here because tips are updated regularly.
1. Purge unnecessary jargon. If an everyday word(s) can
substitute for jargon, use it. By doing so, you will give your writing a more human tone
AND help expand your writing to the widest possible audience. Moreover, studies show that
even the most technical readers consider text that is written in plain language -- with
minimal jargon -- more informative, professional and memorable than jargony text.
Here are some examples:
Heres another example: The Merck Manual, a staple for physicians for
over 100 years, defines a certain condition as: An acute or chronic inflammation of
the periungual tissues. Do you know what that condition is?
HINT: The new laymens version of the Merck
Manual defines the same condition as an infection around the edge of a
fingernail or toenail. Its a hangnail.
2. Make sure that your abstract accurately conveys your most
important findings. Why? Because an abstract is the most important part of your
article; it is usually the first part -- and often the only part -- of your article that
will get read.
Yet, abstracts are often poorly written. According to study recently published in JAMA,
the abstracts of up to 68% of articles published in even prestigious journals contain data
that is either inconsistent with data in the article body or is entirely missing from the
article body. Click
here for a summary of this study.
Moreover, even many abstracts written by accomplished, respected scientists omit the
most important information in the article! I suspect that such abstracts are deficient
because they were carelessly dashed off in the last minute or because their writers were
too close to their research; lacking an objective perspective, they could not distinguish
between what they thought was in the abstract from what was actually
Double-check that the body of your article substantiates every fact in your abstract.
Then, ask a friend or colleague who is unfamiliar with your work to read your abstract and
repeat its essence back to you. If your readers summary correctly conveys your most
important findings, your abstract is probably accurate and complete.
3. Ensure that your abstracts are complete and accurate AND make for
quick, memorable reading by writing structured abstracts.
A structured abstract is formatted as a list of headings of critical study elements --
such as Objective, Study Design and Results -- and
concise summaries for each heading. Structured abstracts are significantly more readable
and informative than traditional abstracts, and enable readers to find useful information
quicker than do traditional ones. Therefore, more and more medical journals, including JAMA
and the British Medical Journal, have been switching to structured abstracts.
4. Drive home important points with pictures and other visual aids,
GLOBAL WARMING CONVEYED THROUGH A PICTURE: Sign marks the extent of
a glacier up an Austrian mountainside in 1960. By 2002, the glacier was confined to the
valley floor -- visible here as the gray mass at the mountain base. The glacier appears
gray because it is covered by rocks that have tumbled down from the mountains. (Photo by
Additional thought-provoking photos are posted on the REMARKABLE SCIENCE IMAGES section of this site.
5. Favor the active voice over the passive voice. You
can usually restructure passive sentences that are built around a form of the verb
to be into more energetic, concise sentences that are built around more active
PASSIVE VS. ACTIVE VOICE
PASSIVE VOICE: WORD COUNT=34
Following termination of avian exposure, there was a substantial
incrementation in lung volume and, at this moment in time, it would appear that there has
been a marginal degree of improvement in diffusing capacity.
ACTIVE VOICE : WORD COUNT=16
After the man stopped keeping birds, his lung volume increased and
diffusing capacity apparently improved slightly.
Unfortunately, many scientists mistakenly believe that using the pronoun I
together with the active voice would make them sound egocentric or would detract from the
importance of their findings. But consider this: Watson and Crick used the active voice in
their landmark paper The Double Helix -- among the most important publications
of the 20th Century. Do you think that Watson and Crick sound like egomaniacs or like
mild-mannered, straight-to-the-facts scientists?
- Opening Of The Double Helix:
We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA).
- Closing Of The Double Helix":
It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately
suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.
6. Explicitly and clearly state cause-and-effect relationships
-- rather than just vaguely imply them, and thereby invite misunderstandings. Which
version is clearer to you?
IMPLIED VS. EXPLICIT RELATIONSHIPS
Increased numbers of jellyfish lead to increased phytoplankton blooms in
summer due to relaxation of grazing pressure by copepods.
In summer, jellyfish populations increase and so populations of their
copepod prey decrease. The copepods phytoplankton prey then bloom.
7. Keep sentences short. Long sentences unnecessarily
tax the readers attention. And the more taxed the reader is, the more likely he/she
is to abandon the text altogether. Remember: An audience is a terrible thing to lose.
Generally, your sentences should average less than 20 words long. Test your sentence
length by reading your text out loud. If you are tempted to stop and take a breath (or
toss back some Gatorade) in the middle of a sentence, you should probably shorten it.
8. Purge all superfluous information, redundant phrases and
unnecessary words. In other words, remove the haystack and leave only the needle --
so that your reader wont have to sift through a pile of verbiage in order to get to
the point. As Lester King, the former editor of JAMA says, Half as long is
twice as good.
