Ten lessons about writing that every scientist should learn…

Yesterday, I spent the day at the horse races, taking in the pomp and pageantry of the biggest stakes card of the year. I find the racetrack fascinating, and not just in that girlish horse-crazy sense. For starters, it’s the only place I know where it is normal to see small men wearing outrageous colors and women wearing birds on their heads. Second, I love the wordplay of the racing form, with horse names like Two Horn Unicorn, Tiny Giant, We Taught Ed, and the perennial long shot, Sir Sits A Lot.

But while the word bending usually tickles my writer bone, there are limits. Take, for instance, Meagans Princesses, whose crimes against grammar stopped my wager at the gate. I could almost forgive the missing possessive-forming apostrophe, but the plural princess just didn’t fly. My friends were appalled that I rejected a 2-1 favorite on grammatical grounds, but I guess that’s why I’m a writer and not a handicapper. I can’t help myself.  To some, it’s just a missing apostrophe. To me, it’s a shot heard ‘cross the page.

OK, so maybe I’m a tad obsessed, but it doesn’t stop at the racing form. Scientific writing is full of such shots. Sometimes the sentences are so tangled and twisted and jargon-filled that they don’t carry any real meaning. It’s dead writing.

You know the kind I’m talking about.  Here is one of my recent favorites from an article on aquaculture:

It is, however, ironic that even to date, food fish species that feed  lower in the food chain predominate in global aquaculture, even though  for numerous reasons in most quarters aquaculture is seen as a sector  that is predominantly confined to a few high-valued commodities such as  salmonids and shrimp.

Translation:  Although most people think global aquaculture is confined to a few high-value commodities like salmon and shrimp, other fish species are actually more prevalant.

I love this example because it illustrates so many common sins of scientific writing:  1) the lengthy but meaningless transitional phrase (It is, however, ironic that even to date); 2) stacked qualifiers (for numerous reasons in most quarters); 3) passive voice (aquaculture is seen as a sector); 4) repetition of similar words, one of which is an unnecessary adverb (predominate/predominantly); and 5) the overall length of the sentence (50 words).

I see sentences like this every day, and they frustrate me because I know they are written by bright people whose ideas and insights deserve better.  These are often people who would rather volunteer to fill tip boxes for a month than volunteer to write an extra paper.  And who can blame them?  We’ve probably all been scarred by the high-school English curriculum, in which the lone goal is for students to learn how to write the “perfect essay” in under two hours.  Given that kind of pressure, I’d hate writing too.  Let’s just break the myth right now:  the perfect two-hour essay doesn’t exist.

Now, moving on…

Here’s what you really need to know about writing in science:

1) It’s all about the reader. That’s right.  All that jazz you learned in undergrad labs about it being about the “results” is nonsense. Sure, the purpose of writing about science is to communicate results, but the operative word here is communicate. Communication only occurs if your audience receives the message – so it’s not just about what you write; it’s about what they read.

2) Respect the reader’s time. Readers are busy people. If you want them to get your message, you have to make it easy for them.  Don’t waste their time, and don’t make them work too hard at it.  I often recommend William Zinsser’s book, “On Writing Well,” to my colleagues, not only because it offers excellent, common-sense advice about writing, but also because Zinsser’s own style is such a pleasure to read.

3) Don’t drive the reader off a cliff. I often tell students that writing is like giving someone directions. The information has to flow in a logical order from point A to point B, so that the reader can follow along without making a wrong turn or falling off a cliff.  Every sentence needs to convey an idea, and that idea should lead to the next, and so on. Back in high school, you probably learned about writing “thesis statements”,  and you probably hated it.  Fair enough.  But when you begin a sentence, or a paragraph, or a whole paper, you need to give your reader a glimpse of where you are going, and then deliver on it.

4) Tell the reader what time it is, not how the watch works. As scientists, we have a knack for detail, and sometimes, we get lost in it. It is rarely necessary to give a comprehensive history of your subject in order to set the context for your particular study. When writing background information for introductory sections, focus on the most relevant ideas that build up to your hypothesis. You don’t have to tell the whole story – just the part that is important to your work.  This is related to my previous point – if you’re drawing someone a map, you’re not going to give them a complete history of the convenience store they’re going to pass on their way through town. Instead, you’re going to tell them where it’s located and which way to turn when they get there.

