SJ's five tips for beginning science writers

SJ's little corner of the world

SJ's little corner of the world

Nothing is more frustrating than sending out a memo, or article, or paper and realizing that your reader has no idea what you're talking about! Science writing is a different beast from writing in other disciplines. Whether you're a great writer or have little command of the English language, it is possible for you to write excellent science papers, articles, and reports. 

In every job I've pursued, one thing that I've continued to learn, practice, and preach is how to be an amazing science writer. As a young scientist, I sent out plenty of documents that were full of errors - both grammatical and technical - and I vowed never to fall into that trap again! Here are five tips that will improve your writing instantly.

1. Always have at least one reviewer

Whether it's your lab partner, mom, supervisor, or colleague, you absolutely must get your writing reviewed. Preferably, you need a technical reviewer and a writing reviewer. Sometimes, those two traits are found in one person. At my second job as a chemist, we were required to send every report through the entire group I worked with. The first few reports came back to me full of edits and comments, and while I was kicking myself for not doing better, I was deeply grateful for the improvements made! NO MATTER HOW MANY TIMES you re-read and re-write and edit your own material, you cannot catch every mistake. You wrote it, so you know what you intended to say. If your document is full of errors, you're going to lose credibility, and credibility is hard to win back from your audience.

2. Simplify!

Henry David Thoreau famously said, "Our lives are frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify." In response, Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "One 'simplify' would have sufficed." I'm in Emerson's camp. In our liberal arts education, we've been trained to "pad" our writing - to shoot for word count by constructing complicated sentences full of modifiers and meaningless musings. In science writing, you want the clearest, most concise explanations you can muster. Don't use "utilize" when "use" will do. Don't use "utilization"... ever. Don't say, "much higher" when "higher" will do. Here's a great one: "In order to..." is often used instead of "To...." Compare these two paragraphs:

A) In order to determine the cause of the instrument's repeated failures to determine the concentration accurately (as compared with our standards), we carefully dismantled the instrument. We found that the instrument errors were due to the failure of a heating element at the back of the oven.
B) Quality control analysis showed instrument errors in concentration determination. Upon investigation, we found and replaced a faulty heating element.

Find your fluff words, and rewrite your sentences to eliminate them. Scientists are busy; don't waste their time with convoluted writing.

3. Use the royal "we"

I learned this rule at my first chemistry job. I wrote a very nice memo about a series of experiments I'd run, and it was entirely in passive voice. Somewhere along the line, I'd been told that the scientist(s) should never appear in technical reports. The sentences read something like, "The results were determined by addition of compound A into instrument B."

My supervisor read the report and told me to remove as much passive voice as I could. I re-wrote the report, and it was full of statements about me. "I added compound A into instrument B." My supervisor laughed and said, "Better, but now replace 'I' with 'we'."

"But I was the only person working on this; who's 'we'?"  

"There's always a 'we.' Now, you're a representative of the company and our group. Not only that, but you are part of the larger scientific community, and somebody else designed your instrument, the compound you're analyzing, etc..." Use the royal "we." 

4. "Just the facts, ma'am!"

As a teacher, my biggest pet peeve about student lab reports was that students are compelled to tell the reader how "interesting" the data are, or how "fun" the experiment was. Stop it. "This was an interesting result" is not a description of anything scientific; it's a description of the scientist's mental state. Unless your reader is a psychologist analyzing the effects of experimental processes on the psyche of the scientist, nobody cares. Your reader wants to know what the data mean in the real world - is sample A different from sample B? What does your result mean for future experiments? For the scientific community?

Okay, rant over. 

5. Follow the rubric

Rubric: a guide listing specific criteria for grading or scoring academic papers, projects, or tests

Whether you're a student or a professional, there's always some sort of rubric for your writing. If there isn't one, either ask for one, find one online, or create your own. (And, as a professional, if you think there's not a "grade" or "score' for your writing, think again.)

When you're writing for publication in a scientific journal, following the rubric takes on even more meaning. Every publication has a style guide you must follow. In addition to their own style requirements, they will provide you the name of the professional style guide to follow for formatting of citations an such. For example, many chemical publications use the ACS (American Chemical Society) style guide. Other publications may use the APA (American Psychological Society) style guide, even if the submitted papers are unlikely to be about psychology.

Now, get to writing!

Science writing is different from other types of writing, but in many ways it is easier. As long as you follow the criteria you're given, stick to the facts, acknowledge the scientific community, simplify, and get help, your writing can improve overnight. Check back here every Wednesday for more ideas to help you grow as a science writier!

Which of these five guidelines do you find most helpful? Which will be the hardest for you to accomplish?

Photo credit: SJSmith