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Fundamentals of Excellent Science Writing

Table of Contents

Science writing is getting worse, according to science.

In 2017, Swedish researchers reviewed over 700,000 English-language biomedical abstracts published between 1881 and 2015 to understand how scientific and medical writing has changed over time. Their conclusion was chilling: “We show that the readability of science is steadily decreasing.”

Writing well leverages your work. Well-written science will translate important research into desirable outcomes, which can range from the humble (expanding humanity’s understanding of the world we inhabit) to the personal (gaining access to funding or awards) to the ambitious (leading to real-world changes in policy and action). But no such results can come about if the science is rendered confusing or unclear by bad writing.

Good writing can’t save bad science, but it can make good science more compelling and valuable. Here are the hallmarks of excellent scientific writing.

Words

The Swedish researchers specified a major cause for the decline in readability: an increase in the use of jargon. And not just technical jargon; they also found that more modern scientific writing uses more multisyllable words with non-technical meanings (like “furthermore”, “underlying”, and “robust”) that add filler without clear meaning.

The first best practice of science writing is to avoid jargon. David Dobbs, a science writer for Wired, says it clearly: “Hunt down jargon and kill it.”

Obviously, scientific writing is going to contain scientific language, but authors must always focus on the reader’s vocabulary, not their own:

  •          Avoid inventing new terms, if possible.
  •          Use language that’s familiar to your intended readers.
  •          When necessary, define terminology or notations with which readers may be unfamiliar.
  •          When introducing new terms or concepts, try to build on what your readers already know.

Sentences

Make it easy for the reader to understand what you’re trying to say; use familiar, expected, and grammatically correct sentence structure.

Specifically, readers expect subject-verb-object construction. Deviating from that rhythm will make them do unnecessary mental work to parse the sentence. Readers expect the beginning of the sentence to introduce the topic and the end to be a stress point – something the author wants to emphasize. An unusual structure will either force readers to reconstruct the sentence in their heads or miss the intended meaning. This is partly why passive voice isn’t preferred: it subverts traditional sentence structure.

Beyond that, use no more words than needed to make your point.

Paragraphs

In many ways, paragraph structure should mirror sentence structure, because readers have the same expectations of both. Follow a conventional, expected, and correct paragraph structure. Each paragraph should focus on a single topic. The first sentence should introduce that topic, while the rest of the paragraph makes the argument around that topic. Each sentence in a paragraph should flow into the next and transition logically.

Brevity is clarity. Don’t use more sentences per paragraph than needed to make your point.

Concepts

Be clear about assumptions; don’t make the reader wonder or guess which statements are tested or proven facts versus speculation, conjecture, or hypothesis.

Try not to include a claim unless you can substantiate it; however, don’t shy away from addressing uncertainties. “Grasp the importance of testing ideas against evidence, the need for publication, replication and open challenge, and the provisional nature of scientific discovery” says Mark Henderson, former science editor for The Times, “and you are a large part of the way there.”

Remember your readership. What are they going to do with the research or concepts your writing includes? Award-wining science writer Kate Prengaman presented an insightful analogy at the 2013 Science Online conference: “Science writing is a bit like cartography. When you’re making a map, you have to leave detail out, otherwise your map is the world, and useless to anyone. How much you leave out depends on who, and what, your map is for.”

Structure

The meta-structure of the document should support reader comprehension and information retention. In other words, ideas presented should be connected to each other, with every statement clearly building upon previous statements. When writing a formal research document or report, avoid “section bleed.” For example, don’t put “discussion” into the “results” section.  

Fundamentally, the quality of the writing should reflect the quality of the ideas being presented. With a little care and attention to the writing, scientific reports and research can ensure improved information transfer and more desirable outcomes for both author and audience.

About Hurley Write, Inc.

Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 25 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations.  

Fundamentals of Excellent Science Writing

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(172 Reviews)