18 Tips to Improve Your Science Writing
Communicating your experimental findings with others is your most important task as a scientist. You may make critical observations, develop ingenious hypotheses, design innovative experiments, and make important and novel discoveries – but if you cannot communicate your ideas and achievements to your colleagues, your career as a scientist will be at a standstill.
At the University of California in Irvine in the early 90s, my research led me to a citation that seemed like it might be highly relevant to my work. Unfortunately, after going to great lengths to obtain the original paper from an obscure journal, I was unable to understand the paper despite it being written in English, which was not the author’s native tongue. I couldn’t understand enough of the paper to confirm the accuracy of the cited information, leading me to search for this paper. Several attempts to contact the authors failed. In the end, I was unable to refer to their work in my own papers because, while the title and topic seemed applicable, I could not confirm that the research or findings were indeed relevant. The ability to write well is critical to a scientist’s success. The ability to speak English well does not necessarily translate to the ability to write English well, even for native speakers. Great writing and editing skills develop with experience and guidance. All the writing experience in the world will not make you a better writer in the absence of writing assessment or guidance. Conversely, all the assessment and guidance in the world will not make you a better writer unless you take the time to write.
Science writing should be clear and concise, but rules of general writing also apply to science writing. The following list contains suggestions to improve and strengthen your writing skills:
- Organize your thoughts, ideas, and action in a logical manner. Begin with sufficient background information to take your reader along the pathway from your observations or understanding to your hypothesis. Describe the context of 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.
- Provide clear descriptions. Repeating the background or concepts may be necessary when the concept is complicated. You may need to explain the concept from different viewpoints. Start simple and then advance the complexity only as far as necessary to get the concept across. Consider your audience as you write. Are you are writing for a general audience or a specialized audience? Will your audience understand the terms of art (i.e., phrases or words common to your particular field of study) or concepts that underlie your field and your research, or is some prior explanation needed? Keep your explanations simple.
- Simplify your word choices. Use simple straightforward language. Your manuscript will be read by students and researchers alike – make it easy for them to understand and care about your research even if they are not in your field or are not proficient in English.
- Write concisely. Note that “concise writing” is mentioned several times in this article. Science writing must be concise. No one appreciates long and or unnecessary descriptions or paragraphs. Use simple and direct language.
- Use passive and active voice appropriately. In science writing, it is important to know when to use passive and active voice. Active voice is more natural, direct, and engaging, and should be used when referring to widely accepted findings. The Introduction section should mainly be written in an active voice, because you are telling the story of “what is”. When referring to the findings of a specific study, however, passive voice should be used. In the Methods and Results sections, passive voice should be used to discuss 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 two together in a single sentence.
- Select the appropriate words. 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.
- Broaden your vocabulary. Use clear, specific, and concrete words. Expand your vocabulary by reading in a broad range of fields and look up terms you don’t know.
- 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.
- Read what you write. Make sure to vary sentence length to keep the reader from getting lulled to sleep by a monotonous rhythm. Do not, however, make overly long or complicated sentences that hinder the reader’s ability to follow your story. Reading the manuscript yourself after some time away or having someone else read the manuscript will help you to refine the readability.
- 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 clear in the revised sentence: “Systemic diseases, such as infection, that may affect joint function should be closely monitored.”
- 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.
- Word repetition: Avoid using the same word or phrase over and over when another more descriptive word or phrase could be used. Ensure that you do not sacrifice precision for variability. See our science-related Word Choice list here.
- 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; headings should be 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Use abbreviations and acronyms to aid the reader. Only use abbreviations/acronyms to help the reader more easily understand the paper. A general rule of thumb is to use only standard, accepted abbreviations/acronyms that are used at least three times in the main text of the paper. Whenever using an abbreviation/acronym, ask yourself “Does this help me or the reader?” Exceptions may apply for those abbreviations/acronyms that are so commonly used that spelling them out might confuse the reader.
- 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, making 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”.
- Read your writing out loud. Read your final paper out loud to check the rhythm, find words and phrases that are repeated too many times within and between sentences and paragraphs. You will often find words that are unnecessary and can be completely eliminated or replaced with alternative word choices.
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 inspires additional questions and hypotheses due to its fundamental clarity to the reader.