“My Little Pony Dungeons and Dragons” Scientific Writing – Part 1
My pastor has the most creative sermon titles. There is a game that we play at the end-of-year volunteers’ party which(inevitably) includes a question to try to spot the fake sermon title among all the real ones. It is next level difficult. It is in that vein that I label this blog, My Little Pony Dungeons and Dragons though, really, this blog is not about that. Not directly. Intrigued? Read on.
Now that you are (mildly) intrigued, I’ll be honest with you: I have played an adapted form of Dungeons and Dragons with My Little Ponies trying to save the world through the power of friendship. Before you think I’m weird(er than you already know me to be), let me contextualize this as a game that my whole family plays on game night. In addition to the art (see the excellent pony made by my daughter, 4 years old at the time), the math (constantly adding and subtracting dice of various numbers), and the time together, there is story. That is really what this blog is about: story.
Google defines story, in part, in reference to the plot of a thing, what it’s really about. Although our minds might immediately travel to fiction—or ponies protecting the world—in my work as a researcher I find it helpful to think about scientific writing as a particular kind of storytelling. Over the next few blog posts, I tackle scientific writing as story1. (Can you see why I lead with ponies and dragons now? In theory, it has led you read at least this far.)
In this post, I want to introduce you to the basic premise of scientific writing. In future posts, I will explore how to approach the (sometimes daunting) task of writing well and I will frame some ideas around the different components in a scientific paper. If you’re lucky (or, as my dad would say, “a glutton for punishment”), I may even write a blog with some nitty gritty details, sharing examples from a recent paper I wrote (and re-wrote…and re-wrote again).
What is Scientific Writing?
Although you know what writing is, is anything changed by adding “scientific” as an adjective before it? To answer this question, we need to think about science. Science is the study of the natural world. Science describes how things are, explores how/why things work the way they do, and makes predictions about how things might/could/would work, given what we know. Science uses systematic observation—testing, observing, measuring things in the world in strategic and systematic ways—to draw conclusions about the world2. There are many (many!) different empirical methods in science, but they share the common feature of systematic measurement and observation to acquire knowledge. Moreover, science is democratic and cumulative, meaning that debating conclusions based on (and building from) previous research in a public forum is inherent in how science works. The scientific community requires that statements about “the way things are/work” be backed up with verifiable and compelling evidence3.
By this understanding of science, then, scientific writing is the formal documentation of the scientific story with discovery as the core plotline. Scientific writing is how scientists document the verifiable and compelling evidence gathered by members of the scientific community to tell the story about how the world (and the people in it) work. Done well, scientific writing communicates the mystique and intrigue of discovery within the natural world4.
When I conduct a research study, I write it up in a manuscript which is submitted to a journal. The journal will send this manuscript to 2 or 3 reviewers (who are blind to my identity). This process of peer-review ensures that my paper—this piece of scientific writing—is of sufficient quality and caliber to contribute to science and warrant publication. Part of my job in writing the story is to tell the reader what they need to know in a logical, connected way5. (Remember, I can’t just write “this is how the world works: believe me, I’m cool; I play pony-dragons.” I have to, in my paper, document the whole process of my research so that when I ultimately claim that “this is how the world works”, my reader understands how my evidence—the research—led to that conclusion.)
So, in many ways, scientific writing is like all good writing; it differs in its content (an explication of empirically demonstrated evidence), but it is rooted in narratives of discovery.
This narrative of discovery has some formalized sections (i.e., the introduction, methods, results, and discussion sections of an APA paper). However, before we talk about these sections we need to talk about the scientific story writer. Before any words are on (digital) paper, it’s important for a scientific story writer to start with a helpful orientation to the process of writing, an orientation that is highly influential for writing successfully.
While you wait for part 2 (perhaps rolling up your own MLP dungeons and dragons character), I’d like to know: what kinds of experiences have you had with science writing? When I say “science writing,” what comes to mind/what assumptions do you have about what it is/isn’t?
1As I see it, writing on “writing well” is one of the most daunting topics I could choose. There are many who have written on this, and many who have written on this better than I will do here. Part of the point that I aim to make is that writing is a skill that is developed. That means that, like you, I am in development. However, if I waited until I could communicate about scientific writing skill development perfectly, then this blog would never be written and any potential benefit of this communication, imperfect as it may be, would be lost. As I will encourage you to do: start where you are and commit to developing, uncomfortable as it may be. Your product won’t be perfect, but perfect isn’t a requirement for progress. In writing this blog for you and I’m practicing what I’m preaching.
2Although many students might not immediately associate “psychology” with “science,” it should be clear that psychology is a science, even if it doesn’t share all the methods of natural sciences. That it would have different methods makes sense because it has different a subject matter; surely we can agree that we can (and should) study cells differently than human persons (even if the human persons are made up of cells).
