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Gerald Lushington Technical Writing / Proofreading Services

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Blog

This blog is the inspiration of the proprietor, Gerald Lushington, who in addition to writing for service, likes to write about writing.  The posts are intended to provide a glimpse into the thought process underlying technical writing, and may even be of some use to readers who would like to spice up (or otherwise improve) their own text and communications.

Comments are welcome, though if your grammar has correctable issues, you might get a friendly critique  ;)

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Turn of a Friendly Phrase

Posted by LushingtonTechWriter on February 7, 2013 at 4:00 PM Comments comments (0)

Frequently I vent (offline, where it's safer) about the quality of writing at the great fifth estate institution:  Time Magazine.  Careless grammar, unseemly flippancy and too-trendy vernacular do not improve the reading experience for grouchy sticklers such as myself.  However, some of their articles do catch my attention with uncommon craft!  I was surprised and quite delighted to read Lev Grossman's recent cover story about drones.  Great writing about drones, one might ask?  Indeed!  The article weaves the technical and ethical into a compelling narrative that struck my fancy as much as anything by some beautiful little phrases.  My favorite (but not the only) great turn of phrase is the following: "Right now the apex of consumer robotics is that humble domestic trilobite, the Roomba."

What's great about this sentence is that it singlehandedly encapsulates the landscape of a field, evokes a vivid mental image (a little machine scurrying around filtering up dirt just as that the prehistoric sea creature interacted with micro-organisms), subtly implies that what we consider to be pretty cool today is probably destined to be viewed, soon enough, as archaic, and makes many of us smile!  Is there aplace for smiles in expository writing?  A few weeks ago I disparaged my own frivolous phrasing in a blog post (i.e., "rage against the machine") as being an apt target for judicious trimming, but the fact is that if you have room for colorful, insightful images in your writing then more power to you!  Even in the most dry text (e.g., legal briefs, software documentation, etc.) one can justifiably employ a bit of spice as long as, in additional to livening up the numbed reader, it contains information that is directly relevant to your treatise.

 

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Posts in this blog represent the honest opinions of Gerald Lushington and have not been affected by commercial interests or other inducements.


Always dated: proposal writing guides

Posted by LushingtonTechWriter on February 4, 2013 at 5:05 PM Comments comments (0)

While my last entry discussed a compilation of good common sense writing tips that should generally stand the test of time, proposal writing is always more challenging because it is based on an every changing landscape of expectations that differ further according to field.  The best general advice one can offer is the following:


 - Before submitting a proposal to a given agency, read a few recent successfully funded proposals from that agency (and ideally from the same panel or study section).  What you'll be looking at are proposals that have either come up with a formula that works for the environment you're tackling, or else have been carefully adapted to that environment based on using previously successful proposals as templates.  Either way, the general format and style should be one that the panel is confortable seeing.


- Enlist multiple other people to read your proposal, including some people whose expertise is fairly peripheral to your field.


- If you use a style guide, ensure that it's tailored to your field and always check to see how recently it's been updated.  Styles and expectations are highly discipline-specific, and change frequently.  Needless to say that anyone using a 2008 NIH style guide today would be dead in the water!


I was asked recently if there was a general style guide out there that I particularly liked.  The answer is is unconditionally yes:  the proposal writing guide by Stephen Russell and David Morrison.  It's great for NIH and other HHS applications, and has many recommendations that transcend disciplines.  Unfortunately, it's not (to my knowledge) just sitting out there in cyber space for the picking and is not easy to purchase unless you're lucky enough to attend a workshop offered by one of these two gentlemen.  As far as compilations of general guidelines available for free download, I guess I can recommend:


* Guide for Writing a Funding Proposal / S. Joseph Levine

* The Art of Grantsmanship / Jacob Kraicer


That said, however, I would love to hear your comments and suggestions.




 

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Posts in this blog represent the honest opinions of Gerald Lushington and have not been affected by commercial interests or other inducements.

 


Timeless writing guidelines

Posted by LushingtonTechWriter on January 29, 2013 at 5:20 PM Comments comments (0)

I really like the technical writing guidelines set forth by TechProse!  Unlike highly specific guidelines that serve a narrow discipline (i.e., legal literature; programming documentation, etc.), the TechPose prescription is based on common sense and thus transcends purely trendy writing dictates.  Sure, you should consult discipline-specific writing manuals and pay close attention to any strong preferences your clients may have, but the basic suggestions in this document are a great basis for starting out with a document and certainly won't lead you far astray.



