Effective scientific writing is a skill (some may even call it an art) that must be developed through the practice of reading, writing, and revising. A well written manuscript not only carries a better chance of getting published, but it also goes a long way in increasing the potential impact of your work for years to come. For both native and non-native English speakers, the task of converting scientific results into a peer-reviewed publication can be tremendously daunting. Therefore, this article will focus on fundamental tips that will help you avoid common pitfalls and improve your scientific writing.
Tips to Improve Your Scientific Writing
◊ Present your thoughts in a logical manner
You might already be familiar with the general format of a scientific manuscript: IMRaD (Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion). Begin by presenting sufficient background information and taking your reader along the path from your understanding and observations to your hypothesis. Grab onto your reader’s attention by ‘painting the big picture’ in a way that is relevant to a broader audience. Next, communicate the details of your study methods and findings before putting everything into context by discussing their significance. Leave out extraneous and unnecessary information. Rather, state your ideas and thoughts as concisely as you can. Group similar ideas together and present them in a consistent manner throughout your manuscript. Your reader should be able to follow your thinking logically from start to end.
◊ Know when to use active and passive voice
In scientific writing, it is important to know when to use passive and active voice. Active voice is more natural, direct, and engaging, and should be used when referring to widely accepted findings. Note how they compare in this example:
|Active Voice||Passive Voice|
|"Vitamin D deficiency increases the risk of depression."||"The risk of depression is increased by vitamin D deficiency."|
When writing your Introduction, use active voice, as you are laying the backdrop of what is already known. In the Methods and Results sections, use passive voice to discuss what you did and what you found. In the Discussion section, a mixture of passive and active voice is acceptable; just take care not to use both together in a single sentence.
If you ever find yourself debating on when you should use passive voice, simply ask yourself these 4 questions:
- Are you trying to emphasize the result (or the product) rather than the agent?
- “The risk of depression [result] is increased by vitamin D deficiency [agent].”
- Are you trying to keep the subject and focus consistent throughout a passage?
- “Depression is common but estimates of its prevalence have varied widely. The risk of depression is increased by vitamin D deficiency.”
- Are you trying to avoid naming the subject?
- “The study findings were somehow misinterpreted.”
- Are you trying to describe a condition in which the source or cause is unknown or unimportant?
- “Every year, thousands of people are diagnosed with depression.”
If your answer is “yes” to any of them, the use of passive voice is appropriate.
◊ Vary your sentence length
Mixing up your sentence length not only helps you place emphasis where you want it, but it also ensures that your reader will not get lulled by a monotonous rhythm. Avoid crafting overly long or complicated sentences that only hinder your reader’s ability to follow your content. It is often helpful, after writing for long periods, to step back, take a break, and then revisit your manuscript with a fresh eye. This will help you refine its readability.
◊ Write clearly
Each of your paragraphs should present one single unifying idea or concept. Long paragraphs should be alternated with shorter ones to create rhythm and balance. Each paragraph should consist of well-thought out sentences that are clear and concise. This means each sentence should aim to communicate information as directly as possible, without ambiguity. One way is to place modifiers close to the object they are modifying. Consider the following example:
“Chronic diseases that may affect kidney function, such as diabetes, should be closely monitored.”
In this example, “such as diabetes” is misplaced, as it is not a type of kidney function, but rather a type of chronic disease. This meaning is more clearly conveyed in the next sentence:
“Chronic diseases, such as diabetes, that may affect kidney function should be closely monitored.”
◊ Eliminate “filler words”
Filler words are unnecessary words that are vague and meaningless or do not add to the meaning or clarity of your sentence. Omit words such as “actually,” “basically,” and “definitely.” Simplify phrases that can be simplified. The following are just a few examples of this:
|Instead of This||Use This|
|"a number of"||few / many / several / some|
|"a majority of"||most|
|"accounted for the fact that"||because|
|"adequate number of"||enough|
|"along the lines of"||similar to|
|"an order of magnitude"||10 times|
|"as a means to"||to|
|"because of the fact that"||given that|
◊ Read it out loud
One of the most effective ways to assess the flow of a paper is to read it to yourself out loud. Reading aloud (every section, including the Method and Results) helps you check its rhythm and find words and phrases that are too repetitive or simply awkward. You will often be surprised at the words that jump out at you that normally wouldn’t. Use this technique to identify and eliminate (or replace) culprit text.
There you have it! By incorporating these tips into your writing, you’ll markedly improve the quality of your paper or manuscript and increase your chances of publication. For more essential scientific writing tips, check out How to Get Your Manuscript Published along with these tips for writing an abstract. Wiley also has a detailed guide on this topic.
Here’s to great writing!