5) Make sure every word does its job. You know what’s the best part of being a writer?  You’re the boss. The words work for you. And if they’re not working, you can go all Gordon Ramsay on them and throw them the **** out of the kitchen.  Every word should contribute some meaning to the sentence, every sentence to the paragraph, and every paragraph to the whole.  Kick adverbs and take names.  Have no mercy.

6) Write one word at a time.  This is just a rephrasing of rule 5. When you write, and especially when you re-write, pay attention to each word. Make sure that it conveys the intended meaning.  William Brohaugh’s book, “Write Tight” has some good examples of words that should go on the chopping block.  (Though, I must confess, I’m not a big fan of the book – when it took 60 pages to describe “16 types of wordiness”, all I could think was “Please, write tighter!!”)  At the top of the list in scientific papers:  “Due to the fact that…” (just say “because”), “Our observations showed that…” (just say “We observed that…”), “It is interesting to note that…” (Just note it.).

7) It’s not the size of your words, it’s how you use them.  This isn’t Scrabble.  There are no extra points for using every letter at your disposal.  It’s OK to use short words.  And while you’re at it, ditch pretentious phrases like “the aforementioned results…”

8) Read your work aloud.  We read with our eyes and our ears.  When you read your work aloud, you’ll catch all sorts of things your eyes miss. You’ll feel it immediately when you stumble over a phrase, or when you run out of breath because a sentence is too long.

9) Take a break.  When you’re finished writing a draft, put it away for at least an hour, preferably a day or longer, before you revise. Good writing often takes several drafts, and there are no shortcuts.

10) Read.  Read everything.  Read good writing.  Read bad writing.  Read the cereal box.  When you read scientific papers, read in different disciplines.  Read historical papers (see my previous post about the simplicity of older scientific papers). Develop an ear for language – for  grammar, style, and structure. Get a sense of what works and what doesn’t, and then try to understand why.

And now, on a lighter note,  I’ll leave you with a few more examples of poor grammar “in the wild” – in case you thought that the racing form example at the beginning was just too obsessive.

Many people use this microwave. Please be sure to clean up all the messes in the microwave as soon as it happens!

How many messes are there, exactly?  And if “messes” are plural, why is “it” singular?

Gilled chicken breat

Yum, gilled chicken breat. Is this some kind of waterfowl we haven’t heard about?

"...reduces the energy consumption used."

Redundant much? This might as well say “reduces the energy use used.” Yikes.

105 responses

  1. Great post dude.
    I’m not sure I agree with the whole read EVERYTHING though. Reading bad writing isn’t the best idea i reckon. Even if it doesn’t do anything bad to your own writing it is time that could be spent reading Hemiway or other good stuff.

    But great post none the less.

    1. I think a writer can often learn more from “bad writing” than from good writing. It’s easy to take good writing for granted, and just gloss over it without considering what makes it “good.” With bad writing, the problems are there in front of you. You can see what went wrong. Developing an eye for what doesn’t work is very useful as a writer, because very little of what we write comes out perfect on the first try.

  2. Wow. This couldn’t be more timely for me…

    I’m currently editing about 12 stories from engineers for a college magazine. It’s so bizarre to me: I totally understand what they’re trying to say, but WHY must they make every sentence a paragraph? WHY must they use huge words instead of smaller, more layman-friendly terms?

    I’m already impressed by their level of intelligence just based on the research and the degree. Big paragraphs and words will NOT impress me more!

    Great post. Great tips. I only hope the scientists will read…

    :)

  3. Yes, yes, yes!! I can’t tell you just how much I appreciate this article; more people ought to read it and then have to write it out, word for word, in order to REALLY understand it!

    Also, I couldn’t agree more with your statement, “I see sentences like this every day, and they frustrate me because I know they are written by bright people whose ideas and insights deserve better.” Brilliant.

    Kudos to you for being Freshly Pressed! :D

  4. Number 4 is a really good tip. Actually I liked all of them.. awesome post and congrats!

    Edwin

  5. Congratulations on Freshly Pressed. You might enjoy some of our science writing articles at the Promega Connections blog. We’ve been longing for clear writing, active verbs and no bloat for a while now. We feel your pain.