3A very easy introduction to what science is, can be found here. If you are interested specifically in thinking about how psychological science works and fits into science, you can check out this introduction.
4Despite common assumptions, science is not a list of facts about the world. Science includes facts, but it not mainly a compilation of them. As such, effective scientific writing will communicate the mystique and intrigue of discovery, not just consolidate a list of findings.
5This has implications for the actual process of organization and writing that I will address in a future post. My metaphor hear is about maps and directions, but I’ll leave it be for now.
If you found this blog helpful, check out the overview of the whole series here, so that you can find more useful information to develop your writing.
The bare minimum of the required research papers in my high school freshman biology class is (I am ashamed to say) the extent of my experience with scientific writing. I admit that I tend to associate the phrase “scientific writing” directly with big words that I can’t understand, and complete and utter boredom. As of late, however, I have become increasingly interested in science and what it has to offer (finally). I am excited to learn more about scientific writing in part 2, and hopefully, apply the knowledge to my future required essays!
Woo! This is great to read, Michaella! Let me also add a bit of science to your statement: there is research that shows very directly that when authors use big words and present their research in complicated ways, it doesn’t actually help. In fact, this kind of “jargon-y” writing is MUCH less likely to get cited…citations are like scientific currency. So, when people try to sound smart (instead of writing clear), the net effect is that their research is that people read it less and it is thus less meaningful. The whole point of research is to get the information out there (and change the world! Make it better!). To do this, we need to be clear. For a developing writer like yourself, this means that you should *never* feel like you don’t belong because you don’t have a fancy vocabulary (or heavy thesaurus!). Speak clearly, simply, and directly so that you can wonder with others about this glorious world God has allowed us to study with science!
Hello Dr. Erin Smith,
I enjoyed reading your post about viewing a scientific/research paper as a story. Too often we focus primarily on utilizing a vocabulary that is not understood by many of the readers of our papers. Because of this, people not only lose their attention, but they frequently do not know what it is that we are trying to say. It makes sense that writing in a clear and meaningful tone will better serve the purpose of delivering the message that we intend to convey. I have often lost focus while reading a research paper due to the monotonous tone and barrage of vocabulary that keeps me reading the dictionary more often than the paper itself. Writing a scientific paper like a story keeps the information within a realm accessible to everyone rather than the elite few who have been taught and trained to decipher the manuscript. Believe me. Cipher script was not a skill that I typically chose to spend very many skill points on. You have encouraged me to continue to develop my writing skills and not focus on being a human thesaurus. You have also reminded me that the true purpose of scientific writing is to provide the world with valuable scientific information, not compete with the next writer or prove myself worthy to the scientific community by demonstrating how complicated I can make my research paper read. You are so right in emphasizing that the reader is the primary focus of any written material whether scientific or recreational. Not only did I enjoy reading your blog, but I also thank you for opening my eyes to a new way of thinking regarding scientific writing.
Thanks so much for sharing Kelsey! It sounds like you just got +50 XP in science writing 🙂
Your post was very intriguing to me as I am learning what this particular facet of writing looks like and should be composed. As I was reading your post, I love how you shared scientific writing “is rooted in narratives of discovery.” Initially, your post and topic seemed a little daunting as I am just recently learning what scientific writing entails, however, you broke it down in simpler terms and made it sound so inspiring! After reading your post, I recognized and gained a greater understanding of the endless possibilities and outcomes of scientific writing. Thank you!
Bailee-Yes! Endless possibilities is a great phrase to use. The power of a good story, especially a good science story, can be life changing! People who change the world don’t do it on their own or without inspiration. Sometimes a good story (or 5!) can be the thing that spurs the action that changes the world. SO COOL!
Dr. Smith’s your post explains scientific “writing is like all good writing,” with the difference being in the “content and structure” affirmation that contribution to science and scientific publication is a scholarly practice. I agree that writing a “good paper” and “peer review” is vital to practice within the scientific world that ensures that the writings are up to standard can be read by a wider audience. It was a pleasure reading your blog.
Thanks for your comment, Jamie! Research and science is hard–writing it poorly makes it (almost) meaningless! We have to take care to engage it with the kind of respect it deserves, and that means (in part) communicating it clearly.
Hi Dr. Smith!
I loved reading this article because I often feel discouraged that psychology is not a “real science” because it does not always seem as technical as fields like chemistry. When I think of “science writing” I tend to think of fields like chemistry, biology, and physics because those seem to be so heavily science based. However, this article is a good reminder for me that psychology is also scientific and that we can do “science writing,” because that is simply using scientific information to back up a point. Thank you so much!
Yes! Our science looks different, but that is also what gives it its strengths. Lean into that!
I have the tendency to say that I have little experience with scientific writing, although I have read (skimmed) many of them for my own research papers for my college courses. Even though I may have read many of them, the idea of writing my own is daunting (even though I am currently doing just that, on a lesser level). I enjoyed reading your blog and how you connect scientific writing with story-telling, in a way it makes the task a bit less scary.
