Writing for the Sciences
What This Guide Covers
Almost all the elements and rules that are encouraged and welcomed in most types of scholarly writing are also deemed best practice when completing any type of writing assignment for the various fields of science. However, one notable and important difference between writing science papers and writing for other scholarly disciplines is that some of the style elements have special requirements. This guide explains some of the most crucial aspects of scientific writing and it offers a few strategies to help you evaluate and improve your own prose in this field. WritingsCentre.com has also produced a guide to writing science reports. This is available on our website and we are confident it will prove useful to you.
What Does Writing for the Sciences Entail?
The sciences come under a broad umbrella that encompasses a number of different types of writing, some of which are:
- Grant applications and proposals – it is not possible to study science properly if you do not have funding.
- Literature reviews – including essays and articles (these are used to summarize and synthesize the various bodies of research that have already been completed).
- Peer reviewed articles, especially articles for academic journals (these mostly include research of the primary variety).
If you are a science student it is likely a lot of your time is spent writing laboratory reports, and these often use the same format as literature review and peer-reviewed journal articles. Irrespective of the particular genre, every type of science writing has one goal, which is to present various ideas and data on paper with enough detail to enable readers to decide if the writer’s results and their conclusions are valid based solely on the facts that have been presented to them. It should be easy for readers to follow the methods the researcher has used to find data (especially if the paper is based on primary type research) and the logical chain of events they have used to arrive at one or more conclusions. There are a number of important elements that help science writers achieve the above goals. These are:
- Science writing needs to be precise: Any ambiguities in a piece of writing like this can cause the reader to feel confused and it can hinder their ability to grasp important aspects of the researcher’s methodologies and their synthesis.
- This type of writing needs to be clear: Very often, the methods and concepts used in science are highly-complex. Therefore, when a written piece is hard to follow, the reader’s confusion can be greatly increased.
- A scientific paper needs to be objective: Any assertions or claims a writer makes should be based solely on factual information rather than on emotion or intuition.
What Can I Do to Ensure My Science Papers are Precise?
A great many theories are used in the sciences and these are founded on specific data sets of the empirical and primary variety and on very accurate mathematical calculations, or on a combination of both of these. Consequently, it is important that every scientist and science student ensures the language they use in their papers is solid and precise, especially in cases where they are evaluating and explaining one or more theory, whether this is conceptual or math-based. The following are some strategies to help ensure your writing is precise and devoid of ambiguity.
Choosing Words and Phrases
Quite often, a number of words can convey a meaning that is similar, but in most case, there is just a single word that is suitable for a particular context. Take a look at this:
Example of first choice of word: “the density of a population is correlated in a positive way with the rate at which disease is transmitted.
Example of second choice of word: “the density of a population relates positively to the rate at which disease is transmitted.”
In certain situations, the word “correlated” and the word “related” can mean a similar thing. However, in science-based writing, the word “correlated” indicates an exact statistical-type relationship between a pair of variables. Typically, in this type of writing, it is not sufficient to just point to the fact that two particular variables are somehow related. Readers usually expect the writer to comprehensively explain the exact nature of the inter-variable relationship (NB if you use the word “correlation,” you need to explain in some part of your paper how you estimated this correlation). When choosing words, you should specifically say, “correlated” when that is what you mean. Do not substitute this word for one that is not so precise when there is a precise word you can use.
The same principle applies to choosing phrases. For instance, a phrase like “written work of a mathematical type” could mean a piece of science writing, but it could also suggest an engineering report. Where there is a choice, it is always best to use a specific and unambiguous phrase. This remains the case even when repetition is needed for the purpose of precision. It is preferable to repeat things than to be ambiguous. While word and phrase repetition often occur because it is necessary, it can be of real benefit if you want to emphasize key words and concepts.
Use of Figurative Speech/Language
The use of language that is figurative in nature can make a casual text engaging and interesting to read, but it is not precise language by its very definition. If you write something like, “ subjects that involved experimentation were met with deafening sound,” this does not really convey in entirely precise terms that what the writer meant is that “subjects that involved experimentation were met with the high-frequency pulsing sound of the conspecific calls of the mating season.” It can be very difficult for readers to evaluate a piece of research in an objective manner when important details are omitted, so you should leave metaphors and similes aside when writing a science paper.
How Much Detail Should You Include?
You should include whatever level of detail you think is necessary in a science paper, but you should leave out any information that is extraneous. It should be reasonably easy for readers to follow your research methods, logic, and results or findings without the distraction of having to grapple with unnecessary descriptions and meaningless facts. Here are some questions you should ask of yourself when deciding how much detail to include in your paper:
- Have I provided a clear rationale for undertaking this experiment (e.g. is it adequately demonstrated in your paper that the research question you are answering is both interesting and important)?