  6. You know I think the same thing goes for those who write fiction! I was given the same advice from and old writer of crime novels. Wise words indeed.

  7. Thanks for your article.
    And you’re right: writing isn’t easy. It is very important for those who like to transport a message which another should understand as the author does. Unfortunately, profit reasons in companies and difficult financial situations are a bad basis for well written texts. The same problem occurs in the media or signs like those you’ve posted here.
    I recommend Tim Skern’s “Writing Scientific English” for those who like to write English in a comprehensible manner. This book helped me a lot.
    And, finally, if you like to understand WHY scientists should transport their messages in a way that enables others to understand them, read

    http://globalsocietyblog.wordpress.com/2011/08/15/the-scientific-method/

    Kind regards,
    Fl’âme

    1. Hi Fl’ame,

      Thanks for the link and the book recommendation – I’ll check them out!

      C.

  8. Congrats for being Freshly Pressed! I’m a grad student and highly appreciate advice on good technical writing. I see too many people looking up more obscure words to mean something simple just to sound smart. Such inefficiency seems against science!

  9. Great writing advice for anybody writing in any field! I work in marketing/communications and we have it hammered into us that it’s about the audience–always.

  10. Your post is very similar to the advice I gave to a sociologist when I was editing the sociologist’s Ph.D. thesis. In my experience, I find scientists in physics, biology, chemistry and the earth sciences tend to take the advice, but not those in the humanities or liberal arts. Any ideas why this is so?

    1. My theory: People in the sciences are not expected to be good writers, nor to read for pleasure, so they don’t mind so much being guided. People in the humanities are expected to read widely and to write well, so have more ego invested. It used to be that most historians were excellent writers, but when history got away from narrative and into metatheories of various sorts, their writing became technical and clotted and sometimes just plain horrible (yes, I know, I can’t actually blame a whole field, but I’m generalizing in order to make a point). That’s my theory, anyway. I’ve edited across fields for years and have had the same kinds of experience you mention.

      1. Thanks, Sarah. Just as I thought. I just wanted to see if anyone here has the roughly the same thoughts or observations that I have – and your words reflect my line of thinking very succinctly. I’ve been an editor for 32 years before I switched to being a printer (apart from the fact that I’m also a non-practising lawyer) – and quality of life just improved now that I don’t have to edit anything!

      2. I haven’t done a lot of writing and editing in the humanities, so I can’t really weigh in on the comparison, but I think you might be on to something with this theory. Interesting!

  11. Hey, this is a great post, the whole proverbial package. All concise and no-nonsense, these points apply to all writing, but i understand the focus on scientific literature. Any writer worth their salt ought to appreciate this common sense approach to writing since similar to performing artists, we are but slaves to our audiences.

    Very interesting post, great tone and approach, not to mention a really fun intro.

    Gratz on getting Freshly Pressed!

  12. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.

    Very practical points for writers from all walks of life. Particularly #5. I have read that Ernest Hemingway edited out as many words as he could from Old Man and the Sea. He defied anyone to find a word in the finished product that was not essential to the story.

    I’m going to print out your tips and use them for my nursing students, with your permission, of course.

    1. As long as you include a link to the original post acknowledging its source, feel free to pass this on to your students – I hope they find it helpful!

  13. Your point about scientific writing being primarily about communication is so valid, and so underappreciated. This is of course true for any type of writing, but somehow otherwise intelligent people seem to forget about it when it comes to science topics.

    Having a clear narrative focus, and a message, to your writing makes it more engaging and convincing than an incoherent babble of results. This doesn’t mean compromising one’s scientific rigour; it just means having an opinion that you feel is supported by data.

  14. [...] author is specifically speaking to scientists, but her advice would be well headed by all writers. Ten lessons about writing that every scientist should learn… Share this:EmailFacebookTwitterPrintLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was [...]

  15. Congratulations on being “freshly pressed.” I stumbled across your blog and love it. I read just a few posts and look forward to reading more. I am the communications person at a small oceanographic research lab. Your posts have touched very close to where I live. Keep up the good work.

