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How to improve your scientific writing

4 March 2021

‘If you are a scientist and you want to succeed, you must become a writer,’ writes John Wallingford in his #DevBiolWriteClub on the Node. He is, of course, absolutely right – biologists really are storytellers. Away from the bench, they must master the written word to craft compelling manuscripts and successful applications for grants and jobs.

“As a scientist, I love to read stories where I can visualise and understand the ideas and discoveries being communicated – to become a part of it,” says Mariana de Niz, a preLighter and Human Frontier Science postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Molecular Medicine in Lisbon, Portugal. We couldn’t agree more, so how do scientists become master storytellers?

Writing is a skill and like all skills, it requires practice. In the same way you wouldn’t pick up a musical instrument for the first time and perform in a concert, your first words on the page are unlikely to make it to the final manuscript. To give you a helping hand on where to start, we called on our journal Editors, proofreaders and contributors on our community sites for their advice on how to improve your scientific writing.

Reading is as important as writing

Writing is a deeply personal expression but by reading other people’s writing, you will find your own voice. Read as much as you can – manuscripts in and out of your field, fiction, non-fiction, it will all have an effect on your style.

Of course, as well as general reading, there are plenty of resources available online that provide advice on how to improve your writing. Over on the Node, John Wallingford’s #DevBiolWriteClub is an expansion of his wisdom originally posted on Twitter, covering in detail his five rules that form the process of becoming a writer.

Also on the Node, Development’s Editors impart their own advice. Senior Editor Seema Grewal’s introduction to writing Review articles provides a detailed overview of the entire process of putting together a good Review, as well as some insightful general writing pointers from Editors throughout the Company. Reviews Editor Alex Eve offers up his thoughts on another angle, how to review Review articles. Drawing on the experience he’s gained on the job, Alex’s piece boils it down to an ABC of writing a peer review report and is a helpful read to support John’s rule #4, ‘read with intent’.

Start writing

It’s all very well reading and researching, but eventually you can’t avoid the inevitable – actually writing. Easier said than done when a blank page is staring back at you. If you want some direction, take a look at the Node Community Manager Aidan Maartens’ list of writing ideas.

preLighter Debbie Ho is also involved with BlueSci, the Cambridge University Science Magazine, which is where she first gained experience in science communication. “If you’d like to explore science communication for the first time, start small,” she says. “Look for opportunities within your community. For example, write for a short article for a science magazine or blog run by your university or a scientific society. Once you gain that experience, you will have a better idea of whether you enjoy this and want to pursue this further. You will also have deeper insight into the types of platforms you prefer to reach your target audience.” For developmental biologists and microscopists, don’t forget it is free to post on the Node and FocalPlane. If you find it daunting to share your writing, making the most of these community sites is an excellent way to face your fear while contributing to the wider community. “Even if you’re not confident about your written work, step out of your comfort zone and submit a pitch as long as you’re interested in writing for a platform,” advises Debbie.

preLights, our preprint highlighting service, is another excellent way to flex that writing muscle. Currently over 200 early-career researchers contribute to the service, writing digests of the latest preprints that interest them. The community interacts via Slack, and a key part of the process is getting feedback from others. “I didn’t think my application to preLights would be accepted, but my friends encouraged me to apply anyway,” says Debbie. “It turned out that my draft could be published the way it was!” Mariana has written over 100 preLights and has found the community to be a valuable asset for her scientific writing. “preLights has given me a platform to engage in scientific writing in multiple ways: it allows me to read through the writing of fellow scientists and understand their discoveries,” she says. “I can then process this information to communicate these ideas back to a broad scientific community.” Debbie agrees, echoing Mariana’s sentiment about the impact of the community atmosphere. “One of the best things about the preLights community is the opportunity to talk to talented scientists who care about improving the process of scientific publication and communication,” she says. “If you are interested in these areas, I’d encourage you to get involved.”

It is inevitable that on some days, the words will flow more easily than on other days. Try not to be disheartened – take a break and try again, or work on something else instead, like reading or editing.

Edit, edit and edit some more

Once your ideas are down on paper, you’ll realise that was the easy part. Editing and revising your writing can take time but it’s unavoidable and always worthwhile. As well as editing your ideas, be mindful of your grammar and accuracy. Rather than try and edit everything at the same time, make a checklist of the different things you want to check and work your way through them. It will be much easier to consistently spot errors – Find + Replace is your best friend for this. To get you started, we asked our in-house proofreaders for three pointers based on the most common mistakes they see.

Consistency

A lot of writers use different versions of the same word throughout their paper, such as ‘up-regulated’ and ‘upregulated’, as well as rogue capitalisation. This is easily done, especially when there are multiple authors contributing to the paper but is a helpful tip to keep in mind when editing your work.

Over-using commas

We’re all guilty of enthusiastically using commas but be mindful of the effect this can have. Multiple commas within a sentence can substantially change the meaning or make it harder for your audience to read.

Clarity

The reader’s job is to pay attention and remember what they read. Your job as the writer is to make those two things easy to do. It’s a fine balance to keep your writing engaging but concise. Keep in mind the message you want your readers to take with them. What is the point of the story you’re telling? Could someone outside of your field follow the narrative?

John reiterates this point in his first #DevBiolWriteClub post, writing, ‘If you are serious about better writing, DO NOT start by thinking harder about sentence structure and grammar.’ A piece of writing can still be dynamic by mixing short and simple sentences with longer ones. Be thrifty with your words and don’t spend too long scouring the thesaurus – complicated language does not make you sound more intelligent.

Above all, be patient and your writing style will emerge. Use the resources available, read and ask for feedback from multiple people. Ultimately, you are aiming to find a writing approach, technique and style that works for you. Happy writing!


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