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
|Posted by LushingtonTechWriter on June 8, 2015 at 9:20 AM||comments (2)|
Having been invited onto the https://www.medchemnet.com" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">Medicinal Chemistry Network site as https://www.medchemnet.com/users/2957-gerald-lushington" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">a leader, I've been posting on their blog as time permits, with an initial focus on new or useful scientific software. I was pleased to note that my first post, on https://www.medchemnet.com/users/2957-gerald-lushington/posts/1879-the-latest-in-hands-on-software" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">semi-immersive molecular modeling software, was named their 'top voted. More recently, I've added a speculative piece on an https://www.medchemnet.com/users/2957-gerald-lushington/posts/2137-adme-t-on-the-fly-osiris-as-a-sar-sandbox" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">automated drug delivery / toxicology calculator that ultimately speaks to how software with intriguing information presentation can help us to see what sort of formats are most helpful for conveying information.
|Posted by LushingtonTechWriter on October 24, 2014 at 2:20 PM||comments (0)|
Afficionados of molecular modeling (or even just those interesting in technical instruction) are welcome to peruse a collection of four tutorials that I recently drafted the describe how one may go about building a molecular model of a glycosylated protein via the free (pseudo-open-source) structural biology program PyMOL.
Comments regarding the general flow, logical, technical accuracy and style are welcome.
|Posted by LushingtonTechWriter on October 4, 2013 at 11:15 AM||comments (0)|
A big part of science is figuring out where the money is going to come from and what that money is looking for. Decisions by those holding the purse strings are often made by non-experts who condense expert sentiments down into layman-accessible arguments that can sway public or corporate favor. So what scientists write and say about desirable scientific opportunities, if done artfully and persuasively, become self-fulfilling. I.e., posting a thought provoking wish-list to the world can sometimes get those wishes granted.
Anyway, in response to https://www.researchgate.net/post/What_impact_will_the_end_of_the_NIGMS_Protein_Structure_Initiative_Centers_have_on_structural_biology_and_how_should_we_go_forward?" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">news that the NIH Protein Structures Initiative is ending, I have composed my thoughts and and sending them out into the ether:
Part of the process (that must surely already be the subject of dialogues between the program office and key PIs) is a post mortem analysis not just of program high points and criticisms, but also of the question of what key objectives are being left on the table. That discussion will certainly inform the road ahead and may deliver the basis for new programs once the funding environment becomes a little healthier.
Somewhat related to this discussion is an earlier exchange that at least one of your current question followers (Hi Margaret!) contributed meaningful points towards:
https://www.researchgate.net/post/Has_the_NIGMS_Protein_Structure_Initiative_de-emphasized_new_fold_discovery" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">https://www.researchgate.net/post/Has_the_NIGMS_Protein_Structure_Initiative_de-emphasized_new_fold_discovery
The discussion ran the course of how original intent progressed on toward pragmatic refocusing and perhaps echoes some of the same sentiments which informed the decision to discontinue the PSI and revert the funding to a more general pool. Perhaps I can characterize the evolution in oversimplified, but hopefully still apt terms: the program began with a mission of broadening general biological understanding and analytical capability, but gradually began to take on an increasingly targeted biomedical bent that became difficult to distinguish from R01 style research. This is hardly unusual; it certainly also happened in the Molecular Libraries Initiative, and may be one of the most common outcomes of a program of this nature.
But to your question of how structural biologists should move forward? There are probably several areas of possibly revolutionary impact that are emerging, but the one that is nearest to my heart is new target discovery and characterization. The economics of big pharma practically enslaves the industry to easy, well-established targets and leaves novel target elucidation and validation to academia and small speculative biotechs. A federal program targeting collaboration of diagnostic clinicians, physiologists, molecular biologists, structural biologists and informaticians aimed at highly speculative, evidence-based target rationalization / characterization could produce an informational gold mine from which many next generation medical discoveries could emerge.
|Posted by LushingtonTechWriter on July 25, 2013 at 12:10 AM||comments (0)|
My latest service project was a detailed proof and critique of three substantially revised chapters of Richard Silverman's well known text book, "The Organic Chemistry of Drug Design and Drug Action", whose third edition should be coming out fairly soon. Obviously I shouldn't share my specific comments in an open blog prior to publication, but a few general impressions:
First and foremost, the book is huge and exceptionally comprehensive. The second chapter alone (out of eight) on "Lead Discovery and Lead Modification" is longer and more detailed than many actual books. Given their time pressures, students using this text for an actual course may bemoan the amount of material to be assimilated and committed, but anyone who continues on in the drug development field should hold onto this book as an excellent resource to be perused later in conjunction with practical research. There is a wealth of detailed examples that illustrate the practical trial and error experience underlying numerous key drug discoveries of the past. The book also bravely enters the information age with a detailed catalog of relevant URLs addressing relevant software, online resources, published references, and so forth. This information may fall out of date in the years between the pending release of the third edition and some future eventual version, but those students who encounter the book in the next few years should greatly appreciate its detailed compilation of links.
|Posted by LushingtonTechWriter on April 26, 2013 at 6:00 PM||comments (0)|
Age of information and impatience
It's no secret that this is an information age far surpassing any renaissance of enlightment of past centuries. Ironically, however; the population is simultaneously becoming less patient with the act of reading. Why? There is so much material out there that is available to be read, that when many people deign to spend time reading something of a technical nature, they want to be reading the specific material that is most relevant to their needs and most efficient in conveying the information they want to absorb. This is something to keep in mind when drafting any piece of technical writing.