  16. Very good writing advice. The thing is, some people cant help writing with big words since they’ve acquired a large vocabulary because they’re well read. They might use these words the same way they understand them and wouldn’t see anything wrong with doing that. It is left to people like you I guess to somehow point out this issue to these intelligent people so they better their writing. You could do it in class perhaps :-)

  17. I have recently read an article by some university professors, all experts in language and communication, about the “bureaucratization” of Serbian language (I am Serbian, by the way) especially in science and politics.
    And I have to tell you they agree with you on almost everything.
    One of the main reasons they named was actually “trying to sound smarter while not saying anything at all”.
    I guess what I’m trying to say is-nice article!

  18. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

    (#3) What is wrong with the passive voice? Would active voice make more sense in this sentence?

    P.S. Why are you so worried about the way academics write? The stuff that they write is usually read by their parents/spouses and their peers/competition. Maybe by the adviser (advisor if you are from Purdue University) if the adviser is not too busy reading and assigning her/his own stuff ;-)

    1. The problem with passive voice is that it tends to be wordier. “The ball was caught by the dog,” is wordier than “The dog caught the ball.” In science, there are places where passive voice is useful for creating a sense of objectivity, but I think it has to be used with intention.

  19. Your post reminds me of the quote from Thoreau, “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” As an aspiring copywriter I will take this advice and put it into practice!

  20. Congrats on being “freshly pressed!” The humor in this post is great! It’s well thought out and lovely to read. I love your writing style!

  21. Haha!
    this is briliant!
    i love it, you get you’re point across in a humerous way but straight forward.

    Cheers,
    Arjun Kay

    http://arjunsmind.wordpress.com/

  22. Wow, what a great comprehensive list! So far I only skimmed through it but you made some important points many casual writers don’t think about, specifically 1, 2, 4, and 5. Thank you for your informative post:)

  23. Congrats on getting FP :)
    Lovely Post.
    Unique.
    http:photogirl23.wordpress.com
    Amy

  24. Why is it we don’t learn this stuff to students before they hit university? It’s not only important for them to know how to write an academic paper well, the same skills will be useful to them in the rest of their careers. Take me. I haven’t written a scientific paper in fourteen years, but your advice is applicable to everything I write. Daily.

  25. very awesome. I once had the honor of teaching Plant Ecology at San Francisco State University and my students had to write scientific papers presenting field experiments we did as a class. I dropped the third paper, and instead required them to rewrite their first two papers based on extensive edits I made for them. I tried to emphasize the sort of things you are talking about.

    Teaching writing is challenging. It is a hard thing to learn, if it does not come naturally.

  26. Haha. Thanks for the tips!

  27. It’s not just scientists who need this advice. Homi K. Bhabha, one of the most significant English literary theorists of the 20th century, writes like this:

    If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.

    That sentence won him second place in a competition to find the worst scholarly writing.

    1. Yikes! I think that one definitely takes the cake – thanks for sharing! I wonder what won first place…?

  28. Thank goodness someone is standing up for the readers! Ever since elementary school, we were told to read and comprehend what the writer writes, and if we didn’t comprehend it, something was wrong with us. Sometimes, it’s the writer’s damn fault and he shouldn’t try to go out of his way and impress us with big/scary words to make himself sound smart.

  29. Is this true for mathematics writing as well? Great post.

  30. Thanks for telling, it is useful info

  31. I agree with most of your post,especially number 5. I’ve always made sure ever word fit just right whenever I wrote my novels. I rate your post 4 stars.

  32. Great post! Your point about scientists who’d rather stuff pipette tip boxes rather than write is so true, as is the part about results section being overhyped. I’ve read many papers that fail to set up the questions/topic in a clear and interesting way. Or, in your words, drop their readers off a cliff.

  33. i recall reading some scientific writings throughout college. not just text books, but non-fiction literature. and you’re right…some sentences i had to read three times over, and still could not grasp what they were saying. it reminds me of when people attempt to speak at an intellectually superior level, but it might as well go in one ear and out the other. it’s not that people are too stupid to understand, it’s just that they spend so much time focused on vocabulary they forget about the message and the ability to communicate that message.

