On Persistence and Sincerity

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…propaganda, Boris Artzybasheff. Image: James Vaughan, some rights reserved.

We’re in the middle of marketing efforts here at Win-Vector, and I’ve just spent a few hours going through the Win-Vector blog so I could update our Popular Articles page (I have to do that for Multo, someday, too).

As I went through the blog, I had a number of thoughts:

  • Wow, this is a lot of posts.
  • Wow, we write about a lot of topics.
  • Wow, this is some really great stuff!

I can’t take credit for all that. The Win-Vector blog is John’s baby; he started it way back in July of 2007, and as it’s his only blog, it’s his primary mode of expression (Facebook for cooking, Win-Vector for the techy stuff). He writes more of the posts than I do. But the blog has been good for some of my hobby horses, too.[1]

The excuse for the Win-Vector blog is that it’s “marketing” for the company. And it is; we promote ourselves sometimes: our company, our book, our video courses. But mostly it’s here because we wanted a place to talk about what we care about, and a place to share things we thought would help other people.

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On Writing Technical Articles for the Nonspecialist

WatchPhoto: John Mount

I came across a post from Emily Willingham the other day: “Is a PhD required for Good Science Writing?”. As a science writer with a science PhD, her answer is: is it not required, and it can often be an impediment. I saw a similar sentiment echoed once by Lee Gutkind, the founder and editor of the journal Creative Nonfiction. I don’t remember exactly what he wrote, but it was something to the effect that scientists are exactly the wrong people to produce literary, accessible writing about matters scientific.

I don’t agree with Gutkind’s point, but I can see where it comes from. Academic writing has a reputation for being deliberately obscure and prolix, jargonistic. Very few people read journal papers for fun (well, except me, but I’m weird). On the other hand, a science writer with a PhD has been trained for critical thinking, and should have a nose for bullpucky, even outside their field of expertise. This can come in handy when writing about medical research or controversial new scientific findings. Any scientist — any person — is going to hype up their work. It’s the writer’s job to see through that hype.

I’m not a science writer in the sense that Dr. Willingham is. I write statistics and data science articles (blog posts) for non-statisticians. Generally, the audience that I write for is professionally interested in the topic, but aren’t necessarily experts at it. And as a writer, many of my concerns are the same as those of a popular science writer.

I want to cut through the bullpucky. I want you, the reader, to come away understanding something you thought you didn’t — or even couldn’t — understand. I want you, the analyst or data science practitioner, to understand your tools well enough to innovate, not just use them blindly. And if I’m writing about one of my innovations, I want you to understand it well enough to possibly use it, not just be awed at my supposed brilliance.

I don’t do these things perfectly; but in the process of trying, and of reading other writers with similar objectives, I’ve figured out a few things.

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