WORDY VS. CONCISE EXPLANATION
Vision plays an important role in the notifying animals of imminent
danger, such as an impending collision with a predator or environmental surface.
CONCISE: NY TIMES MAGAZINE
Without eyes, youd soon crash into a tiger or a cliff.
9. Give scale to numbers and statistics by comparing them to
the familiar. For example:
- A flea can jump 150 times its own length -- equivalent to a man
jumping nearly 1,000 feet.
- One part per trillion (1 ppt) is one second in 32,000 years or one grain of
salt in an Olympic-size pool.
- A super computer does in one second what a Pentium processor does in six
10. Dont lose your passion. Many scientists
believe that writing must sound stilted, coldly clinical and depersonalized to sound
learned and objective. But I believe that to strip writing of all of its humanity is to
make it inhumanly boring. Remember: The objectivity of research reflects the study design
and studys conclusions rather than whether the writer conveys enthusiasm for his/her
A case in point: Do you think the following passage sounds too passionate?
Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object
which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of the higher animals, directly
follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been
originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that whilst this planet has gone
cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simply a beginning endless forms
most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
Surprise! That is the last paragraph of Darwins Origin Of
Species. I doubt that any serious scientist has ever criticized the theory of
evolution because of Darwins obvious passion.
A PASSIONATE COMMUNICATOR: Bill Nye -- host of the PBS program
The Science Guy -- anticipates an impending total solar eclipse in Kruger
National Park, South Africa on December 4, 2002. (Photo by Lily Whiteman.)
11. REVISE, REVISE, REVISE! When it comes to revising,
once is DEFINITELY not enough. It takes MANY passes to write a clear, comprehensive and
memorable document. In fact, Ernest Hemingway -- a Pulitzer Prize winner who was known for
his simple, direct style -- revised the end of A Farwell To Arms about 70 times!
Of course, Hemingway ultimately killed himself; I suspect that his devotion to the
sometimes maddening revising/editing process contributed to his sad end. Fortunately
though, most of us can endure this necessary phase without resorting to such extremes.
Writing is largely a matter of
application and hard work, or writing and rewriting endlessly until you are satisfied that
you have said what you want to say as clearly and simply as possible. For me that usually
means many, many revisions.
RACHEL CARSON, Author of Silent Spring
12. Take breaks between your revising sessions. When you
return to your text with a fresh perspective, you will be better equipped to read what is actually
on the page rather than what you thought was on page. You will therefore be a
better editor. The naturalist and writer Aldo Leopold said that he let each manuscript
go cold by putting it into a drawer, which he called his freezer.
When you take your text out of your freezer, you should edit:
- Extra information and words that can be eliminated without changing your
- Word substitutions that can energize and enliven your text.
- Ways to format your text for faster, more memorable reading.
- Logical leaps that beg for fuller explanations.
- Confusing or ambiguous explanations to clarify or simplify.
13. Help increase societys scientific literacy by
creating a web site that explains your science. For example, check out the web site
of Claudia Mills -- a University of Washington scientist who specializes in jellyfish and
ctenophores. Click here
for Claudia Millss web site.
Notice that Millss site includes abstracts of Millss papers and information
about the environmental implications of her research. It also contains photographs and
human interest anecdotes that humanize her and her colleagues.
14. Draw media attention to your research by posting
reader-friendly summaries of your work on the Internet. More and more scientific
organizations and institutions are adopting this approach.
Here is a side-by-side example of an article published in an APS journal and the plain
language version of the same article posted on APSs site.
JARGONY VS. PLAIN VERSION
JARGONY VERSION: "Observation of Equipartition of
Equipartition is a first principle in wave transport, based on the
tendency of multiple scattering to homogenize phase space. We report observations of this
principle for seismic waves created by earthquakes in Mexico. We find qualitative
agreement with an equipartition model that accounts for mode conversions at the
PLAIN LANGUAGE VERSION: "Earthquakes Shake, Rattle
Frequent small earthquakes rock the hills near Chilpancingo, Mexico. A
siesmometer array there suggests that the gentle shaking at the end of a quake comes from
waves that scatter many times in the Earths crust before reaching the surface.
15. Avoid being misquoted in the press by asking the reporter to:
- E-mail you his/her questions before the interview.
- Repeat back to you what you have said when you talk to the reporter, so
that you can immediately clear up any misunderstandings.
- Call you back with any additional questions, as necessary.
- Provide you with a copy of your quotes before the article is published.
Quickly correct any inaccuracies that you find. (Some reporters wil not provide you
with pre-publication quotes, but some will. And it won't hurt to ask.)