  34. I got a science degree, then I had to relearn how to write when I entered the business world. “Tell the reader what time it is, not how the watch works.” So true.

    Really great post!

  35. I rather disagree with your entire premise. “Dumbing down” the writing can be quite boring to read.

    If big words frighten you, stay in school. Maybe someday you will appreciate language, including words with more than two syllables.

    1. Hi Tim,

      Thanks for visiting! I think it is possible to strive for greater clarity without “dumbing” anything down. Science doesn’t need dumbing down, and I’m all for challenging people with new ideas and even new vocabulary – I trust that readers are smart enough to understand anything we put in front of them, provided we do it in an engaging way.

      C.

    2. How can you disagree with the entire premise that writing should be concise, clear, and engaging? It isn’t that nobody should ever use big words, but that big words shouldn’t be jammed into a piece of writing simply to look smart. As this writer says, it’s all about audience. I can communicate or I can talk over their heads. I’ve got a pretty big vocabulary, but there’s no point in using it in situations where I want people to understand what I’m saying and I’m fairly certain that those words aren’t part of their vocabularies. Since I’m in no position to send them back to school, it’s up to me to make sure my ideas get across.

      This is important in any field, but it seems particularly important in the sciences today. If you want to get beyond a specialized audience, even a well-educated, big-word-friendly reader needs a bit of leading. In addition, so many people are scientifically illiterate and even hostile toward anything they don’t understand, and suspicious of scientists as snobs who are just trying to pull the wool over their eyes, that it really is important to get them involved and interested.

      OK, I’ve probably gone off-topic and that last sentence wasn’t too great, so I’ll quit while I’m ahead!

  36. I took a business writing course in 1992 – via work – to beef up my ‘grant writing skills’

    I came away from that course believing the only grants given are those where every rule you listed is broken.

    Your rules are better! LOL

  37. thank you, thank you, thank you for making me laugh! …and also for the tips. I’ll be sure to give number 9 a try some time. i am admittedly impatient. so this, alas.. is not my forte. but, here’s to the perennial effort.

    ps. don’t be disgusted by my grammar. i just don’t feel like pressing shift right now. :)

    cheerio!

  38. This is definitely something useful … Thanks for sharing!

  39. Nice post! When I was in college, a professor posted this sign about scientific writing:

    The wrong way – “The biota exhibited a 100% mortality response.”
    The right way – “All the fish died.”

    He taught me how to write…everything.

  40. All these rules show some excellent insight into what makes good writing readable.

    When I’m writing about science (or about anything newsy) I think of my article as a conversation with the reader – I ask myself how I’d explain the topic to him or her if we were just chatting about it.

    This quote is such a cliche, but it’s so true: “If you can’t explain [something] simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” -Einstein

  41. Thanks a lot
    hard job and nice article

  42. I took time out learn from you here. I started to write when I was already old for a good start. I’ve been writing from heart so I guess sometimes mine looks defiant to how things should be written :-)

    Nice post, really, this one.

  43. Hello! I’m a brazilian student and your tips on writing well were just what I needed to make my thesis better. Thank you!

    (PS. Do you mind if I translate the post and publish it on my blog?)

    tks!

    1. Hi Feanari,

      If you want to translate it, please include a link to my original post and send me a link to your translated post when it’s up. I hope your readers find it useful!

      C.

  44. Hi There!

    Great post! It was a wonderful read :) I agree with most of the points you made, but I feel that it could be applicable for all types of writing, not just scientific papers.

    There are very few science papers that are straightforward and easy to read, in fact, I struggled in my undergrad years trying to decode a paper and hoping that the results section is easier to read than the hypothesis. I think there should be courses emphasized in how science papers should be written. Have you ever taken a general chem class? or an ochem bio classes? They beat this jargon-filled typed of writing into your head. Then I think it becomes hard for scientists to tell it like it is.

  45. “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”
    Said Hawthorne

    Fat-free writing, that’s where the slough separates form the living tissue – and the living tissue becomes the writing. (Hmmph, I may recycle that).

    Well done.

  46. In my case, I can easily detect errors in the sentence written by others but I couldn’t detect any error in my own writing.