Decorations are visual cues
So how do you write for an impatient audience? Obviously be clear and concise, but in this day and age that is not enough. You must provide the visual cues to enable your reader to make snap decisions on whether your material is relevant to them and, if so, what portion of the article is what they're looking for. Specific cues that are most helpful include:
- concise and informative section headers and subheaders
- tables that have been carefully constructed to present information or data in a way that supports useful associations
- visually appealing figures that clearly illustrate processes, concepts or key data trends
- text boxes set to the side of the main body to very concisely highlight key issues or conclusions
Documents that look like web pages
If it sounds like I'm recommending that you construct your text in a manner that sounds similar to web design, perhaps that is true. Our society is moving increasingly away from print media and to the more polished web layouts that once were the sole province of sophisticated magazines or expensive glossies. Elaborate colorful layouts have become cheap and easy to deploy -- anyone who constructs monotone blocks of mono-font text is probably going to miss out one some readers who might have otherwise benefited from the wisdom and information hidden therein.
|Posted by LushingtonTechWriter on April 4, 2013 at 5:20 PM||comments (0)|
Everyone, including bloggers, texters, poets, scribblers, teachers and especially technical writers is regularly forced to deal (perhaps haphazardly) with the most common source of writing uncertainty: numbers. What do you do if you have 11 14-year-olds coming to your house? Panic?
Well, according to these flexible, sensible recommendations by Michael at DailyWritingTips.com, you (and anyone you're writing to) will feel much better if you express this as "eleven 14-year-olds", given the imminently sensible recommendation that if you have to write two distinct numbers back-to-back, it is easier to read if you express one of them in numeral form (i.e., "14") and the other ("eleven") as an explicit word. Beyond avoiding possible formating issues that might convey the mistaken impression that you're entertaining Methusaleh's grandparents (perhaps for their 1114th birthday celebrations) it is just simply easier to read. So which one should you write out explicitly? It may not matter much from the perspective of readability, but the best answer is to save keystrokes and render as numerals the number that would take longer to type (i.e., 14).
Another rule that I'd never really thought of before, but also seems perfectly natural, is that if you are estimating a big number (e.g., "the United States has around 300 million people"), then you write out the number in word form, but if you feel confident that you know the exact number, then render it in all its numeric glory: 315,614,267! [US Population clock as of end of day, April 4, 2013] The estimation shortcut is especially useful for your 14-year-old guests, who might otherwise have trouble explaining the zillions and jillions of homework problems that the don't feel like working on.
Where confusion persists, the article acknowledges it: Americans and Europeans are still at loggerheads regarding the use of commas and periods to differentiate larger numbers and decimals (one group keeps doing it backwards; I won't say which). And there is no rigid commandment that dictates "Thou shalt inscribe ten as ten, and 12 as 12!" If you're writing for a discipline (or organization) that wants to make up a rule, then follow it, but otherwise the only truly sensible expectation is that you should be set standards within a document and be consistent. So, if your teenaged guests bring along a bunch of younger siblings (gee, thanks...) then it's no problem to complain about the ten 8-year-olds.
Anyway, there are a bunch of other good recommendations on there, so do take a look! Oh, and by my calculations, I think you're going to need about 20 twelve inch pizzas. Or a jillion.
|Posted by LushingtonTechWriter on March 13, 2013 at 4:00 PM||comments (0)|
Gerald Lushington's Recommended Reading for Writers
A fair number of learned people have achieved fame or infamy for their attempts to teach the world to write better English. I think it's a safe bet that I will achieve none of the above, but I nonetheless enjoy writing, and the mechanics thereof, and if I can impart a bit of enlightenment (or perhaps amusement) to the casual reader who stumbles upon my material, all the better!
One of those scholars who is enjoying a moment in the sun is Ben Yagoda, who was recently interviewed on National Public Radio regarding his recent book "How Not to Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them". At this point I will reserve judgment on whether this is a new classic in the old genre of writing about writing, but it certainly deserves a little attention in any blog that examines good writing.
Yagoda's main premise is that his extensive experience in teaching university English has enlightened him as to a relatively small number of distinct types of writing errors that tend to dominate the world of compositional glitches. In light of this, he concludes that the world could use a book that specifically focuses on those usual grammatical suspects. Fair enough!