- Have you described the procedures and materials you have used to get results with sufficient detail to enable others to repeat your experiment(s)?
- How clear are your reasons and rationale for choosing a particular method of experimentation? Will readers be able to understand the appropriateness of your chosen methods in terms of how effectively these will answer your research question?
- Will it be possible for readers to follow the train of logic you have used to arrive at sound conclusions from the research data you collected?
You should include any type of information that helps readers to better understand your methodologies, logic, and rationale. However, any information that is surplus to this (or redundant information) is only likely to distract and confuse your readers.
Use Quantitative Descriptions … to Quantify!
Wherever it is possible, you should use quantitative descriptions as opposed to qualitative ones. When a particular phrase uses quantities that are definite, it is a lot more accurate and precise than a qualitative phrase. Look at these examples: “The rate of development at a temperature of 30°C was 10% faster than the rate of development at a temperature of 20°C.” There is a lot more precision in this statement than in a qualitative one, which might simply say, “The rate of development was much faster when the temperature was higher.”
What Can I Do to Add Clarity to My Writing?
When the paper you are working on contains complex concepts and ideas, it is very easy to be tempted to write in a complex manner. It can be quite difficult to refine and distill complex ideas so that they are easy-to-understand, but you will have to learn this skill if you are to be able to communicate effectively in a science paper. The use of complex language and making the structure of sentences overly complex are possibly the most frequent errors that scientific writers make.
Use of Language
Whenever you have the option of choosing between a term that is familiar to you or one that is obscure or very technical, it is always best to select the term you are familiar with provided it does not diminish the precision of your work. Below are some examples of complex word choices along with a selection of less complex alternatives:
- Instead of using the word “complex,” change it for the word “simple.”
- Rather than use the word “efficacious,” change it for “effective.”
- Rather than use the word “elucidate,” change it for “explain.”
- Rather than use the word “proximal, change it for “close.”
- Rather than use the word “utilize,” change it for “use.”
In the above examples, the words on the right-hand side mean the same as the words on the left-hand side but they are more straightforward and familiar, and, additionally, they are usually shorter.
However, the use of obscure and/or technical terms is justified in certain situations. Take the example of a paper that compares two strains of a virus. Here, the writer might choose to use the term “enveloped” repeatedly instead of continuously saying, “encased in membrane.” In this case, “repeatedly” is the important word. Only use a term you are not so familiar with if you are likely to need to use it a number of times. In the event you opt for a more technical term, you will need to define it clearly, as early on in your paper as you possibly can. This strategy can also be used when determining whether you should use abbreviated words or not, but you should again define all abbreviations as early in your paper as you can.
The Structure of Sentences
It is important that science-related writing is very precise, and being precise usually requires a high level of intricate detail. When you have to try to meticulously describe forces, objects, methodologies, and organisms, it is easy to get into the realm of long and complex sentence structures. You can end up with sentences that try to convey a whole lot of ideas with no pause or break. Take a look at this example:
The organ called the osmoregulatory can be found on the outer rim of the terminal papillae at the end of the dorsal spine (3rd down) and it works by expelling any sodium ions that are surplus to requirement, and the conditions need to be hypertonic-conducive to activate it.
There are a number of things that add to the complexity of the above sentence. Firstly, the action in the sentence at the end (i.e. activate) is a long step from the sentence’s subject (which is the organ called the osmoregulatory). This means that readers have a long wait before the sentence’s primary idea is made clear to them. Secondly, there are a number of redundant verbs e.g. “works,” “expels,” “and activates”. Here is a revised version:
Found at the outer rim of the body’s terminal papillae at the end of one’s 3rd dorsal spince, the organ called the osmoregulatory is used for expelling surplus sodium ions in hypertonic-conducive conditions.
The last sentence is a bit shorter, the information it conveys is the same, and it is a lot easier for readers to understand and follow. The sentence’s subject and action have been brought closer together, and any verbs that were redundant removed. It may be you noticed how even this simplified sentence has two phrases of the prepositional variety strung alongside each other e.g. “at the outer rim of …” and “at the end of one’s 3rd dorsal …” Phrases of this type do not present any problem by themselves. Indeed, they are often needed to get a sufficient amount of detail into papers like science papers. Nonetheless, lengthy strings of these types of phrases can make a sentence wander.