    1. One trick that helped one of my friends was to read your own writing out loud. You can even do the punctuation in the style of Victor Borge.
      Another trick is to go from last page to first page. This works when looking for spelling and punctuation errors only, but is known to help.

  47. Unfortunately the plague of poor English is not limited to science and signs. When I was in university an English grad student remarked to me that grammar “limited” communication as she believed dictionary definitions and traditional grammar were archaic and unimportant.
    I could not have disagreed more.
    Thank you for your post defending learned English – I only wish the school curriculum would take note!

  48. [...] Yesterday, I spent the day at the horse races, taking in the pomp and pageantry of the biggest stakes card of the year. I find the racetrack fascinating, and not just in that girlish horse-crazy sense. For starters, it's the only place I know where it is normal to see small men wearing outrageous colors and women wearing birds on their heads. Second, I love the wordplay of the racing form, with horse names like Two Horn Unicorn, Tiny Giant, We Ta … Read More [...]

  49. We can teach this for our child when they still be in high school, this is definitely something useful for them in future… Thanks for sharing!

  50. Good article. I agree with most of your points, although as a scientist myself I have to say that I sympathise with the rest of my colleagues who are a little more communication-ally challenged. I think there are two main reasons why scientists write like they do: (1) no one’s told them otherwise (it’s not like the editors or other scientists are ever going to write in and say “hey I think you need to make this more readable.”) (2) this is not something we’re taught going through the science program at school. More’s the pity.

  51. You are probably buried deep in comments at the moment, as you have just been freshly pressed (congrats!), but science writing is one of my dream jobs and I would love to pick your brain about how you got your start with science writing and how a newbie should sell a story.

    1. Hi Suzie,

      Thanks for visiting! I’d be happy to answer your questions (the best I can, anyway!). I got my start as an undergrad writing articles about local scientists for university publications, and then I went on to a research career – lab tech, grad student, etc – only to find myself doing more writing and editing than actual science. Once I decided not to pursue a PhD, I started taking some writing courses and getting involved with the writing community. There are some great professional associations for science writers. If you are in the US, you might consider the National Association for Science Writers (NASW) or the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing – which has some excellent info for people just starting out.

      Ironically, some of the best lessons I learned about writing and “telling a story” came from writing grant proposals (of all things!!) – in grant writing you have to be very aware of your audience, and you don’t have much space to tell your story – so I really learned how to make every word count!

      Hope this helps!

      C.

  52. On another note, whoever named the individual horse “princesses” probably speaks english as a second or third language? I always like to give people the benefit of the doubt. (Or perhaps the person who transcribed the name onto the board wasn’t giving the job their full attention…)

    1. Actually, I think it probably has to do with the Jockey Club’s rules for naming thoroughbred horses. They must have a unique name, not more than 18 characters, and there are some other criteria – so people have to get very creative with names.

  53. Baahaaa! I once read a (very short) book about raising redclaw (Cherax quadricarinatus). There was an exceptionally boring, laboured paragraph the contents of which I can’t remember. The handwritten comment which had been written beneath has always stuck in my mind… “taste good with beer”. That said it all, really. Whoever wrote it was correct.

    Great post.

    Heather

  54. “Read your work aloud” very good. and may I add, if you have a camera, read it aloud to the camera as well. I learned alot trying to read my own book! lol http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ax_HTCeZwo8

  55. Excellent advice for scientific writers. In my undergrad experience it seemed like “the way” to write papers was to use big words and long, complicated sentences. However, I’ve been learning along the way exactly what you’ve pointed out. Thanks for making the succinct, yet helpful and interesting post!

  56. Bwahahahaha! I love the caption for the microwave picture “How many messes are there, exactly? And if “messes” are plural, why is “it” singular?” Hilarious! ;)

  57. I have to say, number 7 is the worst. You don’t need to sprinkle every single sentence with $10 words. It’s just so pretentious.

  58. Im just a small time writer and not a scientific one but there are lessons here that should be seen by anyone in the field, very nice read – thanks.
    Cheers.

  59. There is something scary about academic writing and communication. We have a short-sightedness or a pompousness. Either we are writing to other academics in the same specific field or we want to sound intelligent.

