Ten easy tips for better science writing

As you may be aware, reading science papers can be difficult. Language is verbose and cluttered, the vocabulary is full of jargon, and trying to make sense of it can make your head hurt. I feel that way and I spend my life reading research papers, so I can’t even imagine how non-scientists feel when they attempt to read primary literature. Actually, I can, because I remember being confused as hell reading papers as an undergraduate. This has led some reputable scientists to explain why most written science is difficult to follow. Of course, other equally reputable scientists had some alternative ideas. I actually agree with Dr. Gelman, author of the blog in the second link. It isn’t just most science writing that stinks (to use Dr. Pinker’s phrasing). Most writing stinks in general. Writing is hard. I’ve spent years honing my skills and they still aren’t great. Here are a few simple tips, in no particular order, I’ve picked up on how to write a clear and understandable research paper.

  1. Write in the active voice. As an undergraduate, I learned that science was to be written in the passive voice at all times (I did that on purpose). I’ve learned as a PhD. student that passive voice is boring and slow. Write actively wherever possible; it’s more engaging and interesting. For example, reword the first sentence of this paragraph: ‘As an undergraduate in the sciences, I learned to write in passive voice at all times’. Much better.
  2. First person is fineI also learned in undergrad never to use first person. This archaic rule has fallen completely out of style. Feel free to say ‘I did this’ or ‘We did that’. If you have co-authors, always use ‘we’ even if you did all the physical work. Often your co-authors (see advisors) had a stronger guiding influence than you suspect.
  3. Delete the word ‘the’. ‘The’ has to be one of the most overused words in writing. Read your sentence multiple times, both with and without ‘the’. See if it reads just as clearly without it, then delete it. This is a BIG one.
  4. Delete the words ‘of’ and ‘that’. Same as above. Don’t write ‘even if you did all of the physical work’. Instead, write ‘even if you did all the physical work’. Sounds better, simpler, more active. Instead of ‘a few tips that I’ve picked up’, try ‘a few tips I’ve picked up’.
  5. Use as few words as possible. I think this is good advice for giving public presentations, writing, and talking in general. Don’t write ‘small changes in temperature’ when ‘small temperature changes’ will do.
  6. Know what ‘As such’ really means. Please look this up, because this has to be pretty high on the list of misused phrases. ‘As such’ commonly appears as a transition, e.g. “Temperatures increase metabolic rates. As such, growth and respiration increase as well”. That is wrong. As such’ directly refers to the subject of the previous sentence, e.g. “I am a Phd. candidate. As such, I’ll be unemployed as soon as I graduate”. If you’re confused, replace ‘As such’ with the subject or description from the previous sentence, “As a PhD. candidate, I’ll be unemployed as soon as I graduate’. If it works, you’ve used ‘As such’ correctly. If not, try a different word. ‘Accordingly’ is good, but make sure your paper isn’t covered with ‘Accordingly’s.
  7. It’s OK to start sentences with ‘However’ and ‘Therefore’. Technically it isn’t (another rule I learned as an undergraduate). However, for impact, I prefer it. First, the technically correct way: “I agree with my advisor on most things. I find, however, that I strongly disagree with him on others.’ Second: “I agree with my advisor on most things. However, I strongly disagree with him on others”. I like the second one better, it gets the point across.
  8. Check your paragraphs. The first sentence of a paragraph is the intro. The last is the outro. You should be able to remove everything in between and get your major point across. The stuff in the middle is just details. Try it with the lead-in paragraph to this post. If you can’t remove the middle without sacrificing several important points, then you have too many main ideas in one paragraph.
  9. Following from #8, keep paragraphs short. Good god, please don’t write a page-long paragraph. Get your point across quickly.
  10. Most importantly, use short and simple sentences. My PhD. advisor is king of this, and it works very well. Write like Hemmingway. You don’t need to show off your incredible vocabulary or complex, Faulknerian trains of thought. Save that for the Archer fan fiction you keep in binders on your shelf. The stuff you want people to understand needs to be written clearly and concisely in simple language.

Honorable Mentions: COMMA SPLICING! Please cut down on commas. I reviewed a number of papers of both friends and anonymous authors and people like to put commas everywhere. Only put them where they belong. Also, write with a dog on your lap. A dog on the lap makes everything better.