“Spoiler Alert (1891)” Scientific Writing – Part 2
When I was in high school, I read The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde1. Since it was published in 1891, I’m just going to assume that what I’ll say here about the novel doesn’t require a spoiler alert. (But, alas, if you want to avoid such a spoiler, kindly skip to the next paragraph now.) What I loved about the novel was the extreme (and incredible) juxtaposition between this dashing young man and the gruesome portrait that hid his true inner reality. He was morally and psychologically bankrupt, a secret held by his portrait. On the inside, he was empty.
Why bring up such a tale in a blog with the subtitle, scientific writing – part 2, you ask? In the paragraphs that follow, I want to argue that writing well, especially writing of the scientific variety, requires the development of certain internal characteristics. It’s not enough to have a Dorian Gray kind of face. We need to do some inner work to effectively engage scientific writing. That is what this post is about.
Before I lose you on the thought, “this doesn’t apply to me because I’m not a scientist! I don’t need scientific writing!”, let me address this erroneous thought head on. In your classes you are engaging scientific work and talking about it, sometimes in written form. That is scientific writing. Many of you will continue to engage these primary resources in future careers. However, even those of you who don’t: the practice of clearly delineating and communicating evidence, at the core of scientific writing, is also key to communication in general. The specific formats and expectations about details (APA style, for example) may vary, but the practice of clear thinking and information storytelling—this is something you will use well beyond your classroom years. As such, in this and future blogs, when I talk about you, dear reader, as a “scientific writer,” this is not a mistake. This is for you.
Now, back to the rodeo.
Developing the Disposition of a Scientific Writer
As a graduate student, I remember co-authoring a manuscript that would become my first peer-reviewed paper published in the well-respected journal Child Development. I remember the excitement of feeling like I had something to contribute, something to say. I had an emotional connection with my paper. It—and by proxy I—was awesome.
And then came peer review.
The peer review for this paper was critical and hard to digest. But in the lengthy process of revision (which took multiple rounds, each with new critical peer review comments), I started to learn some valuable lessons, lessons that I want to share with you today. Reflecting on my experiences with peer review that started in graduate school, I have learned that scientific writing is more effective when I, as the writer, am committed to the ongoing development of a growth mindset and a disposition of curiosity. I believe that good scientific writers share these traits, traits that can—good news—be learned.
Good Scientific Writers have a Growth Mindset
Elsewhere in the CSHB blog archives there are discussions on the growth mindset. Mindset is an idea developed by Dr. Carol Dweck, a developmental psychologist at Stanford University. She argues that there are different ways of thinking about traits such as intelligence. We can consider intelligence (and intellectual capacity) to be relatively fixed—stable and enduring across the lifespan—or malleable—able to be grown and developed with effort. These beliefs about intelligence being fixed or malleable represent two ends of a continuum, with people existing at and between the extremes.
Although Dweck’s work started with intellectual ability, it has expanded to include beliefs about traits like artistic skill, athletic ability, business acumen/leadership, relational capacity, etc. It just makes sense that we could also talk about our beliefs about writing ability. Let’s take a quick check on your beliefs: do you believe that, with practice, feedback (including criticism!), and more practice (and criticism) that you could get better at writing? Or, do you think that you are, more or less, as good as you are going to be? Think about the last paper you wrote: how many times did you read and revise it? Do you think the revision process valuable? Did you seek out critical feedback? When your professor made a suggestion, what kind of reaction did you have? I would bet that students who believe that practice and feedback are a valuable part of improving their writing abilities will spend more time revising, visiting the University Writing Center, and meeting with their professor to review drafts. These efforts are not just because they want a good grade, but because they believe these behaviors are an important part of the process of their writing skill development. This is consistent with a growth-oriented mindset, the belief that effort is directly related to skill growth and associated outcomes. What Dweck’s work shows, in general, is that the belief that you can develop and improve in an ability, like writing, leads you to behave in a way that makes it so, for example by practicing, revising, and seeking out feedback for improvement.
Moreover, an important feature of the growth mindset is the belief that you are not your work2. The work that you produce reflects your effort, sure, but a critical comment (or comments—plural!) is not an inditement of you. Rather, it is feedback about your process, effort, or something that led to the work. This feedback is all a part of the learning and growing process. In a podcast on receiving critical feedback well, Mellody Hobson said something that really made me think: she argued that critical feedback is a gift, and not a right. When someone gives you feedback, no matter how hard it is to hear, it is because they love and care for you enough to give it to you. That, she says, is an opportunity that should not be squandered.
