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Tips for improving your scientific, academic writing
Whenever someone decides to create a piece of written work there are two important questions they should answer before doing anything else.
- What is the purpose of this writing?
- Who is my target audience?
Any attempts at creating a successful bit of writing are likely to fail unless the two questions are adequately addressed.
Once you know why and for who you are creating the work, the style that you use when completing it is often a matter of choice. However, when it comes to academic writing, there is unfortunately much less wiggle room for authors. This is because academic writing should be objective and logically reach its conclusions. More than this, scientific journals have incredibly strict guidelines for submitted papers. Any deviation from the rules will result in rejection of the paper.
There are a number of things that an author can do to keep their academic submissions in the style most journals currently desire:
1. Purpose and audience
As already mentioned these are the cornerstones for any piece of writing. In scientific papers, the purpose is usually the presentation, dissemination and acceptance of experimental data and the conclusions drawn from it. Your target audience is most likely to be made up of peers working in the same area and with a similar level of knowledge. This helps you to decide the degree of detail and technical depth that you need to explain and helps focus your writing on the most important points.
The title of your paper or piece of scientific writing should be as simple and concise as possible. It needs to describe the content of your writing in as few words as possible, without being too technical. After reading the title, the reader should understand the main idea of your research.
3. Planning and structure
Before you dig into the nitty gritty of writing your paper, you should look at it from an overall perspective. Nearly all scientific papers now follow the introduction, method, results, discussion structure, but there are further considerations to make. For example:
• How will you divide up the different elements of your study within each section?
• How will you use figures to represent the results and analysis of your experiments?
Planning ahead and creating a framework for your paper will not only make the final piece more readable, but it will also help you to write it. Your ultimate goal is to structure the paper in a way that will give it the most impact.
4. Formal and impersonal
Your work will be a piece of professional writing to be read and discussed in a professional setting. Therefore, it should be written in a professional style. One method to make your writing feel more objective is to eliminate the use of personal pronouns. Using “I” and “we” distracts the reader from the fact that what you’re saying is valid no matter who is doing it.
Another rule to consider is that this piece of writing must stand on its own. It is not a discussion; the reader can’t easily ask for clarification or expansion. One particular way to remove the element of conversation from the writing is to do away with contractions. For example, don't write 'it’s', use 'it is'.
Another way to remove the conversational element is to use formal, scientific language rather than informal language. For example, ‘investigate’ rather than ‘look into’ and ‘conducted’ rather than ‘did’.
5. Concise and consistent
In academic writing, your words should be thought of as precious commodities. Do not use more words than necessary and do not repeat yourself. Be concise. Writing short sentences rather than long, potentially confusing sentences will help your writing be better understood and reduce the likelihood of anything being misinterpreted.
To maintain credibility, be consistent in your style. It may be a matter of opinion whether you should write something one way or another, but by remaining consistent, it shows that you have considered your options and made a decision. This demonstrates that you are taking the topic seriously and have made considered choices to help you communicate your point.
Always ensure you leave yourself enough time to proofread your writing. If you complete your work well before the deadline, you can proofread your writing with fresh eyes after taking a break from it for a day or two. When proofreading, check the phrasing of your sentences as well as the punctuation and overall structure of your writing. Make sure that your writing is structured logically, your sentences are concise and coherent, and the writing conveys what you are trying to say.
For a more in-depth guide on specific rules for writing formal scientific documents try this article from Dr James A. Bednar. Alternatively, read Scientifica’s 7 tips to get your first paper published for more information on writing academic papers.
Read our tips for communicating your scientific research to non-experts, for advice on writing about or presenting your research to those who aren't experts in your field.
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