Yes! There is so much to wonder about in this world. Science stories are a small slice of exploring that wonder and curiosity.
Your post has such an intriguing literary flow to it; it honestly has me desiring more. My experience with “scientific” writing has been hardly extensive, but it always seems to be a somewhat daunting task in the few papers I have produced. Although the task is growing on me and with each paper and, more importantly, the feedback of every paper I become more confident in my work. What I find to be most dreadful is the task of scouring through the internet for sources relevant to the paper. This egregious task sucks up hours of beloved time in order to find the perfect Tetris pieces to fill the space that is my paper. I am truly excited to continue reading this blog series and hopefully gain insight on becoming a more proficient scientific writer.
Love this, Joseph! Luck for you (depending on your perspective), you get to practice this with me this semester! Looking forward to the process 🙂
Hello Dr. Smith,
I would like to say that I found your blog post very motivating and something that I will keep in mind when I write my future papers. Something that stood out to me about your wise words was when you I stated that writing is a skill that is developed. At first, this seems like a simple fact that every one of us knows, but we often forget that we can always learn and better ourselves further. I have not always been confident in my writing, and still struggle constantly which is why I always do my best to learn from mistakes. Keeping in mind that writing is like storytelling, I feel that we should take our attention away from perfection and instead focus on the heart of why we are writing in the first place.
Thank you for your advice and sharing of your knowledge
Thank you, Laura! I appreciate you taking the time to post and share!
Hi Dr. Smith
I wish I could’ve read this post before being at the tail-end of my research in the behavioral sciences field. So many freshmen students find themselves over-whelmed with the idea of writing a literature review and finding a topic within the field to study over the course of their time at CBU. The task of finding sources that fit the hypothesis we’re testing, and going into the database itself poses such challenges to new young writers. Writing the literature review “well” is another one of the daunting tasks surrounding scientific writing as a student, and perfection should not be the end goal of the time we spent doing the research! Thank you!
Hello Dr. Smith,
I think it is interesting how described the difference between writing and “scientific” writing. Honestly, the only experience that I have had with scientific writing is for a few of my classes at CBU. I more interact with other people’s scientific writing in order to write research than create my own scientific writing. However, working through the BEH research sequence, I am understanding the steps scientists take to write their research and it is extremely overwhelming so I really admire scientists as I’m doing this in four classes, instead of one giant research project and I’m already overwhelmed.
Just remember that each step counts. You don’t need to understand it all, at least not right away. It’s hard, I think, to approach these classes with a “long frame” in mind because it’s different than the way we usually engage things in our society (“deliver now” comes to mind). But really, development, transformation, learning, and understanding are lifelong pursuits. This is just part of that process! So, even when it doesn’t “feel good,” try to settle in that space. You’ll come out better for it. 🙂
Hello Dr. Smith,
I appreciate how you connect scientific writing with story telling. Ironically, I always tell people that I can write a short story easily, but when it comes to writing essays for academics I struggle immensely. I think it may be more of my nerves getting to me when it comes to writing for school, but I suppose you are right when you say that writing is a skill that is developed. The more you do it, the more it will come easier; at least I hope it will. I look forward to reading your next blog series!
Thanks for your comment, Taylor! Keep on that growth mindset!! 🙂
Hello Dr. Smith,
I find your blog so intriguing to read that I wish I had found it in the beginning of my research journey rather nearing the end. I found your blog motivating and I appreciated the way you explained scientific writing as a story, as I am a person who can be very easily intimidated by just the word itself. It wasn’t until I stumbled upon the field of psychology freshman year at CBU that I began to understand the world of science more and more and how diverse it really is.
Thank you for these kind words! We are always learning new things. There are so many things that I think, “I wish I knew that then…” but boy am I glad I know it now! (And I wonder what I’ll learn later than I wish I knew now…) 😉
Im not a good writer overall, but I believe I can write a short story pretty decently. So I believe if I try to approach a scientific writing like I’m writing a short story, then maybe I will be able to write better with the pressure lifted off me. Thank you for writing this blog and giving me some information to help me become a better writer.
That’s great, Ryan! Science needs storytellers-there is mystery, intrigue, failure, and discovery…the makings of a great story!
Good Afternoon Dr. Smith,
Your post was very interesting to me because writing truly is a skill that develops especially over time. Scientific writing is very important because it allows us to learn and grow. I’m currently a senior and throughout my time here at CBU I have learned to think more strategically and become more involved with providing studies and it has allowed me to become a better writer.
That’s so great! I have found that improvements in my writing are directly related to improvements in my thinking and overall posture toward learning. They are not independent. Even if you never write a scientific paper after you graduate, the skills for systematic thinking and clear articulation with your reader in mind — what story are you telling?? — will continue to benefit your professional work.