Making your scientific discoveries understandable to others is one of the most important things you can do as a scientist. You might come up with brilliant ideas, design clever experiments, and make groundbreaking discoveries. But if you can’t explain your work to your fellow scientists, your career won’t move forward.
Back in the early 90s, during my time at the University of California in Irvine, my research led me to a paper citation that seemed relevant to my work. I went to great lengths to get a hold of that paper, which was written in English but not by a native English speaker. Unfortunately, I couldn’t understand it well enough to confirm if the cited information was accurate. I tried contacting the authors multiple times but got no response. As a result, I couldn’t reference their work in my own papers, even though it seemed relevant. Being a good writer is crucial for success in science. Speaking English fluently doesn’t necessarily mean you can write well, even for native speakers. Writing skills improve with practice and guidance. However, simply having experience or guidance won’t make you a better writer unless you put in the effort to write.
Tips to Improve your Scientific Writing
1. Organize your thoughts, ideas, and actions in a logical manner
Begin with sufficient background information to take your reader along the pathway from your observations to your hypothesis. Describe the background to appeal to a broad group of readers. Provide sufficient context to communicate the significance of your inquiry and experimental findings. Omit extraneous information so that the reader can obtain a clear picture. Group similar ideas together and state your ideas and thoughts concisely. Present ideas in a consistent manner throughout the manuscript. The most common structure of a scientific manuscript is the IMRAD (Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion) format.
2. Provide clear descriptions
Repeat complex concepts as needed, explaining them from various angles. Begin with simplicity, advancing complexity as required for comprehension. Tailor your writing to your audience’s level of expertise, whether they understand specialized terms or require prior explanations. Keep your explanations straightforward.
3. Simplify your word choices
Utilize clear, straightforward language to ensure that both students and researchers, regardless of their field or English proficiency, can easily comprehend and engage with your research.
4. Write concisely
Note that this article mentions “concise writing” several times. Avoid lengthy or needless descriptions and paragraphs, as nobody values them.
5. Use passive and active voice appropriately
In science writing, it is important to know when to use passive and active voice. Using active voice makes your writing more natural, direct, and engaging, and you should employ it when discussing widely accepted findings. The Introduction section should primarily employ active voice because it narrates “what is.” However, when discussing the results of a particular study, it’s advisable to use passive voice. In the Methods and Results sections, passive voice should be employed to describe what you did and what you found. In the Discussion section, a mixture of passive and active voice is acceptable, but take care not to mix the 2 together in a single sentence.
6. Select the most appropriate word
Selecting the appropriate words can be challenging. The best words accurately capture what the author is trying to convey. If a word is not sufficiently precise, use a thesaurus to replace the word or phrase with a more appropriate word. Precise words allow for specific, clear, and accurate expression. While science writing differs from literature in that it does not need to be colorful, it should not be boring.
7. Broaden your vocabulary
Use clear, specific, and concrete words. Expand your vocabulary by reading in a broad range of fields and looking up terms you don’t know.
8. Avoid filler words
Filler words are unnecessary words that are vague and meaningless or do not add to the meaning or clarity of the sentence. Consider the following examples: “it is”, “it was”, “there is”, and “there has been”, “it is important“, “it is hypothesized that“, “it was predicted that“, “there is evidence suggesting that“, “in order to”, and “there is a significant relationship“. All of these phrases can be replaced with more direct and clear language. See our list of words and phrases to avoid here.
9. Read what you write
Ensure you vary sentence length to maintain reader engagement and avoid a monotonous rhythm. However, don’t create excessively long or convoluted sentences that might hinder the reader’s comprehension. To enhance readability, consider reading the manuscript aloud to yourself after taking a break or having someone else review it.
10. Optimize paragraph and sentence structure
Each paragraph should present a single unifying idea or concept. Extremely long paragraphs tend to distract or confuse readers. If longer paragraphs are necessary, alternate them with shorter paragraphs to provide balance and rhythm to your writing. A good sentence allows readers to obtain critical information with the least effort.
Poor sentence structure interferes with the flow. Keep modifiers close to the object they are modifying. Consider the following sentence: “Systemic diseases that may affect joint function such as infection should be closely monitored.” In this example, “such as infection” is misplaced, as it is not a joint function, but rather a systemic disease. The meaning is more clear in the revised sentence: “Systemic diseases such as infection that may affect joint function should be closely monitored.”
11. Use transitions to control the flow
Sentences and paragraphs should flow seamlessly. Place transitional phrases and sentences at the beginning and end of the paragraphs to help the reader move smoothly through the paper.
12. Word repetition
Avoid repetitive use of the same word or phrase; opt for a more descriptive alternative whenever possible. Ensure that you do not sacrifice precision for variability. See our science-related Word Choice list here.
13. Improve readability with consistent formatting
Although in many cases it is no longer necessary to format your manuscript for a specific journal before peer review, you should pay attention to formatting for consistency. Use the same font size throughout; format headings consistently (e.g., bolded or not bolded, all uppercase or not, italicized or not); and references should be provided in an easy-to-follow, consistent format. Use appropriate subheadings in the Materials and Methods, and Results sections to help the reader quickly navigate your paper.
14. Use parallel construction to facilitate understanding
Your hypothesis, experimental measures, and results should be presented in the same order in the Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion, and Tables. Words or phrases joined by coordinating conjunctions (and, but, for, nor, or, so, and yet) should have the same form.
15. Maintain consistent use of labels, abbreviations, and acronyms
Measures and variable/group names and labels should be consistent in both form and content throughout the text to avoid confusing the reader.
16. Use abbreviations and acronyms to aid the reader
Only use abbreviations/acronyms to help the reader more easily understand the paper. Follow the general rule of utilizing standard, accepted abbreviations/acronyms that appear at least 3 times in the main text of the paper. Always ask yourself, “Does this benefit me or the reader?” Exceptions might be applicable for widely-used abbreviations/acronyms where spelling them out might confuse the reader.
17. Minimize pronoun use for clarity
Make sure every pronoun is very clear, so the reader knows what it represents. In this case, being redundant may contribute to the clarity. Don’t refer to ‘this’ or ‘that’ because it makes the reader go back to the previous paragraph to see what ‘this’ or ‘that’ means. Also, limit or avoid the use of “former” and latter”.
18. Read your writing out loud
To assess the rhythm and identify repetitive words and phrases both within and between sentences and paragraphs, read your final paper aloud. Frequently, you will encounter unnecessary words that can be removed or substituted with more suitable alternatives.
Remember, your writing is your chance to show the scientific world who you are. You want to present a scholarly, clear, well-written description of your interests, ideas, results, and interpretations to encourage dialogue between scientists. Change your goal from that of simply publishing your manuscript to that of publishing an interesting manuscript that encourages discussion and citation, and inspires additional questions and hypotheses due to its fundamental clarity to the reader.