Writing is an important part of science. What you write affects how your work is perceived and whether your projects will be funded or not. But many scientists view writing as a boring distraction from their exciting research. They think that scientific writing is supposed to be dull.
Which is not true. Scientific writing should communicate your discoveries to others. To do that effectively, it needs to be engaging and easy to read. In this post, I challenge some common attitudes towards scientific writing and explain how to make your writing more enjoyable – for you and your reader.
Scientific writing does not have to be detached and impersonal. Yes, a research paper should be objective – it needs to communicate research findings in a transparent and unbiased way – but this does not mean it should be indifferent and dispassionate. You have invested yourself in your research. Your results represent months (maybe even years) of hard work, commitment, and sacrifice.
If you can’t get passionate about that, what can you get passionate about?
So forget the myth that scientific writing should be impersonal. Inject some enthusiasm into your writing and you will enjoy it more. Don’t be too extravagant; ‘Revealed! The real role of the visual cortex in colour perception!’ is not a suitable title for your next research paper. But there are many ways you can make your writing more engaging while staying true to the facts.
Use the first person to show conviction in your arguments and ideas. Yes, scientific writing should focus on the science and not on the person who did the science – but using I or we occasionally can strengthen your argument and clarify your outlook, if you use it appropriately. Use the first person to show conviction or when you express opinions, ideas, or a counter-argument. This will make your writing more engaging.
Simple is clever
You do not need to write long, complicated sentences to sound clever and be taken seriously. Yes, science is complicated – but scientific writing should not be. Believe me, you will sound cleverer and enjoy your writing more if you explain your complex findings in a clear, simple way. So how can you do this?
First of all, avoid long, wordy phrases. Nominalization (i.e. changing verbs/adjectives into nouns) is a common culprit. For example: ‘we undertook an investigation’ instead of ‘we investigated’, or ‘this result is a reflection of the positive effects of therapy’ instead of ‘this result reflects the positive effects of therapy.’ Also, passive constructions are usually wordier than active sentences – so use the active voice to tighten up your text.
Think about your words, sentences, and paragraphs. Make life easy for your reader and use simple words rather than obscure ones. Ensure that each sentence deals with one idea and that each paragraph introduces, develops, and concludes one topic. Read my previous post for more tips on writing sentences and structuring paragraphs clearly.
Sell your data
There’s nothing wrong with getting enthusiastic about your results. They won’t sound very intriguing by themselves – you need to tell your reader why they are interesting. Think about what excited you when you first saw your data. Explain what your findings will bring to the field. Emphasize the novelty and significance of your discoveries.
Adverbs like ‘unexpectedly’, ‘interestingly’, and ‘surprisingly’ will help you emphasize novel and exciting results. But use them sparingly – or they will immediately lose their impact. Once, maybe twice, in your Results section is enough.
Get inspiration from other scientists whose research papers you enjoy reading. Pay attention to how they write – what makes their words so engaging? Try to incorporate these methods into your own work. You will probably notice the following:
- The manuscript is well structured with a clear and logical outline
- Paragraphs start with a tantalizing hook, (such as a question or a short, high-impact statement) that grabs your attention
- Paragraphs end with enticing transitions that propel you on to the next topic
- Every sentence is easy to understand
- Sentence length varies, which gives the writing rhythm and makes it enjoyable to read
Find the right balance
Following the tips in this article will liven up your writing and make it more engaging. But find the right balance. There is a place for passion in scientific writing, but it shouldn’t obscure the facts.
A little goes a long way. . .
Claire Bacon is a former research scientist with professional qualifications in copyediting and medical editing. She edits manuscripts for non-native English-speaking scientists and works as a copyeditor for a biomedical journal.