When I receive critical peer review today—and I do!—instead of immediately succumbing to a negative emotional reaction, I reframe the feedback. This peer reviewer at least thought enough of my paper to take the time to read it and provide critical feedback. Their points are worth wrestling with. Even when I don’t incorporate the changes suggested by the peer reviewer, my paper is always better because I had to really think through why they thought what they did, what that means for my argument, and how I can strengthen what I have to say/how I’m saying it. This response is only possible when I don’t take the criticism personal, but instead use it as an opportunity to develop my ability to write more clearly, more persuasively, and more effectively. A growth mindset says that engaging feedback—especially critical feedback—is central to the development of writing well.
Good Scientific Writers are Curious
Although there are likely many more qualities of good scientific writers, the second I want to share here is that good scientific writers are curious. Curiosity is a core feature of good scientists (e.g., “why does the world work this way? What explains that phenomenon?), but it is also reflected in good scientific writing.
Curiosity is reflected in a comprehensive literature review, a deep and developing understanding of all the relevant information to the present question. Curiosity is reflected in creative and clear methods, documented thoroughly to allow for an open and honest appraisal from others. Curiosity is also reflected in an openness to the data. When we, as researchers, look at data, we have our own ideas about why they are the way they are. These ideas come from a number of sources, including our command of the scientific literature and our own worldviews and experiences. Curiosity allows individuals to say, “this is how I see it,” without getting defensive when someone else says, “yes, but have you thought of this possibility?” That other possibility is just that—a possibility. For the curious, possibilities are exciting3.
Back to Dorian
Although the reading of Dorian Gray has stuck with me, high school was also many (too many) years ago. There are details of the story that I don’t remember. And still, I feel confident that Dorian Gray would not have been an effective science storyteller, as he lacked a growth mindset and curiosity (along with a bunch of other important traits). Of course, as a bit of an optimist, I think that even Gray could have, with the right motivation and mentorship, learned these skills. Just like I’m learning them and like I hope you will. It will benefit your writing—and so much more.
I have more to say on scientific writing—and say I will. If you made it this far, I would love to hear from you: what do you find is your biggest barrier to writing well? Do these characteristics of good scientific writers resonate with you? What else might you consider adding to that list? Let me know with a comment below and stay tuned—there is more to come on writing well.
1I have not seen the movie, so I can’t comment except to say, rooted in my own deep (non-scientific) convictions, the book is better.
2This is a great, short video introduction to the idea of mindset: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KUWn_TJTrnU. Pay special attention to the commentary on Jay and Anne’s work, and how that commentary (i.e., critical feedback) is interpreted.
3Here is a helpful guide for giving and receiving criticism in a way that is helpful: https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2021/03/science-relies-constructive-criticism-here-s-how-keep-it-useful-and-respectful
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.
Excellent reminder of those important mindsets and
critiques that are needed in one’s development of scientific writing skills.
Thank you, Dr. Minton-Ryan! It’s been so helpful for me to reframe “critical” feedback away from negative emotions to opportunities for development.
Having a growth mindset when faced with feedback is so important! All of my writing has improved due to feedback. Honestly, without feedback, I know I would still be struggling with many aspects of writing. However, just like you, Dr. Smith, I initially did not handle “critical” feedback well. Instead of taking it as feedback, I took it as criticism. It wasn’t until I joined a writer’s critique group (during which the goal was learning how to give and accept critique) that I developed a more accepting and learning stance.
Yes! Thank you for this comment. I love the idea of the writing group. I think that is a wonderful resource on so many levels (support, feedback, and accountability come to mind). One other thing that the diversity of feedback from a group might give you is how different people perceive your writing. The same piece might get feedback ranging from “everything is wrong, change it” to “this is the best thing I’ve ever read.” There is often something interesting to uncover when reactions are this varied!
Thank you Dr. Smith for an excellent reminder of cultivating “growth mindset” in writing. I also remember my first academic paper got published in a peer-reviewed journal — underwent many times of re-writing processes with numerous feedbacks. I really do appreciate your kind reminder of taking feedback as “an opportunity to develop my ability to write more clearly, more persuasively, and more effectively” to further enhance of the outcomes. I feel like l am learning how to be a better writer by reading your writing – thank you!
Thank you, Dr. Walker! It’s amazing to me how robust learning is. What I mean is that right about the time I think I get good at something is when I realize that I’ve just ascended to the top of one hill, revealing several more ahead in my journey. That is actually really exciting–I can (and am) always “in development.”
Thank you for this blog post! It really gave me an insight on mindsets in relation to writing. I liked how you mentioned how when receiving critical feedback on the work you produce should not define you. Now allowing the critical feedback to define us is a sign of someone who has a “growth” mindset. It can be difficult at times to have the ability to accept critical feedback when individuals are stuck in a “fixed” mindset. But learning how to obtain more of a “growth” mindset can really help to accept critical feedback when it comes to the work we produce. Thank you!!
Thank you so much for this comment, Ashley! I do hope that you find this helpful as you pursue learning and growth (which will include the occasional failure–it’s all a part of the process!).
