Topics to consider in science writing: important lessons to learn for any early career scientist
So, you are going to someday become an independent scientist. Regardless of your current training level, whether you are seeking a career in industry or academia, are a coauthor on a scientific project, first author on a manuscript, writing your thesis, or slogging through your own dissertation: writing is difficult.
You will find that no matter how hard you try, criticism of your writing can be merciless. Feedback makes it clear that perfection in content and delivery matters, but how to improve? Sometimes the path forward is not clear. While I believe that the best science writing follows guidelines more than intolerant rules, I have compiled some tips in an attempt to help you improve your craft.
Step 0. You made a scientific discovery!
Your goal is now to share your discovery with as many people as possible.
- Recognize that your wonderfully unique perspective, training, knowledge, method of thinking, and creativity got you here.
- Don't forget that something that makes perfect sense to you might not make sense to others.
Step 1. Organize.
Your goal is to lead your reader toward a successful understanding of your writings.
Plan a pattern that you will use to organize your paper, then organize your content into that pattern.
- Think of this pattern like a syllabus; if the syllabus declares there will be a quiz every Friday, then administer a quiz every Friday. Students rely on this consistency to prepare for success.
Brainstorm to find a simple, predictable pattern of organization to present the logic of your science.
- Pursue an uncomplicated linear pattern of organization, such as a line or an arrow.
- Avoid intricate patterns in organization such as circles, figure eights, or daisies. Following the science is hard enough; don't make it harder with complicated storylines.
- Do not select patterns that keep the reader guessing, such as skipping back and forth between two topics or writing in one (or more) parallel tracks.
Direct your attention to your overall paper.
- Sort introductory topics into the introduction section, methods into the methods section, results into the results section, and so on.
Direct your attention to a single section.
- List the topics relevant to that section.
- Sort the list of topics into linear/chronological/sequential order.
- Limit one topic to one paragraph. If your list contains 10 topics, then you will end up with 10 paragraphs.
- Make sure the paragraphs that appear in a section belong in that section.
Direct your attention to a single paragraph.
- Reveal the topic of that paragraph in the first sentence.
- List the subtopics relevant to that topic.
- Sort the subtopics of the paragraph into linear/chronological/sequential order.
- Make sure the subtopics that appear in the paragraph belong in that paragraph.
If you are noticing a pattern, then you are seeing the pattern that I chose for organization! Progressively smaller components are just smaller organizational versions of the same overall, simple, linear pattern.
Step 2. Think your paper is organized? Good! Now organize the organization.
Your goal is to examine the consistency of your organization.
Pay critical attention to the consistency of the pattern and the details therein.
- Ask yourself, "If I were to isolate the topics in each paragraph across my entire paper, does the pattern in logic make sense for the science?" If not, then reconsider your organization.
- Ask yourself, "Does the order of topics throughout my paper function as a coherent outline for the paper itself?" If not, then reconsider your organization.
By now you should be thinking about science writing as an expression of a consistent pattern. That's great! Now step back and ponder patterns in your daily life. What would you think if you looked at a skyscraper and saw a little section with oddly tinted windows? Would you notice? Inconsistencies in patterns - no matter how subtle - can trip readers up, distract them, cause them to think they missed a critical transition somewhere, or in some cases even irritate them.
- Seek internal consistency in your patterned presentation, no matter how small.
- Check for consistency in capitalization schemes of headings, indentation or numbering schemes, and in-text reference formatting.
You have now crossed the first big hurdle of science writing. Organization of your ideas into a consistent pattern means you have helped your reader prepare for success, so they can focus on the pith of the science itself without getting tripped up by the presentation.
Step 3. Now write.
Your goal is to populate the organizational pattern with words.
- Write in an active voice. For example, "We did this....", "We did that...", "We made this choice...", not "Derivations were made…
- If you made a choice in your work, detail that choice and "own" your decision. For example, "I made this choice because X, Y, and Z.” Or “I chose not to do this, because J, K, and L.” Same goes for assumptions.
Be the first person to point out the limitations of your own study.
- Scientific manuscripts with declared limitations are still publishable; declarations signal areas ripe for later development.
- Scientific manuscripts with undeclared limitations will get rooted out by peer reviewers, the limitations will be seen as flaws, and they make the writers look fishy. Remember, your reputation as a scientist is real or perceived.
- If an idea is yours, own it. If an idea is not yours, cite it.
Do not cut corners or gloss over details, especially in your methods.
- Remember that a solution to writing fatigue is a nap or a walk, not carrying on to produce sloppy or vague fluff.
- Use one tense. Active voice written in past tense sounds the most confident.
Write your abstract last.
- Summarize each of the sections in your paper using one or two sentences only.
- Organize these summaries in the same order as your paper.
- Voila! You have your abstract. (And it's also consistent with your chosen pattern!)
Step 4. Fiercely revise.
Your goal is to employ laser focus on the central theme.
Revise, revise, revise. There is hardly a paragraph anywhere that cannot be improved.
- Be prepared to throw half of your initial attempt out the window.
Remove the noise from the signal.
- Find the tangents to your central theme….and remove them.
- Find the peripheral ideas to your central theme....and remove those too.
- Needless citations? Confounding ideas? Illogical linkages? Remove them all.
- If a link in your chain of logic does not directly lead to the next link, remove it.
- Remember that if you are sufficiently ruthless in your editing, the main points will remain.
Open the thesaurus to optimize your "information to ink" ratio.
- Replace ten words with five.
- Replace five words with three.
- Does something feel clunky without adding extra meaning? Do not underestimate the power of the delete key.
Think of major revisions (or complete rewrites) as a sign of improvement, not failure.