    You have to dumb it down like Jay Z to make it stick. Truth is it isn’t the other academics that will take the research and run with it, you want the non-profit guy or some new entrepreneur to do that.

  60. Someone else who cares about missing apostrophes. God be praised. I am not alone.

  61. [...] Yesterday, I spent the day at the horse races, taking in the pomp and pageantry of the biggest stakes card of the year. I find the racetrack fascinating, and not just in that girlish horse-crazy sense. For starters, it's the only place I know where it is normal to see small men wearing outrageous colors and women wearing birds on their heads. Second, I love the wordplay of the racing form, with horse names like Two Horn Unicorn, Tiny Giant, We Ta … Read More [...]

  62. I really enjoyed reading this article ! Thank you !

  63. Awesome post. I really love the concept of Due to the fact that, we could use BECAUSE.
    A very good example which is also used in defining Software Requirements since Definition of Software Requirements is another area which needs concise, clear, and non ambiguous writing.

    Congrats for being freshly pressed !

    http://salmankhwaja.wordpress.com

  64. Oh Man! If only I had the kind of money to pay to you proof read all of my posts! I’m no good with grammer or sentence structure. Reading about it helps though… thanks for the info.

  65. So… what’s your take on lawyer lingo? I find that to be obsurd as well.

    1. I’m a lawyer (non-practising). The situation in the UK is probably better than in the USA. The real trouble with legalese isn’t when it’s for lawyer/lawyer use. It’s actually when a vendor (say, an insurance carrier) throws this crap in our faces without asking the lawyers to rephrase the legalese into legally effective but non-legal language. Indeed, the UK now requires by law for legally important documents to be written in non-legal language if they are to be used by consumers or non-legally trained users. I can’t vouch for this but the UK might be a few years ahead of the USA in this area.

    2. I agree – legalese is no fun to read at all!

  66. As someone famous (I forget who) said, it’s harder to write a short letter than a long one. Being clear and concise is work!

  67. [...] Alternative Hypothesis Help! I'm a writer trapped in a scientist's body! HomeAboutCredits ← Ten lessons about writing that every scientist should learn… [...]

  68. Just a quick comment to say I love it and agree with every word – I’ve written many similar articles and blog posts in the hope of getting more people to write simply!

    As well as “due to the fact” and “at this moment in time”, one of my pet phrases to rewrite is “with respect to” – what’s wrong with “about”?

    I deal more with legal and financial people than scientists, but there are similar problems – and I remember many scientific papers and engineering reports that needed editing…

  69. [...] The post I’m reblogging is a list of 10 tips that scientists need to remember when writing. After all, our writing is a failure if no one can understand what we’re trying to say. Yesterday, I spent the day at the horse races, taking in the pomp and pageantry of the biggest stakes card of the year. I find the racetrack fascinating, and not just in that girlish horse-crazy sense. For starters, it’s the only place I know where it is normal to see small men wearing outrageous colors and women wearing birds on their heads. Second, I love the wordplay of the racing form, with horse names like Two Horn Unicorn, Tiny Giant, We Ta … Read More [...]

  70. [...] Ten lessons about writing scientists should learn — As a tech writer by day (writing at night is my superpower), I spend a lot of time making these same points to people. But, tech writer, scientist, or creative writer, the tips here are very good and can be used to improve your writing, no matter how you write now or what you write in general. [...]

  71. Would somebody like to explain to me what exactly is so bad about the passive voice?

    1. Passive voice tends to be wordier – I gave an example in an earlier comment of “The dog caught the ball” (active) vs. “The ball was caught by the dog.” (passive). A common example you see in science writing is “It has been suggested by X et al, that…” but “X et al suggested that…” accomplishes the same thing in fewer words. It doesn’t seem like much when you are just looking at one sentence in isolation, but when every sentence is written in passive voice, the extra words add up and they weigh the writing down.

      Active voice is considered to be more concise and vigorous than passive voice, emphasizing “who is doing what.” It tends to move things along.

      That said, there are places where passive voice is appropriate; for example, in Methods sections where the “who” is obvious or irrelevant. You wouldn’t write a methods section saying “We added 2ml of methanol to the mixture and centrifuged for 2 min.” (Active). In this case, we don’t care who did it – it is more appropriate to say “2 ml of methanol were added to the mixture…”

      But outside of the methods sections, most journals now encourage the use of active voice wherever possible.