What he comes up with is a mixture of the mundane and obvious (people frequently misuse commas and semicolons) and get tangled up in dangling modifiers (now where did I hear that phrase recently?). I don't think many people will spend $10.20 on Amazon to get berated for these types of miscues, and his book probably doesn't provide a whole lot of valuable instruction on those moldies that one can't extract from a basic middle school textbook. But fortunately he strays out onto a few limbs that yield more fascinating fruit. Spell-checker abominations and thesaurosis (by which I mean the comic definition by Steve Poole, rather than the homonymous respiratory disease) are two increasingly common 21st century problems that are amusing to read about, and worth reminding lots of people over and over about. How semi-intelligent people can ever place their literary creations at the mercy of computer programmers?? Isn't that a bit like asking your auto mechanic to do open heart surgery? Furthermore, in addition to being attuned to such very modern perils, Yagoda is also open to emerging grammatical innovation that may actually improve the language. English has proven to be a language of great plasticity, and don't for a minute think that the many millions of second-language English practitioners, social engineers, and technology gurus are not irrevocably transforming our grandparents' language into a dynamic medium of future communication
It's a mixed bag, but if you care about your writing and are seeking self-betterment through a curious combination of inspiration, amusement and good old-fashioned nagging, then this is a great book for you.
|Posted by LushingtonTechWriter on February 26, 2013 at 2:05 PM||comments (0)|
Some weeks ago I posted a brief comment on a pair of articles on good writing practices. I recently came across another page (https://www.e-education.psu.edu/styleforstudents/c1_p15.html) that in most respects should qualify as a simple overview of common writing problems and reasonable remedies. There are basic admonitions regarding the relative perils of first-person voice, contractions, gender specificity, jargon, emotion, split infinitives and so forth, but there is a curious stumble on on issue that I consider to incur the most tangible risk of communicative mayhem: the dangling modifier. Specifically, the article cites the following as an example of a dangling modifier:
"Using an otoscope, her ears were examined for damage."
With the following construct recommended as more logical replacement:
"Her ears were examined for damage with an otoscope."
At this point, I would ask of my readers the following rhetorical question: is the above example a) misguided, b) indicative of an honest editorial mistake, or c) an excerpt from some piece about rogue otolaryngologists?
If one asserts that the second sentence construct is logical and does not contain a dangling modifier, then the clear interpretation is that some unfortunate person has had her ears damaged with an otoscope, and some (hopefully more competent) medical technician is now seeking to assess the damage. Ouch.
Is there anything wrong with the associations conveyed in the first sentence? In truth it too is an example of a dangling modifier in that "her ear" split the "were examined using an otoscope" clause. I can't believe that it is as blatant a violation (or makes me as squeemish) as the supposed correction, but to satisfy our need for good writing, let me propose the following:
An otoscope was used to examine her ears for damage.
After all this, I sure hope her ears are okay!
|Posted by LushingtonTechWriter on February 20, 2013 at 3:25 PM||comments (0)|
First I must offer the caveat that this post at least partially duplicates what I wrote earlier today on the Gerald Lushington Quora blog. However, while I don't think the web needs duplication of content, I figured that I would draft another post to reside here in my technical writing blog. Why? Because on Quora my motivation for posting was this belated attempt of mine to learn about effective social networking, while here I like to expound on resources and skills that facilitate effective technical writing. As strange as this might seem, the subject of my latest Quora post, namely the Mendeley utility, actually bridges these two topics!
Mendeley is a professional networking site that aims to facilitate scientific collaboration via standard discussion space postings plus .... literature citation management! What a captivating idea!
Anyone reader who has engaged in collaborative research or multi-person document authoring must surely have experienced a variety of technically clunky scenarios such as a) one author forwarding a publication or citation to another in order to elaborate on a specific issue, b) multiple authors adding to and modifying a growing list of references while trying not to mess up the referencing scheme used by other authors, c) manually altering citation format to reflect a change in the publication target, and d) other mildly annoying and time consuming referencing hijinks. Well, if online collaboration environments like LinkedIn, ResearchGate, etc., want to transform the way scientists interact with their community, it is perfectly logical that they help overcome the referencing babel bottleneck and that is precisely what Mendeley aspires toward.
Mendeley is clearly oriented toward science, but technical writing obviously transcends far more disciplines. I would be very curious to know if sites catering toward other disciplines are also attempting to address collaborative referencing?
|Posted by LushingtonTechWriter on February 15, 2013 at 6:05 PM||comments (0)|
Anyone who has pursued advocacy knows that one should chose words with care: they must be used in a grammatically correct manner, typically they should be chosen to convey the precise technical concept that one intends to communicate, and, whenever possible, they should avoid imparting negative emotions.
My original intention for this blog post was to provide some basic recommendations on how to construct positive prose. The benefits of doing so are well documented. Consider, for example, this recent study by Waldman and Newberg that reveals the cognitive and emotive effects of negative phrasing. According to their study of brain waves, writing connotatively unflattering words can significantly change readers' thought patterns, even if what you're writing should be in no way threatening to the readers themselves.
But my planned discourse was derailed for the time being by another fascinating recent study (Garcia et al.) that takes a different look at the issue: words with positive connotations inherently (at least on average) contain less substantiative information than their more negative analogs! Well durn it all (umm..., sorry to be negative) doesn't that put us in a bind if we (as technical writers) strive to be as efficient as possible in our communication of tangible information?
Let me think about this a while.....