In fact, some sentences have been known to contain an astonishing eleven phrases of the prepositional variety, but this amount makes a sentence almost entirely unintelligible. Knowing when a sentence has too many prepositional phrases and/or when the strings within it are too long is something of a subjective judgment. However, in general terms, it is preferable to have only one of these phrases in a sentence and there can be a problem when anything over two of them are strung together.
Being Too Wordy
Almost every type of scientific text is limited in the space it is allowed. Whether it is a grant proposal, abstract, or journal article, they all have page or word limits so being able to write concisely is a great advantage. Moreover, adding words and/or phrases that are unnecessary only serves to distract readers rather than engage them. Generic type phrases are best avoided, especially where they do not contribute anything new. Certain phrases clutter up sentences and are unnecessary. For example, “it is worth noting that,” “in actual fact,” “what is interesting to note is,” and so on. Readers are well able to decide for themselves whether a paper is interesting or not and they will usually judge it by its content. Anyway, if certain information is not worthy of note or is uninteresting, it probably should not be included.
How to Make Your Writing as Objective as Possible
The tone usually found in conventional science papers is generally reflective of the philosophy of the method used in this discipline. Results are not considered valid if they cannot be repeated. Put another way, results will be deemed valid only if some other researcher conducting the same analysis and tests you have described can replicate your work. Therefore, it is usual for those writing science papers to use a tone that takes the main focus from the person doing the research and place it solely on the actual research work. The following are some style conventions that lend objectivity to science writing.
Use of Passive Rather than Active Voice
It is possible you were told at some time during your education that using the passive voice is seldom recommended unless you are writing for a science discipline. This voice creates a type of structure within a sentence whereby the person who undertakes an action is somewhat ambiguous, e.g., “it may be that you were told …” Please refer to our guide on the use of passive voice for additional information.
The reason (or rationale) for using a passive voice in science writing is the way it adds objectivity to the writing, e.g., by removing the sentence’s actor (in this case the person doing the research) from the action (e.g., the actual research). Using the passive voice can, unfortunately, create sentence structures that sound awkward and have the potential to create confusion. Hence, it is considered not to be as engaging (e.g., more tedious) than using active voice. It is for this reason a lot of style manuals recommend using the passive voice very sparingly.
At the present time, the majority of science fields prefer the active voice even where it calls for personal pronouns to be used e.g. “I,” “you,” and “we.” It feels entirely reasonable (and certainly simpler) to write, “We conducted a complex laboratory test,” rather than “a complex laboratory test was conducted,” or “we hereby present our results in this report,” instead of “results are hereby presented in this report.” Almost all of the latest editions of the available science-based style manuals recommend using active voice. However, different professors and course instructors (and perhaps journal and newspaper editors) might have their own views about this. In the event you have any doubts, consult your course instructor or journal editor. They will probably be happy to look over the paper you have written to see if you should use passive voice or not. In case you decide to use active voice including “I,” “you,” and/or “we,” here are some guidelines you may want to bear in mind:
- Remember not to start your sentences with “we” or “I.” This can take the focus from the subject you are writing about.
- Remember not to use “we” or “I” in a conjecture, regardless of whether you will or will not be substantiating this. Every word you write should be based on logic rather than subjectivity or your own biases. Avoid using emotive-type words along with “we” or “I.” For example, do not say, “We believe,” “I feel,” and so on.
- Do not use the pronoun “we” in a manner that might appear to include your reader(s) e.g. “now we can see this experiment yielding results.” Using “we” in situations like this can make the tone of your work sound condescending.
Know and Acknowledge Your Own Limitations
You should be able to support any conclusions you come to using the facts and data presented in your paper. Try not to arrive at sweeping or wide-ranging conclusions that are based on unsubstantiated assumptions or data that cannot be supported by the research of other people. Say, for instance, you find a link between the density of fur and the metabolism rate in rodents. This would not necessarily lead you to conclude that there is a correlation between the density of fur and the metabolism rate in all types of mammal. However, this is a conclusion you may well arrive at if you can cite evidence that the same link was found in over twenty other species of mammal. Evaluate the general aspects of the data available to you before you arrive at a conclusion that is extremely general.
In the course of writing this guide, the experts at WritingsCentre.com consulted a number of external works, a list of which is available on our website for your information. This is not an exhaustive list of the resources available on the topic covered in this guide. In fact, we urge you to carry out your own investigations and to look for the latest published materials on this and any other topic that interests you. We ask you not to use this guide or our reference list as a model for creating your own list of references since it may not be an exact match for your paper’s topic or the style of citation you have been asked to use. Feel free to refer to our website for additional information on formatting and citing sources.