As a scientist and educator over the years, I have had the good fortune and pleasure to write and edit many manuscripts and documents, especially in collaborations with mentors, colleagues, and students. As most of us in the business know, writing doesn’t always come easy. It is often very challenging to convey information, thoughts, and ideas in a coherent and straightforward manner, and leave little room for misinterpretation, confusion, and ambiguity. In addition, it can be hard to convey excitement in writing. Writing is an art and deserves time and effort to create a masterpiece. Realistically though, time is rarely on our side for routinely creating works of art. However, we should still try!
Writing for me is work in progress, but very enjoyable. I know that I can always improve. Consequently, I seek better and more creative ways to express myself. I certainly wasn’t always enthusiastic about writing. Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows please take note! As a graduate student writing my early manuscripts, I would often string a few sentences together that seemed reasonable and whisper to myself, “This is close and good enough.” It rarely was. My doctoral mentor, Dr. Walter F. Boron (presently at Case Western Reserve University) almost always caught those good enough sentences when we sat together meticulously reviewing every sentence when editing a manuscript. This experience was humbling, yet highly educational, and certainly one of the high points of my graduate school years. I have continued this tradition in my own lab— enduring the occasional sighs of annoyance from my students.
The extra effort in writing can be a wonderful and rewarding experience. Many helpful resources are available. Don’t be afraid to pull out that composition/grammar book when needed. I am particularly fond of The Random House Handbook (1), which remains dust-free on my office bookshelf. Also, make use of that Thesaurus tab in Microsoft® Word! Finally, learn from the creativity of others in their writing prose, sentence structure, and expression usage.
I leave you with a list of some of my favorite writing points and guides from over the years.
I acquired most of these from my former advisor, Dr. Boron; I owe him a great deal of gratitude. I also used Ref. 1 to supplement my understanding. Write on and become my fellow artists!
1. Tell a story with the goal of exciting your readers (yes, even with a scientific manuscript).
2. Assemble outlines.
3. Write rather than stare at a blank screen/page for too long. You can always edit a mess later.
4. Edit exhaustively, but spaced out over time.
5. Get input from others.
6. Scrutinize every sentence.
7. Ask the following for every sentence:
“Does it say what I want it to say?”
“How can I make it clearer and/or shorter?”
8. Write active sentences. For example, “Compound X caused effect Y” is better than, “The effect Y was caused by compound X.”
Writing active sentences also holds when citing the work of others. For example, “Smith et al. showed that…” is stronger than, “It has been shown that… (Smith et al.).”
9. Use parallel construction in multi-part sentences. For example, “Compound X caused an increase in Y, and Compound A caused a decrease in B.”
Use parallel construction for multiple sentences that are clearly linked. For example, if you are making three points and you start the first sentence with, “First,…,” then you should have a “Second,…” and a “Third,…”
10. Give the direction of an effect whenever possible. Using the example above, “Compound X caused an increase in Y” is better than, “Compound X had an effect on Y.” Sentences should be as informative as possible.
11. Use present tense when discussing a universal truth.
12. Be consistent in using declarative or non-declarative statements in main headings, in-line headings, figure legends, etc. throughout a body of work.
13. Be careful assigning an action to an inanimate object such as an experimental result. For example, “Experiment X showed Y.” Did the experiment really perform an action?
14. Use caution when starting a sentence with This or These. The reference needs to be clear.
15. Use then in if/then statements. Many writers leave out the then. For example, “If you add media A, then the cells will die” flows better than, “If you add media A the cells will die.” If you use if in an if/then sentence, then hunt for the expected then.
16. Use more gerunds, which are refreshingly active. For example, “Applying X increased Y” is more appealing than, “Application of X increased Y.”
17. Experiment with less frequently used forms of punctuation, e.g., the semicolon and em dash. It’s fun!
18. Don’t confuse that and which clauses. That is used in a restrictive clause to understand sentence meaning. Which is used in a nonrestrictive clause to present additional information; which follows a comma.
19. Use because instead of since in many cases. Since refers to time.
20. Minimize split infinitives. Some will argue with me on this one. For example, “to argue incessantly” is better than, “to incessantly argue.” It is sometimes difficult to avoid splitting up to-base verb pairs because they then sound clumsy. Some will reason that a split is acceptable in those cases. My Father’s response: “No. Rewrite the sentence.”
21. Be careful with generic terms such as numerous, many, variety of, etc. Ask yourself, “Is the term accurate? How many exactly?” Consider giving an appropriate example to the reader.
22. Use respectively sparingly. For example, “The results from experiments A, B, and C were 5.6, 8.9, and 4.3, respectively” is hard to follow and tedious. A good general rule: Avoid sentences that require the reader to match up terms in different parts of the sentence.
23. Remember the neither…nor combination.
24. Know the difference between i.e. and e.g.
25. Consider abandoning the old-fashioned, two-space rule between sentences that was popular with typewriter use. We’re in the age of computers with line justification.
1. Crews, F. C. (1992). The Random House Handbook, 6th Ed. McGraw-Hill, Inc., New York.
Thank you for the edits Barb, and posting this Jessica! –Mark
Thank you so much for sharing “The List”. I think this is something my 8th grade students will really benefit from when they think about writing and I hope to incorporate these ideas next year as we approach scientific writing! 🙂
Great advice! Sometimes I think that because I was a biology major, my writing skills did not develop to their full potential. My scientific writing professors in college did not celebrate “excitement” in scientific writing, but instead pushed students to be concise, yet specific. I will definitely use this list when talking to my students about scientific writing. Thanks!