- The more you rewrite something, the more you think about it.
- The more you think about it, the more you deconstruct it.
- The more you deconstruct it, the more you understand it.
- The more you understand it, the easier it will be to write about it.
Step 5. Seek crystalline clarity.
Your goal is to remove barriers to understanding.
- Remember, there are two people involved in every science communication: the writer and the reader.
Recognize that you are not your reader.
- Don't rely on implication. You write words through your unique lens of life experience. Do not make a reader guess what you mean, because the reader isn't you.
- Avoid writing vague sentences that are accessible only to small groups that share your life experiences.
- Don't assume. Your reader interprets your writing through their unique lens of life experience. Do not assume how the reader will interpret your writing, because you aren't them.
- Avoid writing vague sentences that leave room for interpretation.
Strive to tell your readers exactly what you mean.
- Use precise language.
- Clearly define how you are using each important word the first time you use it.
- Detail acronyms or notations the first time you use them.
- Do not refer to topics as "it" or “this”. What is "it" or “this”?
- Tell your reader how you interpreted the results.
- Detail how you arrived at your stated conclusions.
- Shorten sentences to make them more clear. No matter through which lens readers are reading your paper, it is challenging to misinterpret the sentence “Jack ate cake.”
Write in a manner that is respectful to your reader's state of knowledge.
- Don't presume your reader doesn't know something technical; they might be an expert.
- Don't presume your reader knows something obvious; they might be an expert in other things.
- Don't use vague descriptions such as "We used a mathematical process to...". What is the mathematical process? Vagaries can come across as patronizing.
- Remember, clear writing is more important than clever writing.
Step 6. Challenge your own work.
Your goal is to find your own mistakes.
- Check that your organizational pattern is consistent. For example, if you presented method 1, method 2, then method 3 in your methods section, then have you presented the results from method 1, results from method 2, then results from method 3, in that order, in your results section?
- Beware the proof by contradiction. You must not contradict yourself. Contradictions will get rooted out, are embarrassing, will call the science into question, and cause you to lose relevance and respect from your peers. Reread your paper and ask yourself "Have I contradicted myself anywhere in this document?" If so, then fix it.
- Scrutinize the display of your findings, especially numeric results. Transpositions, conversion or rounding mistakes, errors in scientific notations, or erroneous placement of decimal points happen. It is better for you to find your own errors than the public, your peers, supervisors, or managers.
Challenge the repeatability of your experiment using the exact words that you wrote (and not what you thought you wrote).
- Follow your written methodology to the letter, taking only the literal the steps, as you wrote them. Can you repeat your steps? If not, then clarify the wording written into each step.
- Ask yourself, “Can someone 25 years in the future pick up this document as written and repeat the methods?” If not, then add more details.
Aggressively challenge every word in own work.
- Ask yourself, “Is every statement I have written accurate and precise?" If not, then fix inaccuracies or rephrase a sentence to be more narrow and specific.
- Ask yourself, "Can I think of any way that this sentence can be (mis)interpreted?" If so, rephrase the wording to reduce potential confusion.
- Ask yourself, "Have I provided sufficient evidence to show how my conclusions are supported by my methods, data or results?" If not, then add details to clarify the linkage between evidence and inference.
- Ask yourself, "Did I appropriately use concepts of the other works that I cited?” If not, then reread the papers to correct your portrayal of their findings.
Be deliberate in the correction of your own work.
- Ask yourself "Have any of these fixes messed with your organization, writing, or clarity?" Do not guess the answer to this. Reread your paper from start to finish to determine this answer. You would be surprised how often a fix you made in one place accidentally introduced an error in another place.
Step 7. Seek diverse feedback.
Your goal is to gather and incorporate as much independent feedback possible.
Recognize that you are not going to be able to anticipate all the ways someone will slip up reading your paper, so the more perspectives you can get, the better.
- Invite your peers to review your work.
- Ask your reviewers, "Which part was unclear to you?", "What did you take away from this section?", "Do you see anywhere I can improve this work?". Take this feedback seriously.
- If a reader missed a point, got confused, or misinterpreted a conclusion, return to the bullet points above, and try writing the offending portion of the narrative in a different way.
Seek feedback from your harshest critic.
- While at times this feedback will seem cold-blooded, strive not to take it personally.
- Use this ruthless feedback to strengthen arguments in your own writings.
- Do not jump over or skimp on these writing tips before going to your harshest critic. You will regret it.
Step 8. Persist.
Your goal is to carry on.
- Apply this list every time you write a first draft, a revision, a revision to a revision, or even the 32nd revision.
- Seek resources to improve your writing, such as Edgar Allen Poe's essay about writing: The Philosophy of Composition by Edgar Allan Poe | Poetry Foundation. After all, the excruciating economy required in writing for humanity's permanent science archives has much in common with that of great poetry.
- Keep at it. You will find your stride, and your writing will continue to improve!
I thank Brian Dennis for his ideas and contributions to this list, for his patience while I authored my MS thesis and PhD dissertation, for pointing me towards resources to learn the craft, and for coaching me to rigorously apply these tips in each of my own writings.
I also thank Rachel Abbott for her tremendous help editing everything I write, including this document! Want to make your work shine? Find yourself a Rachel!
I further thank countless anonymous peer reviewers who have picked apart my writings to make them stronger and more readable to current and future scientists. My work is indeed improved by their contributions.
Heard, SB. 2016. The scientist's guide to writing: how to write more easily and effectively throughout your scientific career. Princeton University Press. Princeton, New Jersey, USA.
Poetry Foundation. 2023. The philosophy of composition. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69390/the-philosophy-of-composition. Accessed May 2023.