A few tips for scientific writing

A clearly written message, concise, coherent.
A clearly written message, concise, coherent.

Many of us also have not been able to enjoy a course on academic writing, yet are being asked in our line of work to write clear and beautiful scientific prose. Unfortunately, whenever I get a paper to review, I find myself having to repeat myself on the topic of style. Therefore, it may be of some use to give my short list of hints and tips to write science more beautifully.

A clearly written message, concise, coherent.
A clearly written message, concise, coherent.

In order to write more clearly, regular small exercises are needed along with a healthy dose of (self-)criticism. Indeed, this whole blog is part of an ongoing effort to improve writing, an effort unlikely to ever be completed. Exercise, starting small, and criticism are key. But I did learn a couple of things on the way.

I cannot teach you to write better, but it is possible to lists some points that may serve as a very short summary of style. This may hopefully help in identifying and fixing potential weak spots. They are:

  1. Have something to say. Don’t just fill paragraphs to fill up space. This is something that becomes very obvious very rapidly in introductions, when authors just won’t stop talking about potential future applications of their research. We get it, it is cool research, and we can appreciate it as such. There is no need to claim that it will cure cancer and revolutionize computing. Don’t do that. Tell me something new, tell me what you did, tell me why you care.
  2. Every paragraph should contain one message, one idea. A paragraph well written (i.e. using paragraph style) starts with a summarizing sentence posing the central message, and ends with a segue into the next paragraph. The middle of the paragraph contains an expansion or clarification of the central message, and so, each paragraph is a mini-essay in itself. It may help to set up paragraphs by writing the first sentence, the last sentence, followed by the clarification in the middle.
  3. Every paragraph must have a purpose in the narrative, i.e. a collection of paragraphs has to lead somewhere. If you follow the paragraph style mentioned above, paragraph A will automatically lead into paragraph B, which leads into paragraph C, etc. This means that…
  4. …You must know where your story is going, you must make a plan (one that goes beyond “Introduction, problem setting, experimental, results and discussion, conclusion”). The worst is when your paragraphs lead you somewhere you didn’t intend to go leading you to bend them back to the topic at hand. Make a plan that states what you are going to discuss (and what can be omitted), where you will discuss it, and where it will lead.
  5. Finally, go back and edit the crap out of every paragraph. Really do treat each paragraph separately, make sure it says what it needs to say efficiently and coherently. I usually re-read every sentence in every paragraph in a scientific article about five times, to ensure everything is perfect. I am not quite so strict with blog posts, but I do re-read at least thrice.
  6. If you want to demonstrate your masterly English locution, make damn sure that you check the meaning of the words. I always keep a dictionary at hand in which I double-check every odd word. For example, right now I wanted to base the sentence on “verbiage” instead of “locution”, only to see its meaning differed slightly from that which was intended. Use sparingly.
  7. Make sure you are familiar with logical fallacies, so that you can identify them in your own texts (as well as the texts of other people). A useful summary of logical fallacies is Madsen Pirie’s “How to win every argument: the use and abuse of logic”. Education in logical fallacies has, unfortunately, been lacking in my university program, but should be a standard addition to the scientists’ toolbox.
  8. Simplify sentences by moving sentence sections around. Don’t, like what is often seen, in particular in the introduction, separate what is important, such as the subject from the action, by using an enormous amount of interspersed sentences. Play around with reorganizing sentences to minimize the amount of required commas, and you will see its structure improve automatically as a result.

Based on the advice above, one strategy is to start by writing the conclusions: That way you have set the end goal, and you know where the story is going. Next, you write only the first sentence of every paragraph in the introduction. These sentences should lead nicely into the topic by themselves. Then you write the rest of the paragraphs, making sure to lead the end of each paragraph into the next. Before you know it, you are done.

You will also find, when your document is taking shape, that you have sentences or even complete paragraphs which are unnecessary. Paragraphs that you can delete from the story without punishment. If so, do so. Besides those, these days I often find excessive words in my sentences, circling the point of the sentence in a sort of vague, wishy-washy way, like grease circling the drain, failing to cement the core message. Get rid of those words, leave only beauty.

Good luck!

More tips can be found here, and here is an amazing section on paragraphs, and another one on sentence structure. A quick note of thanks to my informal teachers of the (long) past, in particular Dr. N. Adams and Dr. E. A. Klop, who have taken large chunks of their time to assist me in fine-tuning my writing.

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