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9 Writing Tips for Scientists

Dec 9, 2013

Do you know why I feel like I’d be a better communicator than scientist? To be honest, it’s because I’m a bit slow and dim-witted, and I feel I can put that normally undesirable trait to good use by communicating things in a manner that even I can understand.

In general, many scientists (certainly not all) write in a rather convoluted manner. Now, almost nobody comes fresh out of high school communicating with unnecessarily fancy words or strange sentence structures. That’s simply not the easiest way to speak, write, or read. Yet science students (and academics of all types) must learn to communicate like this.

Why? I’m really not sure. Being convoluted doesn’t make your material more technical or specialized. It’s the content that does that, not the communication style!

A pessimistic viewpoint might suggest that this language originates from people who wanted to seem smart or important, or to elevate the status of their subject by making it more difficult for other people to understand it, and eventually that just became the standard style that you had to learn. Or perhaps some people use this language to cover up the fact that they’re not a hundred percent clear on what they’re talking about.

Your job as a scientist writing or presenting your research is not to seem smart, but to make it as easy as possible for people to understand what you’re saying.

I’ve heard things like, “Well this is a technical paper, so it needs to be written this way.” Have you EVER heard someone say, “Wow, that paper was way too clear and easy to understand, I really wish she had been more convoluted and used more complicated words to give me a challenge, I am a specialist after all”?

Here are nine writing tips I have for scientists, though many of them can apply to anybody. (Examples are not necessarily scientifically accurate.)

1. Parallelism:

If you mention two spectral lines and give the wavelength of one, give the wavelength of the other as well. If you list three verbs and one is infinitive, the other two should be infinitive as well. Just keep things consistent throughout the sentence.

Convoluted: Two bands indicate the presence of ozone and possibly being biomarkers: the Hartley bands and the Wulf bands at 4700, 9600, and 14100 nm.
Better: The Hartley bands (200-300 nm) and the Wulf bands (4700, 9600, and 14100 nm) are biomarkers and indicate the presence of ozone. More info

2. Subject-verb agreement:

Be sure all your verbs in a sentence correspond to whether the subject is singular or plural. If the subject and verbs are too far separated for you to even find them, consider shortening the sentence.

Convoluted: The spectral images, while needing more data sets to reduce the margins of error, shows the possibility of determining the ozone content of the exoplanet.
Better: The spectral images show the ozone content of the exoplanet, though more data sets are needed to reduce the margins of error. More info

3. Simple words:

If a simpler word means the same exact thing as a complicated word, use the simpler word instead. No one’s going to fault you for being plain and simple.

Convoluted: The spectra taken from the space-based and land-based telescopes had sufficient congruence to discount obtrusive absorption from the atmosphere or equipment error.
Better: The spectra taken from the space-based and land-based telescopes were similar enough to rule out atmospheric interference or equipment error.

4. Fewer words:

Seriously, use as few words as possible. Take a second look at what you wrote and realize how many of the words were extraneous. If you can write the same exact thing in half as many words, no one’s going to fault you for doing that.

Convoluted: In this study, the spectral measurements are taken of the exoplanet in both the ultraviolet range and in the infrared range, so that observations of two different possible ozone absorption bands can be made possible.
Better: Taking both ultraviolet and infrared spectral measurements allows the observation of two different ozone absorption bands.

5. Combine sentences:

Don’t make long, run-on sentences. But sometimes it can be much more efficient to have one sentence instead of two. This goes back to the “Fewer words” thing.

Convoluted: The spectral images were taken from both a ground-based and a space-based telescope with different spectral ranges – the Keck infrared telescope with adaptive optics and the Swift UVOT. Analyzing both sets of images allows for broader knowledge of the exoplanet’s spectrum.
Better: Analyzing spectral image sets from both the ground-based, adaptive-optics-assisted Keck infrared telescope and the space-based Swift Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope (UVOT) reveals a more complete spectrum of the exoplanet.

6. Jargon, abbreviations, and acronyms:

These are obviously going to be unavoidable in a technical paper. However, if there are any opportunities to limit their use and use simpler or more well-known words, do so. Define a few of the most important jargon words, abbreviations, or acronyms in your abstract so that someone skimming through your paper doesn’t have to then search the whole rest of the document to find a definition.

7. Abstracts:

There are a few necessary components to every abstract: the relevance/importance of the subject, the research question(s), the methodology, the results (or hypotheses if this is just a proposal), and the answer to your research question(s). The methodology, in my opinion, is the least important part of the abstract and should be very brief or possibly even skipped if you’re really limited on space. Anyone who wants to know the details of how you did the research can read the paper or watch the presentation, but what you absolutely must include is WHAT you researched and WHY, and your FINDINGS. Especially for the abstract, be as concise as possible.

8. Overall structure:

First of all, be sure there is one. Most science papers will automatically be structured into introduction, literature review, methods, results, and conclusions/discussion sections. Be sure each of these sections is also clearly structured. If you ever have extraneous information, consider putting it in an appendix. Make sure every single sentence is contributing something worthwhile, and that there’s some sort of order to it.

9. Understand the purpose:

It’s easy to get bogged down in the minutiae of research, and it can be difficult to see the big picture. All of this writing/communicating stuff is going to be a heck of a lot easier though if you can figure out what that big picture is. Know the even bigger big picture than what you would write or present, because it will give you a purpose and help you focus. From the smallest detail, ask yourself “Why is that important?” over and over again until you can’t anymore.

Why are the calibrations on this telescope important? Because they allow me to get accurate spectral readings of this transiting exoplanet. Why is that important? Because I want to precisely measure the amount of ozone in its atmosphere. Why is that important? Because the relative amount of ozone can indicate the possibility of a biosphere. Why is that important? Because we could identify possibly inhabited planets. Why is that important? Because we would know that we are not alone in the universe, and could start to get a larger sample size of inhabited planets. Why is that important? Because then we can start to understand previously unknown aspects of the universe. Why is that important? Because the universe is here, and I want to understand it, dang it! Okay then, back to the telescope calibrations.

So please, do a favor for the students who are struggling to learn science or your colleagues who are too tired to figure out what you’re trying to say, or people like me who are too slow to figure out anything complicated, and just write as clearly, simply, and plainly as possible. It’s actually easier that way for everybody!

*Disclaimer: I am neither a writing expert nor a spectroscopy expert, so my examples might not be the best. But you get the point – be clear and simple!

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