Text sculpting (a short guide to writing scientific English)

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TIR‘s guide to asking questions in scientific seminars (“Catechism“) remains one of the most popular to date, and in a similar vein we’ll be producing a series of “How to…” guides to cover some of the essential but often counterintuitive skills needed by the modern researcher. First up: a short guide on how to write scientific English. Later on we’ll look at how to actually produce a full scientific report/paper.

1. Everybody has to learn 

Broadly speaking, there are two types of student when it comes to writing scientific English: the native English-speaker, and the non-native English-speaker. The former has to learn that scientific English is a distinct dialect and is not the same as churning out an A-level prose essay (watch out for those flowery adjectives!). The latter has to get to grips with both the language itself and the peculiarities of the scientific dialect (native German-speakers – curb your use of colons!).

2. Separate the scientific argument from the scientific English

Do everything in bullet points to begin with. That way you can see the flow of your argument more clearly and reorganisation is much easier. Only once you’ve settled on a structure should you write things out in full. Often, it involves little more than turning the bullet point lists into paragraphs.

3. Choose your voice

Active versus passive. The active voice is more direct and simpler. The passive is more detached but also sounds more objective. The very simplicity of the active voice can come at a cost – a blurring of observation and interpretation, making bias harder to avoid. The passive voice is harder to write but its dispassionate tone is – classically speaking – more appropriate to the objective ideals of scientific work.

4. Verb tenses

Use the present tense to refer to existing knowledge (“Trypanosomes are unicellular pathogens”). Use the past tense for describing what you did (“The cytoskeleton was labelled with anti-tubulin antibodies”).

5. Keep your sentences short

Commas should be treated as a precious luxury. Try to restrict yourself to one thought per sentence (it makes citations much easier if you stick to this). For fluency, link the sentences. In other words, use each sentence to build incrementally on the content of the one before it. Use flowery touches (“remarkably”, “incredibly”) as sparingly as possible, if at all.

6. Be objective

Be careful to separate your observations from your interpretations. What you measured, observed, quantified is one thing; what you concluded is another. Remember that your readers will accept your observations but may not share your interpretations. Keep your interpretation to a minimum (strictly speaking, it belongs only in Discussion sections) – it should be applied only if it’s necessary to understand what comes next.

7. Get feedback

It’s amazing how easy it is to be misinterpreted. Your own familiarity with the material can sometimes blind you to alternative readings of the same turn of phrase. Show your text to several colleagues (not just one or two!) to check that it’s unambiguous and understandable.

8. Beware jargon

This applies particularly to Materials & Methods sections. Some common errors include: “transformed into bacteria” instead of “used to transform bacteria”; “PCRed the DNA”, instead of “amplified the DNA using PCR”; “spun the cells” instead of “sedimented/pelleted the cells by centrifugation”; “ran a gel” instead of “separated the DNA/protein using electrophoresis”. What is being done, and how? Name counterions for buffers (it’s Tris-HCl pH 8, not Tris pH 8). Some useful verbs: separated, sedimented, expressed, analysed, visualised, pelleted, detected, labelled, amplified, quantified, measured.

9. It should be fun to write

Science is at heart a creative activity (coming up with hypotheses to explain the natural world and then testing them), and this is one of the most creative parts of it. Scientific writing is like producing a sculpture, but with words – the fun is whittling away at the text until you’ve trimmed it of all ambiguity and imprecision. Seeing your text progressively mature can and should be a pleasure. It also helps you organise your own thoughts and ideas. (That doesn’t mean it’s easy, mind!)

10. It should be fun to read

There’s a common misconception that scientific English is dull. This is not the case. If a paper is dull, that means it’s badly written. If a paper is hard to follow, that means it’s badly written. Clarity of thought is an exhilarating thing, and it will draw the reader like a beacon.

For a longer presentation of the topic, and one that’s targeted at the absolute beginner (especially people who do not speak or write English as a native language), TIR warmly recommends* Tim Skern’s “Writing Scientific English” (UTB GmbH, 2009).

 *Full disclosure – Tim is a former colleague of Brooke’s at the Max F. Perutz Laboratories.

 

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