Ten quick tips for improving your scientific writing

Writing is craft, and you improve your writing through some combination of osmosis–absorbing the talents of your favorite authors–practice, and the toolkit of rules you build as you go. As I work through the writing assignments of our new, very good, cohort of graduate students, I accumulated the following list of simple rules that will push your writing closer to the Big Leagues.  Yes I know, many are oldies but goodies, but they are so easy and easily learned, they are a gateway to quickly improving your writing. And, as David Foster Wallace once pointed out,

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth.

So on with the terrible truths.

  1. Avoid passive tense and always seek to use strong verbs.  Replace “x and y are predicted to increase…” with “I predict x and y will increase…”.     Replace “y is enhanced by x” with “x enhances y”. Replace “Two keys assumptions of the hypothesis are” with “The hypothesis assumes… “. See how the last one turned a noun into a (shorter) verb? Magic!
  2. Seek creative ways to say more with less. Replace “The aim of the current study is to provide insight as to…” with “This study aims to explore…”.  Use your word processors’ drop down syllabus to swap out 5-syllable words for 2-syllables words. Could you replace “facilitate” with “enhance”, and “utilization” with “use”? Please?
  3. Describe relationships precisely. Being specific often takes up no more space than being vague. Don’t say “x should influence y ” when you can say  “y will increase (or decrease) with x”.
  4. Search out redundancy and strike it out. Don’t use the same phrase or jargon over and over, within and between paragraphs. It really gets old, fast. This is especially true within a paragraph, where each unique sentence should fall, one after the other, to advance an argument.
  5. Don’t be vague.  Take pride in being as specific as you can. Every field of study has nouns that, in encompassing too much, mean almost nothing…or anything. In Ecology, don’t use “community structure” when you mean “frequency of different trophic levels”. Don’t say “elements of a landscape” when you mean “the slope, grass cover, or number of trees in a hectare”.  Don’t say “Human Habitat Modification”, when you mean the “percent of planted lawns, playgrounds, or houses in a in a hectare”. Readers *love* detail, and get frustrated when words are so soft and spongy they can’t be pinned down.
  6. When introducing a term or phrase that is vital to your argument, define it in a concise, memorable way. The words you least want to be vague are those that you depend on most for your argument. Yet for beginning writers those words are often like clouds of steam on a hot day. (Yeah, I’m just getting going here…). Writing clearly, as Michael Rosenzweig once wrote, is dangerous business; people might actually find out what you really mean.
  7. Use modifiers sparingly, especially when they relate to magnitude. It is enough to say you are working on a problem; you will not win anyone over by calling it a “huge” problem or an “important” problem.  Likewise, it is enough to say that “x should effect y”; you don’t have to say “x will strongly effect y”.
  8. Attributions are implied by the citation. Don’t say “Investigations found that”, or “Jones and Smith showed that”. Simply say what was found, followed by a citation (e.g., The sun rises in the east and sets in the west (Jones and Smith 2011)). That’s one of the lovely little shortcuts we have in the literature. Scientists get their props inside the parentheses.
  9. Replace “In order to…” with “To…”.  Yes, yes, yes.
If you, dear reader, have a number 10. I want to hear it.

7 Responses to Ten quick tips for improving your scientific writing

  1. Here are three additional advices, and one distinct version of your advice on references (I prefer seeing the names when it makes the sentence more fluid, but prohibit it in “[1] showed that”) , taken from my “Usefull text snaps for reviews” file:

    1 Use of references as names
    2 Self-citation:
    3 Repetitions:
    4 Bad coordination of notations

    1 Use of references as names

    You should not use references (e.g. [1]) as names (e.g. “[1] proved that (…)”), which require the reader to refer online to the end of the paper to know which result you are talking about. It is much easier for the reader if you use proper names, completed with the reference (e.g. “Knuth [1] was the first one to prove that (…)” or “Knuth was the first one to prove [1] that (…)”), or the specific result (e.g. “The Worst case Computational Complexity of Sorting is $\Theta(n\lg n)$ in instances of size $n$ [1]”).

    2 Self-citation:

    The balance is hard to reach between showing that you are a reference in the domain of your proposal, and risking to seem like the unique expert of the domain. You should avoid at all cost looking like just proposing to continue your PhD’s work because you do not know anything else.

    Sometime adding more motivation for your work, and references to other problems more broadly connected to your topic would help?

    3 Repetitions:

    Although repetitions are unavoidable, you should minimize the copy paste between your abstract, previous work, and body. Among others, definitions of basic terms are an obvious target. A solution to this is to explain informally the definition in your abstract and introduction, at distinct level of succinctness.

    4 Bad coordination of notations

    When a symbol is used for more than one concept (e.g. $\sigma$ is a permutation *and* an alphabet size). This often occurs as part of the evolution of the writing. One technical trick to avoid this in LaTeX is to define a command with an explicit name (e.g. \perturbation) for each notation (e.g. here, $\sigma$). This reports to the LaTeX compiler the task of checking that the notation has been defined and is used in a uniform way, and allows to update the notation easily if, later in the writing stage, this notation comes into conflict with another one (e.g. $\sigma$ is also used for the alphabet size): if the commands $\alphabetSize$ and $\perturbation$ are used in the text (instead of $\sigma$ in both cases), changing the notation requires a single change in the source of the document.

  2. […] View article: Ten quick tips for improving your scientific writing « Getting T… […]

  3. NS says:

    I’m going to ask that all of my grad students get this post, in its entirety, tattooed on their forearms.

    One of the pieces of advice I find myself giving over and over is that you should try to write like you talk, not like your high school English teacher taught you. Don’t get me wrong – I love Mrs Shepherd, and she had a huge influence on me. But it’s OK to start a sentence with “but.” And it’s OK to start sentences with “and.”

  4. […] Mike Kaspari lists Ten Quick Tips for Improving Your Scientific Writing. […]

  5. […] (typeof(addthis_share) == "undefined"){ addthis_share = [];}An interesting list. _DP [From Ten quick tips for improving your scientific writing « Getting Things Done in Academia] Comments […]

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