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Writing in the Sciences

“You can’t make your reader like your science simply by writing better—but you can make it easier for [him or her] to see why [he or she] should like it, or at least why [he or she] should read and cite it” (9).

--S.B. Heard, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing: How to Write More Easily and Effectively throughout Your Scientific Career

 

1. Captivate your audience: Who will read your work? Write for their level of  understanding in the clearest, most logical flow of thought. Impress them by their ability to understand your work, rather than by the convoluted ideas you present.

2. Enter the conversation boldly: Start by critically evaluating research conducted by scholars in your field and assessing whether their data supports their interpretation. Identify gaps in the current research or ways that you can extend it.

Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein suggests using these templates:
• Our data support/confirm/verify the work of X by showing that ______.
• The results of X contradict/ refute Y’s conclusions that ________.
• X’s findings call into question the widely accepted theory that ________. (211)

3. Tell a story: Introduce concrete nouns in your sentences, such as “T-cells,” instead of abstract words that can leave your audience confused. When you use clear subjects, the actions that they carry out are more distinct and easier to visualize. 

4. Explain your findings: Clearly and systematically lay out your findings, starting with the main findings, followed by secondary findings. Take the role of a tour guide and walk the reader through the world of your research. 

5. Start with the old, progress to the new: Information that is known to the reader should be placed at the beginning of the sentence, and new information should be placed later. “Old information + Strong verb = Flexibility” to give new information at the end of the sentence.

6. Vary your sentence length: Shaping paragraphs with a variety of sentence lengths keeps the reader more interested in and attentive to the material.
• Long sentences (30 words or more) strung together cause paragraphs to be dense.
• Medium-length sentences (15-25 words) strung together result in monotonous material.
• Short sentences (10 words or less) strung together create material that is choppy.

7. Active voice is not the enemy: A sentence is clearer and more concise in active voice. It provides a more vivid and engaging image, as it recognizes the human actor. The verb is active when the subject in the sentence does the action (e.g., “counted” (active) vs. “were counted” (passive)).

8. Be concise: Avoid the following:
                  1. unnecessary qualifiers, such as very, strikingly, extremely
                  2. ambiguous beginnings, such as this, that, those
                  3. empty modifiers, such as really, basically, actually, indeed, quite, various
                  4. Roundabout phrases, such as owing to the fact

9. Anticipate the objections: Anticipate and address the critiques that might arise to your argument in order to demonstrate that you have considered all sides of the conversation you are joining.

10. Give credit where it is due with citations: Science research builds on the scholarship of others. Cite sources and resources used to carry out your research and support your arguments.

 

References: 

Graff, G., & Birkenstein, C. They Say / I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, 3rd ed., Norton, 2014.


Greene, A. E. Writing Science in Plain English, University of Chicago Press, 2013.


Heard, S. B. The Scientist’s Guide to Writing: How to Write More Easily and Effectively throughout Your Scientific Career, Princeton UP, 2016.


Northey, M., & McKibbin, J. Making Sense: A Student’s guide to Research and Writing, 2nd ed., Oxford UP, 2015.

 

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