research well in the given amount of space will succeed.

And if you can extend that to speaking concisely and clearly about the most essential and fascinating elements of your research, that's even better. You can use these skills to impress hiring committees, colleagues, prospective students, and perhaps even your mother.


Alyssa said...

I find many people have trouble with sticking to time limits in a talk, especially if it's on the short end (say between 5-10 minutes). The number of speakers that go over time at conferences is astounding.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating POST, FSP! Do you think there is SOMETHING about your INSTITUTION that makes your STUDENTS whine more than MOST? I ask because you seem to DESCRIBE a LOT of WHINING. Or is that MORE of an EDITORIAL CHOICE on your PART?

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more. I often assign my undergraduate students 1 page summaries of articles or chapters. They always complain that they can't fit it all in. I tell them that some day their boss will hand them something and ask them to "bottom line it," so this is a skill they need to practice just as much as writing long papers. It seems they've never been asked to do something like this before. I'm glad to see I'm not the only one teaching this.

Female Science Professor said...

CPP - Now you have me wondering if there is more whining here than elsewhere, and if so, why. Or maybe I notice it more than others do? I was talking about this with a colleague the other day. He wasn't sure whether I encounter more whiners or whether he encounters the same number but ignores them.

Anonymous said...

Or maybe what you perceive as whining someone else might not.

I honestly don't really understand what the point of this post is supposed to be. You are absolutely right, of course, that it is important to learn to write different types of texts, long and short, in the scientific context. But the key word here is learn. Of course some people are naturally excellent writers, while others can't seem to write a coherent sentence, but ultimately we all have to learn writing to a greater or lesser extent. Most students are likely to find this difficult at some point, and most students are likely to comment on this, and even to express their frustration every now and then. Fighting the frustration of "if only I had more space I could have" (or whatever the limiting factor may be) is a natural part of the learning process. The problem isn't if students complain about their frustrations (unless it goes completely overboard, of course), but if they don't learn from the experience.

Am I missing your point?

Unknown said...

I think that maybe the post was constructed as a rant but really makes the point that concise writing is something important for faculty to teach and for students to learn.

My thesis advisor was extraordinarily strict in this regard, but I think my writing improved substantially as a result, and I thank him for focusing my attention on the importance of reducing length while improving clarity.

JLK said...

Do you have tips that you'd like to share, FSP?

I've gotten pretty good at this, but it took a lot of practice (and I certainly don't use those skills in my blog, since every post turns into a novel).

My tips (that can be agreed or disagreed with) for short papers and timed presentations are as follows:

1. Write the paper without regard to length FIRST. Then print it, read through it, cross out every unnecessary phrase, word, and sentence. Re-write. Print it again, read it OUT LOUD, and do the cross-outs again. This time listen for repeating concepts and ideas, and then combine them. Then read it to someone else and do it again. Keep revising until you get it within length requirements. Sometimes it takes 5 drafts, but by starting with the longer paper you can more easily make sure that you aren't missing anything important.

2. For presentations - give your talk out loud, in front of a mirror, with a TIMER. Make sure you fit within the alotted time at least 3 times when you practice. If you have a video camera, record yourself giving the presentation and watch it back. If you don't have one available, do the presentation for a friend or family member to make sure that you aren't speaking too fast, too slow, or are just boring.

Female Science Professor said...

It wasn't meant to be a rant.

John Vidale said...

I agree with FSP this is a peculiarly apt topic for her blog.

Up to a point, scientists need to learn the common sense that Dr M & JLK outline, but they way too often pass that point.

Many scientists simply cannot produce a document or a talk of an arbitrarily-specified length that optimally serves its purpose. These pathological cases ALWAYS go overtime, and always stuff their prose with an overpopulation of abstruse details.

Maybe it correlates with geekdom, and how we scientists often consider ourselves know-it-alls.

Anonymous said...

It's hard work always knowing what the point is. But clear writing reveals clear thinking.

I am great believer in the mid-way outline. After I have written my first fairly complete I draft, I go back and create a paragraph level outline of the document. This usually reveals holes in my logic or suggests a re-ordering that would be more logical.

Anonymous said...

FSP, you nailed the target again. Thanks.

Verification word: "imentu" (I meant you!)

Anonymous said...

But the key word here is learn. Of course some people are naturally excellent writers, while others can't seem to write a coherent sentence, but ultimately we all have to learn writing to a greater or lesser extent.

We have discussed this before. My experience is that by the time you are in college, you can either write a decent sentence or you can't. Trainees who can write a decent sentence can learn to write decent paragraphs and complete written documents. Those who cannot write a decent sentence are hopeless causes.

quasarpulse said...


You're probably right with respct to four-year traditional college students. However, I think that's mostly due to the nature of students who manage to make it through a college-prep high school program without ever actually learning anything.

Community colleges encounter a different sort of student and generally have a reasonably respectable success rate teaching basic literacy and numeracy to adults. It's not that adults can't learn to write a coherent sentence - it's that those who refused to learn in high school despite being given every opportunity will continue to refuse to learn in college.

Anonymous said...

CPP: Ah, the art exactly missing the point. ;-)

My experience is that by the time you are in college, you can either write a decent sentence or you can't. [...] Those who cannot write a decent sentence are hopeless causes.

Well, yes. But my point was to illustrate only that writing is a learned skill, though we may all start out with different amount of natural talent, not that near-illiterate people enter post-graduate education (which unfortunately does happen, but that's a different discussion). It may not have been FSP's intention to rant, but to me her post comes off as whining a bit about students actually having to learn scientific writing, and at various points expressing a certain amount of frustration at difficult tasks they do not yet master, which to some extent is a perfectly natural thing to do. My point is that writing various kinds of scientific texts (which is something else, and more, than just being able to put together a decent sentence) is one of the things you are supposed to spend your time in grad school learning. Professors, correspondingly, may sometimes need to explain to students that this is what's going on, and that you are actually allowed to find writing difficult, and your first attempt is not expected to be perfect, but that you are expected to put effort into acquiring these writing skills. On the part of the professor, this may also include putting up with a reasonable amount of the aforementioned expressions of frustration.

All this being said, I do agree in full with the message that the ability to write a text about your research to (almost) any specified length and on any level is important and that this really needs to be pointed out. On that topic, John summed it up very accurately in his comment.

Anonymous said...

The "letter" quote is from Blaise Pascal, not T. S. Eliot.

Anonymous said...

I've been at elite private universities and good public universities. In introductory classes that are meeting some university requirement for non-majors, there is normally ~5-10% who whine no matter what. My interpretation is that they've been rewarded for whining in the past- possibly only by high school teachers, but very likely other profs who cave to pressure from university in the form of using student teaching evaluations for tenure and promotion. Therefore, I try to be polite, but make a point of explaining my logic any time I make any change (e.g., grade), so that students understand it was for a good reason, and NOT because of their whining.