How to Improve Your Scientific Writing: A Short Guide
The key characteristic of scientific writing is clarity. Scientific communication is a two-way process. Just as a signal of any kind is useless unless it is received, a published scientific paper (signal) is useless unless it is received as well as understood by its intended audience.
Scientific writing is designed to convey scientific information clearly and concisely to other scientists and students through case reports, technical notes, journal articles or scientific reviews, and it’s one tough process to master.
Scientific writing often seems like a difficult and arduous task for many students. And rightly so, as it entails following various rules, different format and deviates in terms of structure from how we were initially taught to write for other subjects.
Things often seem wrong in these papers, because most students focus almost exclusively on the scientific process, neglecting the writing process. Here is a succinct guide that lays out strategies for effective scientific writing to help you increase the focus on conveying your point more effectively while writing in the college classroom as well as for personal assignments.
Take the Scientific Storytelling Approach
Robert Boyle, a pioneer of modern scientific experimental method, emphasized the importance of not boring the reader with a dull, flat style.
Science is about facts and objectivity, not hyperbole to sell a story. However, objectivity is not at odds with adding a creative element to your writing or making it clearer and more interesting to read.
Everyone has great stories about their research. Discreetly slip these into your work. Humans are programmed to love a story and will remember facts embedded in stories longer than factoids alone.
Tense & Style
Some style guides discourage the use of the passive voice, while others encourage it. Some journals prefer using “we” rather than “I” as the personal pronoun. Note that “we” sometimes includes the reader.
Be careful to keep the verb tense consistent within sections of a paper. The Results section of a paper is usually in the past tense because the experiments have already been done.
General principles disclosed by experimentation can be described in the present tense, since the conclusion is based on eternal facts.
One idea per paragraph
Make it easy for readers by presenting a single idea in each paragraph. While editing, try to improve your prose by breaking a lengthy complicated 9-sentence paragraph into two or more shorter paragraphs with a single idea presented in each. Varying sentence lengths are recommended for all kinds of writing, and it applies here as well.
Citations: Explain Strong Claims in Detail
A big problem with much of science writing and in many student essays is that the writing presents strong claims with nothing more than a citation to support it.
Let’s take a look at an example:
“When newbie scientists deal with too much data during an experiment, information overload can lead them to draw erroneous conclusions (Jones & Nash, 2012).”
Now, that’s a strong claim. It’s a big deal, if true. Readers then often start wondering, “How exactly do they know this?” “What’s their data?” “What study did they run?”
It would be better to expound this claim by explaining how Jones and Nash know this. The writing could say: “Jones and Nash supervised 500 budding scientists in the Pennsylvania University Chemistry Lab and found that the least experienced scientists involved in complex experiments were more likely to draw erroneous conclusions.”
Which one do you think gives more insight into the study?
Most scientific writing follows one of three citation styles:
• AMA (American Medical Association)
• APA (American Psychological Association)
• CSE (Council of Science Editors)
Editing and Proofreading
Once you’ve finished writing, come back to your paper and verify if it has turned out the way you intended. Are there any gaps in your structure? Have things been explained clearly? Does a point seem hard to understand because of awkward writing?
Re-read the paper with a finer lens, well-structured sentences and appropriate word choice make a huge difference. Grammar and spelling are just as important as your scientific story; a poorly written paper makes a limited impact irrespective of the presented ideas.
We understand that scientific journals accept manuscripts only in English, so PaperTrue has a dedicated team of editors who specialize in editing such papers. We’ve refined heaps of papers to the absolute satisfaction of our clients. It is easier for students and scientists to now focus on their research, because at PaperTrue, we focus on refining your documents to help you get published in top journals.
Books and Resources
These are some tools available online that will aid you in writing diligently:
CAS abbreviation and acronyms
A dictionary of Units of Measurement
The following books are available in PDF; you can download and save them for a deeper understanding of the scientific writing process:
Christine B. Feak/ John M. Swales: Telling a Research Story. Writing a Literature Review. The University of Michigan Press 2009.
Robert A. Day/ Barbara Gastel: How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper.
Keep in mind that there is no single correct way to write a scientific paper. Even professional scientists feel that they can always write more effectively. Keep experimenting and seek support if you like, and as you gain experience, you will begin to find your own voice. Good luck and happy writing!
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