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Posts in this blog represent the honest opinions of Gerald Lushington andhave not been affected by commercial interests or other inducements.


Precis the precis!

Posted by LushingtonTechWriter on January 14, 2013 at 3:45 PM Comments comments (0)

Practice what you preach!  At the request of my audience, I am going to precis the post on precis writing that I wrote on January 7th.  Everything after the coming colon is condensed:

 

Word limits (e.g., for abstract or biography submissions) may feel stifling, but can encourage powerful, concise writing provided you thoughtfully, iteratively edit by:

 

 - emphasizing information not emotion

 - grouping and condensing related concepts 

- enforcing maximum phrase/concept redundancy (one instance per ~300 word section) via acronym or pronoun substitutions

 - embracing succinct statements


 With care, each satisfying iteration further condenses and clarifies!

 


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Posts in this blog represent the honest opinions of Gerald Lushington and has not been affected by commercial interests or other inducements.


Word limits: a great excuse to optimize your text

Posted by LushingtonTechWriter on January 7, 2013 at 3:30 PM Comments comments (0)

To anyone who likes to write free form text (fiction writers, bloggers, etc.), the occasional encounter with word limits can seem stifling!  It can elicit grumbles and bring out our antiestablishmentarian rage against the machine.  But, once one simmers down, it can also force us to produce powerful, clear and (per force) concise text.

I encounter word limits quite frequently, with the most common examples being for article/presentation abstracts of biographical sketches.  My strategy is always to start at least a couple days before any due date, which gives me the luxury of writing a first draft that says what I want to say, the way my primitive, creative brain wants to say it.  Yay -- doesn't that feel good?  Without submitting anything, I walk away from it for an hour (or day or whatever) and do other things.  Then I go back to it like an old scold and ask:

1) Have I exceeded the word limit?  If no, then I will probably just proceed to proofread as if there was no word limit, but if yes then I will bring out the sharper tools (see points 2 onwards).

2) Is there anything in the text that is present for emotional rather than analytical reasons?  All too often we write things not because it furthers the specific argument or explanation that we're tasked with but because it feels good (see "antiestablishmentarian rage" above).  Fun to do in the first draft, but cut mercilessly in round 2.

3) Are there any key phrases explicitly present more than once in the document in substantially similar form?  If your document is restricted to a page or less (i.e., 300 word limit) then you should rigorously seek to eliminate redundant text either by grouping all sentences that employ the same phrase into the same paragraph (or sentence) and then reducing second and subsequent instances to a single placeholder such as "it", "the tool", etc., or by defining at the first instance an acronym that can you can use for any later mentions.  If your document is longer than a page, you can get away with the occasional redundancy, but try to keep it to a conservative level.

4) Are any concepts explained more than once?  Given, a 300 word limit or less, then this is unexcusable -- find the one instance that is most eloquent and find ways to get rid of every mention.  For a longer document, the maximum number of instances that can be fully justified for even the most important concept is three:  once in an abstract, once in broader context in the main body, and a brief summary statement at the end.  Anything more than that is bloviating.

5) With a fine tooth comb, approach every sentence with the following questions:

       - Is this sentence necessary?

       - Can this sentence be stated more succinctly?

       - Can this sentence be logically and productively combined with other sentences?

Once you've gone through steps 1-5, put the document down again for another hour or day, and cycle through again.  Surprisingly, no matter how rigorous you think you may have been on the first edit, there are always useful ways to further condense and refine on subsequent edits.

Interestingly, no matter how satisfying the original rebel draft felt, the process or bending, taming and refining the rebellious text is just as fulfilling .... and produces far better communicae!



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Posts in this blog represent the honest opinions of Gerald Lushington and has not been affected by commercial interests or other inducements.


The evolving paper: post release feedback entering the vogue

Posted by LushingtonTechWriter on January 4, 2013 at 4:50 PM Comments comments (0)

While I posted in an earlier blog entry that encourages you to carefully proof your content before exposing it to the public, the nature of publishing is changing in ways that can be more kind to your earlier drafts.  Specifically, in science it is becoming increasingly popular to get post-release feedback (and, with electronic publications, potentially respond to) on your publications.

As I wrote recently on Ziki, for many researchers and engineers, publication of a peer-reviewed research article represents a degree of closure on a given project:  the material has been evaluated by our colleagues and competitors and has been judged to be a worthwhile contribution to our field.  Our careers, however, require us to keep moving on to bigger and better ideas.  Sometimes interesting ideas that might not occur to us could be evident to others with a different perspective.  To exploit this for our mutual benefit, a mechanism has been instituted to facilicate and foster post-publication-peer-review:  the frank exchange of feedback on the strengths, weaknesses, possible extensions, and possible collaboratiove opportunities for our work.  One such resource exists for this within the biomedical community:  WebMedCentral.  I am currently serving as an external advisory board member for WebMedCentral and would strongly encourage other biomedical researchers to take advantage of this service.

