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When I started working on my Ph.D., my adviser gave me a set of rules on how to write scientific papers. Since I always thought of myself as a good writer I proceeded to discard his advise. It took a month of struggling to write my first paper before I went back to these rules. If you're reading this it is because you're trying to write a scientific paper, which means you're a pretty smart person that had an idea worth writing, which means you probably are a good writer. But scientific writing is different from writing a report, a story, or any other thing that you are likely to have written in the past.

My goal here is to describe a series of things I always find myself repeating to my coauthors about what I think is good scientific writing. I am not an English teacher so I don't know how to putt all of these things into a coherent writing philosophy. Consider this page as a set of suggestions that you can follow to make your writing closer to what is expected of academic scientific journals. If you check my papers you will see that I am not a very good writer. Furthermore, as one of my students is fond of noticing, I fail to follow these rules all of the time. You are therefore free to disagree with me and neglect my advise. If you are writing a paper with me, however, we will save time if you try to follow these suggestions.

The goal of writing a paper

The goal of a scientific paper is to explain a result you have obtained in the course of your research. While this is very simple advise, many mistakes can be avoided by remembering this objective as you write. A paper is not a place for you to express your opinion about something. Nor is it a place to convince someone about the importance of your result. The primary goal of your paper is to explain the idea you had, the result you were able to derive, and the procedure you followed to obtain this result. The explanation has to be clear and concise

Opinions and clarifications

That said, this is your paper and you are entitled to your opinion. Similarly with clarifications. Put on remarks, so that it is clear they are not central to the understanding of the paper.

Read Hemingway

The following are two randomly selected paragraphs from the "Old man and the sea."

"They sailed well and the old man soaked his hands in the salt water and tried to keep his head clear. There were high cumulus clouds and enough cirrus above them so that the old man knew the breeze would last all night. The old man looked at the fish constantly to make sure it was true. It was an hour before the first shark hit him.

The shark was not an accident. He had come up from deep down in the water as the dark cloud of blood had settled and dispersed in the mile deep sea. He had come up so fast and absolutely without caution that he broke the surface of the blue water and was in the sun. Then he fell back into the sea and picked up the scent and started swimming on the course the skiff and the fish had taken."

Hemingway's writing is sleek, concise and to the point. This is how a paper should read. To understand what is so good about Hemingway's writing focus on the things that are missing in these two paragraphs. There are no commas, no parenthetical comments. No two sentences are devoted to the same idea. Each new sentence is devoted to a new concept. Hard as try, I cannot duplicate Hemingway's style, as is obvious from the fact that I used commas three sentences ago, repeated the same thing in the following two sentences, and am using a parenthetical comment in this sentence. However, by trying to duplicate Hemingway I can write decent text.

Author quirks

All of us have quirks when writing. I used to dismiss the importance of quirks until I heard Gabriel Garcia Marquez say he didn't use adverbs in his writing and he thought that the reason his writing was good stemmed from his effort to avoid the use of adverbs. It so happens that I also don't like adverbs and I realized that avoiding adverbs does help with better writing. And that lead me to the realization that quirks can be a positive force for better writing. Here is a list of my writing quirks:

  • Do not use adverbs. Surprisingly, in most cases an adverb is irrelevant and you can just remove it and get a clearer sentence because the adverb is distracting from the focus. In other situations an adverb is meant to concisely emphasize a fact, like the fact that concise writing is good. However, adverbs do not focus the attention on the reader on that important fact as much as an adjective does. It also typically happens that you can reorder your sentence into something that sounds more typical and yields sentences that are clearer. The important point is that by avoiding adverbs you are forced to reconsider your sentences and place emphasis on what are the important points you are trying to convey.
  • In short sentences, do not write commas. A comma in a short sentence is an indication of something that can be said better. Bottom line: Avoid commas in short sentences.
  • When making slides, bullets should fit in one line. Not a writing quirk per se except for the transportation of slide sentences into papers. Making sentences fit in one line forces you to make them shorter, which in English is considered better writing -- see Hemingway.
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Page last modified on March 08, 2012, at 09:24 AM