The Basics of Scientific Writing

Graduate Connections recently spoke with Dr. Rick Lombardo from the Office of Graduate Studies about scientific writing and his best advice for writing well. He's presented writing workshops to both academic and non-academic audiences for over 15 years and continues to share his knowledge and experience with students.

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GC: How is scientific writing different from other kinds of writing?

Scientific writing is not just writing about science; it is the technical writing that scientists do to communicate their research to others. Scientific writing is predicated on the rigors of scientific inquiry, so it must reflect the same precision as that demanded in the research process. Scientific communication demands precision (the precise use of words and phrases), clarity, and economy. This distinction is an important one because the writer is communicating highly technical information to others who might, or might not, be as knowledgeable; they may be from a different discipline; they may, or may not, be a native speaker of the language used. Many journals have international audiences, so precise communication helps prevent misunderstandings and mistranslations in other contexts. Communicating facts, figures, and methods used in research––as well as the description of the results––has to be precise and exact. The research question, hypotheses, methods, analysis, and conclusions must be stated clearly and simply.

GC: What does it mean to write clearly and precisely?

First, writers should focus on the words they use and their punctuation. Subtle differences in word choice or punctuation can have significantly different meanings. Here are a few examples:

  • In some fields, “de-stabilized” does not mean “not stable”; it means less stable than before.
  • The sentence “Isotopes, which were discovered in 1853, are radioactive,” reads as if all isotopes were discovered in 1853. What the writer intended to say, however, is that “The isotopes that were discovered in 1853 are radioactive.”
  • Instead of writing, “Our models worked well when compared with the calculated values, which is evidenced by the percent errors,” write, “As the percent errors indicate, our models worked well when compared with the calculated values.” In the revised version of this sentence, the meaning suddenly emerges.

Also, the organization of your writing is critical. The organization of a paper is logical, with rules for what goes into each section. Read papers from your particular discipline to understand the relevant rules. Briefly, your order of presentation should make the most sense to your reader. This is what is commonly referred to as “readablility.” If your reader has to work too hard to understand your meaning or your organization, you have a problem in your writing. In a Methods section, the description should be complete enough to enable someone else to repeat your work. Also, explain why each procedure was done, i.e., what variable were you measuring and why?

Remember, you’re not writing to impress. You’re writing to communicate.

GC: What strategies can you use to write clearly and concisely?

This is the point where scientific writing most noticeably resembles other types of writing. Logic and organization isn’t automatic. It doesn’t come naturally from your head to the paper. You need to step back and impose logic on your writing; you then need to crystallize it by always asking yourself this question: “Will this make sense to the reader?” It doesn’t matter if it makes sense to you. It must make sense to the reader. When you explain something to someone face-to-face, you have instant feedback; you can quickly tell if the person you’re talking to understands what it is you’re saying––they provide verbal or non-verbal feedback. You don’t have that luxury with writing. You have one chance.

And, of course, the first step in being logical is in the creation of an outline before you begin writing. Keep in mind, it’s easy to create an outline; the difficult part is stepping back from it to make certain it’s in a naturally logical order, with coordinate and subordinate ideas. This is the step that takes the greatest investment of time. And, if you don’t know this already, you should remember it: Every paragraph should have one topic sentence, not two or three. All sentences in a paragraph should support or elaborate upon what your topic sentence says you plan to discuss. You should be able to provide a rationale for why each sentence is placed where it is in each paragraph. All of your paragraphs should be logically organized around your section headings or sub-headings. You should have a rationale for where each paragraph is placed. You must maintain a natural logic that is accessible to the reader.

In general, good writers:

  • Use effective transitions between sections, paragraphs, sentences, and within sentences.
  • Use strong verbs and concrete nouns. Don’t start sentences with weak phrases like, “There are . . .“ or “In order to determine,” instead of “To determine.”
  • Always strive to make the implicit explicit. Just because you know what you meant to say does not mean your audience does.

One other suggestion: After you’ve written a section, step away from it for a day and return with a fresh eye. This will help you view your writing from the reader’s perspective.

GC: Why is it important to write well?

If you can’t clearly, concisely, and logically communicate how you collected and analyzed your data, it doesn’t matter how groundbreaking your research is. Readers won’t understand it and will justifiably question your results. However, if you can clearly explain your work, it will be understood by more people.

GC: What resources are available to help with graduate students' writing?

There are many great books on writing for academics. One book I like to recommend is Academic Writing for Graduate Students.

Another great resource is the university’s Writing Center. They are available to work with all students at the university, including graduate students, so don’t hesitate to seek them out if you would like help with your writing.

You can also form a writing group with other graduate students. Having someone else read and respond to your writing will help you catch places where the meaning is unclear. Also, revising and reviewing other people’s work can sometimes make you even better at identifying mistakes in your own work.

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