Scientific writing isn’t poetry. Our aim is to communicate information clearly - not to be the next Proust.
This requires good structure and good style.
[2021 update]: everything I wrote here remains valid. Computers have improved though. Thus, in addition to thinking critically about your writing, I strongly now recommend running it through Grammarly. I now use it for most of my lab’s writing.
Below are some thoughts about scientific writing that have helped students & myself. The list isn’t exhaustive:
Structure & Content:
- In scientific writing your introduction should begin with the general context of the topic and end by “announcing” the structure of what will come next.
- In scientific writing you want one idea/point/aim per paragraph.
- Within each paragraph, use a simple and clear structure. For example: Four lines of evidence suggest that bblueblablamyaimis. First, blablabla. Second, blablablablabla. Third, blablablbalbala. Finally, blabalbalbalbalbla.
- If consecutive sentences are logically related and can have similar structure - use similar structure. No need.
- In any writing you need to guide the reader through a clear thought process
- No matter how interesting an anecdote/definition/fact may be, take care not to stray far from the aim of the point you’re making/topic of the essay.
- If you’re unsure how to structure your article/essay… download some that others have already written!
- Please respect the style guidelines given by Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style”. Keep it concise.
- Pay attention to detail (punctuation, spelling, consistency of formatting, species in italics…). Neglect of such simple things makes the reader think you do nothing properly.
- Don’t Randomly capitalize Words that Aren’t normally Capitalized.
- Most word processors have spell-checkers. And automated grammar-checkers. Use them (Make sure that all rules are activated - e.g. in MS word you need to manually activate the strict grammar rules). Neglecting to use such tools can feel insulting to the reader.
- KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid. If a word, sentence or piece of information is unnecessary, remove it! Otherwise, you complicate things for the reader.
- Again, use simple words, simple clear sentences. Scientific writing isn’t Shakespeare or Voltaire.
- If you decide to use funky formatting (columns, photos, sophisticated fonts, etc.) - don’t mess it up! Better to be plain and functional (Helvetica, single column…) than have something that print incorrectly or is illegible.
- When handing something in electronically, do it as a PDF (appearance shouldn’t change between computers…).
- When you think you’re done, print it out & let it sit for 36 hours. Then read it very critically as if it were the work of someone else. Consider each word, each sentence, each paragraph, the overall structure. What is the aim of each element? Is it working to its full effect? If you identify issues, fix them. Repeat until you think its perfect. Now ask your roommate/parent/partner/friend to read it critically.
- You may disagree with the exact feedback/suggestion someone gives you. But the fact they highlighted/raised an issue is sufficient to indicate that you need to change something. Do something about it.
- Any writing requires writing, editing and rewriting many times before obtaining a satisfactory result (the need for this reduces as you get older/more experienced).
Again, tools like Grammarly or Microsoft Word’s grammar checker can help you with some aspects of writing. I strongly recommend you use such tools. We do. However, you still need to think very carefully and critically about your message, and the software’s recommendations.
New Scientist-type articles have additional challenges:
- For example articles, check the New Scientist website. You can only understand how such articles should be written if you critically read a bunch.
- Who is the audience for such an article?
- Keep in mind that you’ll want an appropriate catchy title.
- Use an appropriate writing style (this may be less formal than normal scientific writing).
- How do you make your article attractive? Interesting to read?
- Ten simple rules for structuring papers
- How to write good - famous resource with wonderful examples.
- Some useful grammar exercices as well as thorough explanations at U Bristol.
- Online course on writing scientific papers.
- Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style”
February 5, 2015