I had a lot of fun reading about everyone's technical writing pet peeves in the comments to last week's post Written Off.
I have also realized that I am a petty, petty person: I get upset about more than 80% of all the peeves that different people have cumulatively listed! And I must have been separated at birth from at least two of my anonymous commenters..!
I wanted to follow up on a couple of specific comments. Anon on March 10 wrote:
I'm curious: do you have a couple of examples of particularly well-written papers? I'd like to see what you consider the pinnacle of scientific writing.
Well, I like my own technical writing, but perhaps I am a little biased there. :) I have a few favorite writers, one of them my frequent collaborator, but I am afraid that revealing their names would convey a bit too much about what I do. So I will refer you to Editor's Choice articles in Physical Review Letters (PRL for short). All PRL articles should be accessible to an audience broader than just the narrow specialists, and those papers marked as Editor's Choice should be particularly successful in this regard and promote reading across disciplines. Here are two papers that are fairly far removed from my research field, but I was able to enjoy and appreciate them, and that says something. One is
a single-author PRL by Sabine Hossenfelder, who also happens to blog on Backreaction (thanks Alex for recommending it!)
Bounds on an Energy-Dependent and Observer-Independent Speed of Light from Violations of Locality.
Another one I remember from longer ago is Andread Karch and Lisa Randall's
Relaxing to Three Dimensions. Lisa Randall is well known for writing popular science books.
A comment that struck a chord was that of Anon on March 15:
Pet-peeve: when a professor (who is a non-native English speaker) attempts to correct my English.
News flash to the professor: you may have a PhD and know more about science, but your English is not your forte.
When it comes to writing technical manuscripts, it's not just about one's command of English: it's about the proper structure of the manuscript, using the proper jargon, and most importantly conveying the message clearly. I find that students who are native English speakers can sometimes be particularly difficult to educate in this regard, because no matter what the comment is, they automatically assume they know better.
I am a faculty and a non-native speaker of English. I think that most faculty who are not native English speakers are aware of the fact that their English may not be perfect. However, most often what the student may view as an issue of language is actually something much different and much more critical: either something is wrong with the paper structure (e.g., you must actually motivate why you are doing what you are doing, you must also state clearly what is new in your paper and why), the style is inappropriate (e.g., adjective diarrhea has no place in technical writing), or perhaps the paper is simply unclear or bursting with redundancies. Often it can be a matter of the student not really understanding what it is that it new and important, or missing the big picture of how our work fits in the grand scheme of things; this issue comes up equally often with native and non-native English speaker students, and this is where the advisor's technical expertise is key.
If you are a native English speaker being advised by a non-native English speaker faculty, next time when your advisor tries to correct your manuscript, please ask yourself honestly whether he/she has a point. I bet you dollars to donuts that, more often than not, the advisor is primarily trying to correct the structural faults of the manuscript, improve the presentation (make it clearer or more succinct), and explain better what the motivation is or what your results mean. I suppose it is possible the advisor simply has control/micromanagement issues or is overestimating the quality of his/her English... However, if you dismiss your advisor's comments a priori because you consider yourself infallible by virtue of being a native English speaker, you are (a) coming across as disrespectful and needlessly irritating your advisor, and (b) most likely passing up a very good opportunity to improve your technical writing.