However, while services such as this provide an opportunity for us to all improve our publications over time, I would still say that the first impression counts a lot.  In my experience, well written manuscripts with well conceived hypotheses and conclusions are the ones that will get the most useful, and insightful feedback (in particular because readers are most likely to understand the material and place it in a comfortable context).  So there's still no excuse for doing your homework, thinking your arguments through carefully, writing thoughtfully (or else hiring a ghost writer) and proofing the manuscript diligently!



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Posts in this blog represent the honest opinions of Gerald Lushington and have not been affected by commercial interests or other inducements.


Intellectual Property

Posted by LushingtonTechWriter on January 2, 2013 at 11:15 AM Comments comments (0)

Among the many fields in which technical writing can play a major role, a very active area is in constructing and protecting intellectual property.  In other words, helping to assemble patent applications.

From my technical work, I've had a number of patent applications reach provisional stage, but until this one on prospective BRCA1-based breast cancer therapeutics, I hadn't had one reach approved, full patent stage.  It's not so much that the other ones were without merit; rather the attrition process is more related to the durability of an idea (the process is usually drawn out over a fair bit of time, which can test the commitment of the original authors) as well as institutional investment (the combination of filing fees and the cost of experts involved in helping to assemble the application can incur total costs that run well into the tens of thousands of dollars).

In the above patent, credit is due primarily to the coauthors on the application in that the development was based on their idea, while I merely provided analysis to bolster it and didn't really even contribute much text beyond a concise description of my complementary analysis, but it's nonetheless satisfying to see resolution on a large-scale endeavor of this sort.

Given this and other experience on the development end of intellectual property, I have to profess a fair bit of interest in the actual writing part of the process.  While instinctively I prefer the free-flowing communication that underlies scientific writing, my experience in advocacy and in drafting specifications and tutorials is evidence that I can rise to the challenge of formulaic prose such as is key to patent writing. 


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Posts in this blog represent the honest opinions of Gerald Lushington and have not been affected by commercial interests or other inducements.


Different tones of voice

Posted by LushingtonTechWriter on December 22, 2012 at 12:15 AM Comments comments (0)

Most of the writing I do is technical, but I'm certainly not averse to crafting more general prose for persuasion / advocacy, social communication, advertizing, etc.  Whereas most technical writing can be accomplished with a similar (fairly formal tone of voice), communicating across the more general panorama can require a variety of different styles, ranging from formal, to 'serious but not formal' to casual.  It's very useful for the aspiring writer to be able to distinguish and accomplish prose in at least three different voices.  To achieve this, practice makes perfect, and I find it helps to choose topics that are way outside of your normal subject area.  For example, three prose capsules on the Berlin Wall:


Formal tone:

Citizens of freedom, gaze solemnly on these bright strokes of youthful defiance. Twenty two years ago, the spirit that set brush to this stone – spirit in the eyes of students who knew that the future could be theirs; spirit in the fists of laborers who had been suppressed too long; spirit in the hearts of all who fight injustice – brought this stone crashing down to its place in our museum: a reminder of what brave spirit can deliver. Citizens of freedom: never forget those before you who gave you liberty; always remember that you too must safeguard the rights of your children and all those who follow.

 

 

 

Mid tone:

When the lights change, people rush across this busy Berlin street without a glance at the line of decorative paving stones beneath their feet. We forget that when their parents were children, people died on this very spot while trying to cross over what was then the infamous Berlin wall. This line of stones traces silently past gleaming new buildings constructed to replace the drab postwar Stalinist concrete that housed and subdued a defeated population. Only when we come to this quiet park and sit in the shade of an old wall fragment can we close our eyes and imagine the sirens, cries and baying hounds.

 

 

 

Casual tone:

Okay, suppose you live on this street, just six blocks west of your Aunt Sue. You told her she’d better move west before the commies lowered the boom, but noooooo…. too busy, too much stuff, can’t leave old Gerda next door. Whatever…. Now there’s a twelve foot wall, guard towers, razorwire, dogs, guns and some very mean looking people in the way, and Sue can’t get fresh plums from the Wierstrasse market anymore and that means no more plum pudding for you. Yes, she used to talk your ear off, and yes her clothes looked slept-in, but you still miss her…. and her plum pudding.