      Hope this helps.

      1. Thanks, C. That makes sense. I probably use passive voice more often than I should, but it’s usually in cases where, like you said, I think the “who” is irrelevant. I can see that using it too much might weigh the writing down, though, so I’ll try to cut back. :)

    2. The English passive voice in itself is not defective or objectionable – it’s how and when and what intention that voice used for that gives trouble. You can see from a sentence like “Why was the road crossed by the chicken?” put the meanings of words and/or message out of whack or on their heads. Here is a university webpage that does a fairly good introduction to problems of the passive voice:

      http://www.unc.edu/depts/wcweb/handouts/passivevoice.html

      1. Thanks!

  72. I love the advice. Writing is a science itself, as you have made apparent. (And now I’m super cautious as to how I leave this comment.)
    You can relax just a tad on some writing though. Whoever is posting dumb little notes on microwaves and Coke products probably isn’t an English major. Besides, people understand what they’re trying to say. I am guilty of being an extremely harsh critic on any form of literature, but sometimes I just need to remember that the author or writer or whoever they are probably doesn’t know better.
    The whole “aquaculture” quote was definitely a mess, and yes, scientific writing should be precise, meaningful, and simple to understand, but the lunch menu? Come on now. I can live with “gilled chicken.”

  73. [...] Dez Lições sobre escrever que todo cientista deve aprender (via Alternative Hypothesis) Yesterday, I spent the day at the horse races, taking in the pomp and pageantry of the biggest stakes card of the year. I find the racetrack fascinating, and not just in that girlish horse-crazy sense. For starters, it’s the only place I know where it is normal to see small men wearing outrageous colors and women wearing birds on their heads. Second, I love the wordplay of the racing form, with horse names like Two Horn Unicorn, Tiny Giant, We Ta … Read More [...]

  74. [...] Dez Lições sobre escrever que todo cientista deve aprender (via Alternative Hypothesis) Yesterday, I spent the day at the horse races, taking in the pomp and pageantry of the biggest stakes card of the year. I find the racetrack fascinating, and not just in that girlish horse-crazy sense. For starters, it’s the only place I know where it is normal to see small men wearing outrageous colors and women wearing birds on their heads. Second, I love the wordplay of the racing form, with horse names like Two Horn Unicorn, Tiny Giant, We Ta … Read More [...]

  75. This is an eye opener to the last syllable!

  76. [...] been meaning to work on my writing for while now, so stumbling on this high recommendation of William Zinsser’s guide to writing non-fiction gave me the push to actually find time and – you know – improve my writing. Zinsser’s [...]

  77. Thanks for the pointed suggestions.

    I spent a half decade as a newspaper reporter, editor and feature writer before I surrendered to my primal interest, returned to university and plunged into mathematics. When I next looked up I had a Ph.D. and a position as assistant professor in a medical college where part of my job was to guide selected graduate students through the numerical bits of their dissertations.

    Poor students. When they picked up the drafts they had dropped off for my perusal, they found few comments about their statistics. But their cluttered prose was covered with green ink ( I avoided the red pen ) correcting their grammar and suggesting more harmonious phrasing. Scientists simply cannot spit out a clear, simple sentence. I acquired a reputation as a friendly pedant.

    But academia eventually gets to you. My own writing has aged: it has become wrinkled and sloppy over the years. I still get inspiration though from this article:

    Gopen, George D. and Judith A. Swan (1990). The Science of Scientific Writing. American Scientist 78:550-558.

    It’s an entertaining read. Gopen and Swan are good at untangling scientists’ knotted prose.

    cheers

    Alan

    1. Amen to people like you, Alan. And I almost thought I was the only one wrestling with tangled prose in the middle of the night.

  78. [...] Ten lessons about writing that every scientist should learn… (alternativehypothesis.wordpress.com) [...]

  79. [...] toward the end of the giant Globe and Mail holiday crossword). Considering the popularity of my earlier post on scientific writing, I thought I’d kick off the new year with a few of these common [...]

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