Thank you, Dr. Smith for that rather uplifting and encouraging blog. I appreciate the message to not let reviews diminish myself or my writing. Critical reviews may be hard to stomach but it is the key to progress and success. I have not experienced article reviews yet but I have received feedback from professors that have made me feel defeated (not because they were harsh, but because I let myself get down because of it rather than seeing it as a way to get better).
Yes, it’s hard. I think it’s really important to remember that critical feedback means they valued you enough to take the time to share it. They believe in you, that you can improve it. This criticism is not criticism OF you but FOR you. That’s an important distinction.
I love what you said about how we cannot base our personal value off of our work. I like how you said that our work reflects our effort, but not necessarily who we are. I feel like I definitely fall into that trap because everything I write feels so personal!
Yes, I understand this. (And just because we know this intellectually doesn’t mean that we don’t still sting a little when we get criticized). However, I think it’s so important to remember that we are not our work AND that when someone gives critical feedback it’s because they thought enough about us/our work to bother trying to make it better.
Thank you, Dr.Smith, for your personal take on having a growth mindset and its impact on your own writing. As a student, it never really crossed my mind that some professors may still receive criticism. Perfectionism is something that I, along with many others, strive for, and when it is being criticized, it might feel like we failed. Your example was uplifting because it served as a model of where having a growth mindset will take you.
Oh yes, criticism never ends–and frankly, I wouldn’t want it to! Criticism is someone else seeing enough value in what I’m doing (or trying to do) to make it better. That doesn’t mean it feels “good” (in a classic sense), but it’s so important to my continuing development. Lifelong learning (and development) is not something we talk about as lip service to get students to study more, it’s something I really believe in!
The connection between having a growth mindset and using critical feedback as a tool was an interesting take on how to improve writing abilities. I remember receiving critical feedback on my first college level paper and feeling that my writing abilities were being attacked. It definitely took time to understand that feedback is not a personal attack but an act of encouragement to further improve my abilities. I enjoyed the concept of not only using feedback to fix one scientific paper, rather to improve writing abilities entirely because having a growth mindset isn’t subjective to one task. The belief that we can improve our abilities and make efforts to do so is an important element of the growth mindset and a great reminder for anyone that there is always room for growth. Thank you for the encouraging and thoughtful blog post!
So glad! It might not feel good to hear the criticism, but when we understand it as part of someone else’s investment *IN* us, it is really helpful in framing what to do about it. Thanks for sharing!
Growth mindset is huge!! Being open to constructive criticism and growing in writing. I do struggle with not taking things so personal when a professor comments on my writing or grades me because then I feel like it is a reflection of who I am but it is just my work and I need to be open to that growth.
Being aware of our reactions is a really important first step. I have those reactions too, then I talk back to them and remind myself that growth comes from openness. Keep at it!
I appreciate how you integrated the concept of a growth mindset into scientific writing, since this task can sometimes feel static, but with a growth mindset it can become something that evolves as we seek to learn. In classes it can be difficult to see scientific writing as an opportunity to grow, because it is easy to say that “I am not cut out for research” or something similar, which then leads us to complete the assignment but not really get anything out of it. Going forward into graduate school, I hope to see scientific writing as an opportunity for curiosity rather than another item to check off my to-do list. Thank you for the great insights!
Wonderful! Such good lessons to learn!!
Hi, again, Dr. Smith!
Thank you for this post! I think the thought of a growth mindset in terms of getting critical feedback is fantastic! I know personally growing up and writing papers, the peer reviews were something I dreaded because I was so nervous about what others would say about my writing! Especially taking the BEH series classes and writing the scientific research papers, it can be tough not letting the criticism get to you, especially when your paper is about the research YOU’VE been conducting! I think it’s important to remember the growth mindset because that’s what we are always doing; we continue to grow, whether in our writing or the research we are writing about!
Absolutely. A perfect paper doesn’t exist. It will never get finished. The goal is not perfection, but progress, learning, and growth.
Hello Dr. Smith,
Thank you so much for your blog post about implementing a growth mindset into your scientific writing! When first reading your post, it connected with me because I was in that same position. When starting my studies at California Baptist University I was uninterested in research, but throughout my classes there were sprinkles of looking up studies and writing about academic journal articles. I started to value the thought of creating my own research, which lead me to applying to PhD programs in Clinical Psychology! Reading your post helped me to realize how much having that drive and passion comes into play when including it into your scientific writing/research. Also, understanding how much critical feedback is meant to help us, not discourage our work.
Thank you so much for your insightful blog post!
I’ve always been afraid of feedback as I often become disappointed at myself, instead of seeing them as tools to help me improve. This is one of the many examples why I struggle to have a growth mindset. I remember having to read Dweck’s book for my class, and I recognized myself in the fixed mindset characteristics. It can be difficult at times to believe that my self-worth doesn’t come from my work but from God. Thank you Dr. Smith for reminding me of the importance of growth mindset.