 

 

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Posts in this blog represent the honest opinions of Gerald Lushington and have not been affected by commercial interests or other inducements.


 

 

Always proofread with a fresh or independent mind

Posted by LushingtonTechWriter on December 13, 2012 at 6:20 PM Comments comments (0)

Always take the time or proofread!  I can't tell you how many times I've gotten on a roll with writing and gotten the cocky impression that I was writing gold, when in fact it was coming out as convoluted, quicky tin.  I was in a hurry earlier this week to crunch out an abstract for the 3rd Conference on Proteomics and Bioinformatics and submitted it feeling pretty good about the text.

The next day (i.e., too late) the perfectionist in me turned around and rewrote it as follows:

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Title:Bridging gaps in the chemical interaction matrix via biclustering across activity-modulated feature space

 

Name: Gerald Lushington

LiS Consulting, Lawrence, KS 66046, USA

 

In the decade since science first glimpsed the grail of comprehensive biochemistry by fully characterizing human coding DNA, systematic medical discovery has been advanced by more directly applicable foci such as chemical genomics and chemical proteomics.  These fields collectively embody small molecule / biochemical target interaction knowledge arising from general associative and receptor-specific binding characterization.  Complete chemical interaction space profiling could theoretically provide a rigorous basis for optimizing personal therapeutics and minimizing side effects, but the resulting matrix of millions of distinct target isoforms crossed by millions of known, biologically relevant organic molecules is unattainable invitro.  Fortunately, representative subsets of the matrix (such as are accruing in PubChem) should enable well-crafted informatics techniques to bridge the gaps.  Unlike machine learning methods that pursue bioactivity classification across supersets of general ligand and target features, mechanistic insight may be best obtained by identifying subsets of chemical biology data and features wherein local rules prevail for determining activity.  We have developed a biclustering protocol to perceive mechanistically analogous regions of activity-modulated feature space. Our preliminary test cases yield perspective into two mechanistically convoluted assays:  cytotoxicity within the IEC-6 intestinal epithelial cell line, and human oral bioavailability profiling.  The method has natural extensions to functional clustering across target families, with applications to lead hopping, target selectivity optimization and side-effect assessment.

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First one is okay, but I think you'll agree that this new one reads better.

So the lesson is, either find someone to proofread an important document before you hit the send button, or at least sleep on it and give is a solid scan again on a fresh mind!



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Posts in this blog represent the honest opinions of Gerald Lushington and have not been affected by commercial interests or other inducements.



 

An example of simple advocacy

Posted by LushingtonTechWriter on December 5, 2012 at 9:45 AM Comments comments (0)

While we often think of technical writing as producing "documents".  This is to say, proposals, RFPs, product specifications, tutorials, etc.  But some of the most persistant (and sometimes even the most important) communication is what goes into e-mails, blog/forum posts, etc.  If you're writing to ask for something, or if you're writing in a venue/medium where the image that you project is important (which is the case more often than not), then don't slack off:  make sure your writing is clear and to the point!


Here's an example of advocacy that I recently posted in a forum in the on-line biomedical publishing site WebMedCentral:


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I would like to solicit feedback from WMC members, readers and participants regarding whether the inclusion of chemical biology would be viewed favorably as a prospective new focus area.  Chemical biology is often considered to be approximately synonymous with pharmacology and drug discovery, but aspects of the field are really quite distinct and have broader implications.  The NIH Roadmap Initiative, for example, sought to extend basic genomics by providing expansive information on physiologically relevant chemical modulations to the biochemistry associated with a diverse range of genes and phenotypes.  This growing body of interaction knowledge is providing new chemical probes: compounds that have a clear biochemical effect relevant to modeling specific physiological scenarios, thus contributing to pathway understanding and enabling new experimental protocols that may complement complex genetic techniques such as knock-downs and mutagenetic manipulations.  The field is also providing an informational basis for new therapeutic target discovery and for the perception of therapeutic side-effects or off label implications.  As a field, chemical biology embraces a diverse range of analytical technology, biological principles, directed chemical synthesis, and integrative informatics methods, and thus is a hot bed for collaborative science.


In posting this, I will be looking in curiousity, for the size and passion of the response (if any) as a basis for deciding whether to more actively promote such a focus within WMC.  I thank you all in advance for your comments!

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Please click here to view the text in its natural habitat (i.e., WebMedCentral) to see if I get any useful feedback.



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Posts in this blog represent the honest opinions of Gerald Lushington and have not been affected by commercial interests or other inducements.


 



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