Top ten writing tips for scientists
If you’re more at home with numbers than words, writing can be a difficult prospect. Learning a few simple techniques can make all the difference, says Rob Ashton.
Ask most scientists, engineers and technologists why they got into the profession and they’re unlikely to say it was because they love writing. But love it or hate it, writing is an essential part of a scientific career. Report writing skills are crucial to communicating your research, ideas and recommendations. Losing the gems of months of research in confusing, convoluted prose helps neither you nor your readers. The way you write can be more important that what you write. An instantly readable report will usually have more impact than one that is difficult to decipher.
Science doesn’t exist in a vacuum. So if you cannot communicate effectively to colleagues and the general public, your work is likely to be perceived as less important. In fact, if you can’t communicate what you do, you could argue that you might as well not do it in the first place.
Here are the top tips and techniques that can transform your written work:
- Ask the right questions
Powerful writing starts from an ordered, clear structure. Begin ordering your ideas by asking yourself the questions: what? where? when? how? why? and who? When you know what you want to communicate, and why, you can then lay out your core idea first, and expand on it in the rest of the document. Always make sure you ask yourself the exact purpose of what you are writing. When you have a clear intent, you have a much better chance of crafting an effective document.
- Avoid jargon where possible
Abbreviations are a great shortcut when you and your reader speak a common language. But don’t forget that there may be acronyms and abbreviations that people outside your organisation or area of expertise just wouldn’t know. This doesn’t mean that you have to avoid jargon at all costs. Just be aware of your reader’s knowledge and choose the words and phrases that you are certain they will understand. Most people overestimate how much their readers know and bombard them with too many technical words and phrases.
- Focus on your reader
Do your readers really know everything about thermodynamics or mass transfer? Or are they more concerned with how the science affects the company’s bottom line? Ask yourself the following questions so that you can tailor your information to your reader.
- Who will read the document?
- How much experience do they have of the subject?
- How much do they know about it?
- What is their likely attitude towards it?
- How involved in the subject are they?
- How interested are they in the subject?
- Don’t show off
In academia, the more knowledge, information and argument you display, the higher the marks. In the commercial world, only the most significant information is necessary. Summarising a wealth of related issues may at first appear to cement your expert status, but it doesn’t help your reader. Managers often have several reports to read a day, so focus on becoming a solution provider.
- Create a compelling opening paragraph
Research has shown that when it comes to focus, people remember the beginning and end of something, plus a high point in the middle. This is as true for reports as it is for holidays or feature films. So make sure that your conclusions and recommendations are in the summary. If you bury your recommendations in the middle, there’s no guarantee that your readers will get that far.
- Be confident
Say what you really mean and your readers will thank you for it. It can be a little disconcerting to write clearly and in plain English, especially if you come from an organisation that doesn’t encourage having a definitive viewpoint. But it will help you to become recognised as a thought leader and means that your work reaches a much wider audience.
- Learn how to KISS
Keep it Short and Simple! Avoid long flowery phrases and make sure your sentences contain a maximum of 15 to 20 words. Presenting information in short, manageable chunks also helps you to keep the reader with you, so stick to the principle of one idea per sentence. To paraphrase Einstein: Make things as simple as they are but no simpler.
- Get active
Where possible, use the active voice rather than the passive one. Instead of writing, ‘the reactions of various metals were tested,’ write ‘we tested the reactions of various metals’. Adding in the word ‘we’ makes the document more personal. Don’t be afraid to use the word ‘you’ when writing reports for non-scientists. The idea is to engage the reader and active, personal language does just that.
- Check for errors
Always proofread carefully by printing out your document and combing through it word for word. You cannot rely on your spellchecker to know the difference between palate and pallet, especially if you have it on the automated setting. Print it out first. And if possible, put your work aside for a day and come back to it with fresh eyes. It’s likely that any errors will jump out at you more easily. Also check for punctuation and make sure that your structure is as effective as it can be.
- Use a style guide
Grab a free copy of The Write Stuff to help you with the writing process. This 60-page guide contains the very essence of good writing. And Emphasis have agreed to send a copy free of charge to the first 100 Sciencebase readers to contact them. Visit Emphasis to get your copy.
How Emphasis helped scientists to write more clearly
One of Europe’s leading pharmaceutical companies asked Emphasis to improve its scientists’ report-writing skills. The problem? Many of their written reports were failing to communicate the results of their research and development work in a clear and concise way.
The training programme changed how the scientists approach, plan and structure their reports.
“Before the training programme, most people saw writing as an irritating distraction from their research and their reports had to be heavily edited. Now, there are fewer amendments,” the medical director explains. “This has reinforced the lessons learned during the training, creating a positive cycle that has, in turn, promoted better writing throughout the company.”
Rob Ashton is chief executive of Emphasis, which runs specialist report-writing courses. For free online help visit the business-writing forum.