Yes! So much theology here, too….maybe that’s another post I need to write 😉
I concur that writing well requires an arsenal of certain distinguishable traits. As you mentioned, the growth mindset is imperative; lack of it would be detrimental to the writer’s motivation. I can especially relate to the statement that “When someone gives you feedback, no matter how hard it is to hear, it is because they love and care for you enough to give it to you.” Those words resonate well with me because they apply to writing well and just general life advice. In addition to a mindset, a high sense of grit, as termed by Dr. Angela Duckworth, may be compelling to add to the quiver of writing and life tools. When writing, the arduous task of typing and deleting and typing and deleting can drain the limitations of mere talent and call for a different fuel source that is grit.
Hi Joseph, thanks for sharing! I am so glad you mentioned grit here! That’s definitely related. (Partly how we maintain grit is with the kind of determined motivation that comes from a growth mindset, though they are not the same.) When you believe you are pursuing (i.e., writing) a worthwhile goal (paper, idea, story), then grit will carry you through the crummy parts. Your persistence says, “it’s hard? Keep going.” Writing may be easy for some, but it’s not for me (or most). Without that gumption/grit, we’d never get through the hard parts. So, to that end, I agree: grit is definitely part of the arsenal!
I thought that the topic of having a growth mindset correlates a lot with research. Being able to give feedback and receive it is important. Critical feedback helps you see what areas you need to work more in and what areas are your strengths. When doing research you need to be curious about your topic because it helps you become more involved with data and information. Skill and growth expand when we are able to see our weaknesses and when we try to grow and expand our thought’s.
Absolutely, Nicole! Thanks for reading and sharing! Curiosity is KEY; that’s a really great observation. (In a previous version of the blog, I also talked about curiosity and humility, both of which are related to a growth mindset, but not the same as.)
Hi Dr. Smith!
Thank you for taking the time to write this. I think a lot of the fears students face when it comes to scientific writing includes peer review. I can speak from experience, when I submitted my literature review for peer grading I was so anxious having other students read my writing, my professor had reminded us that critiquing other’s writing isn’t meant to be an attack on us and rather a way for us to do better. Constructive criticism helps us grow and do better in many aspects, including our writing. It takes a lot for us to accept this, and it makes us better writers and humans once we learn this mindset!
I LOVED your comparison to Dorian Gray. As a Creative Writing minor and English nerd, I loved thinking in terms of literature. It definitely helps make this a lot less scary when thinking in terms of things I love and understand. I will really be thinking as I work on my BEH research project here at CBU how to make my research not resemble the inside of Dorian Gray, as you mentioned. I think my biggest barrier is I always look at projects from the whole. When I think of a 30 page research paper, I think about the whole thing and it can be very daunting. I think the fact that each class in the BEH sequence only focuses on PART of the paper is really helping me.
Yes, great observation!! Thanks for sharing!
Hi Dr. Smith!
Handling criticism has been one aspect of my life I have been honing in on for quite a bit. I am relatively receptive to criticism in most areas of my life, but as a musician, criticism of my voice is the most difficult to handle. There was a time not long ago that I would adamantly refuse to perform in front of an adjudicator or anyone else, even when I actively knew that performing and getting critiqued was the only way I could improve my vocal skills in the way that I wanted, I could not even bear the idea of encountering a harsh critic. To combat this, I have been forcing myself to perform in front of anyone who will listen. Of course, this is still a massive cause of anxiety for me, but I have substantially more confidence and progressed in my skills.
Hi Dr. Smith,
I admire your encouraging words regarding the topic of the growth mindset and how you claimed that you are not your work, rather your work reflects your efforts. Over the span of my time in college, the idea of the growth mindset is something that I have learned (and boy was it not easy). I can admit it is very difficult to create that separation from you and your work because of the countless hours we as researchers devote our time to our studies. However, I have grown to appreciate the feedback I receive on my studies as, like you said, everyone has their own worldviews and experiences. The diversity of human experiences can help all of us on our journey of developing our growth mindset every day.
I love this comment. This is the kind of skill that isn’t necessarily taught in a class, but it absolutely will carry with you no matter what you do in your life.
Thank you for writing this blog Dr Smith. I also agree with my peers about how students fears about peer reviewing in essays can really hold some back. Back in high school, my teacher would make us do peer review and I always thought my classmates would judge me because I am a bad writer, but after maturing a bit I have realized this was all meant to help me.
Exactly! Something I tell my students is that if I didn’t think they could get better, I wouldn’t bother giving feedback! Feedback is a tool for improvement, one that (although potentially hard to hear) should be valued! It’s a gift, not a right.