Getting What You Want from Your Science Writing: Part I

computer_keyboardGood science writing is like good writing in any discipline, the writing communicates an idea or concept to the reader in a clear fashion. The goal of the science writer is not to sound smart or elitist by using vague verbs and abstract nouns that make the reader search for meaning in the text. Instead, the goal of the science writer is to explain scientific concepts and ideas clearly and engage the reader.

Clear writing is an essential ingredient of any communication and especially scientific communication. For example, in Science, we don’t encourage clear writing, we insist on it. (Dr. Alan Leshner, [1])

So, good science writing, like any writing, is not evaluated on how many multi-syllable words it contains or how impressive it sounds: good writing is evaluated on the reader’s response to the writing. Did the target reader understand the message? Could the reader remember the message? Could the reader follow the instructions successfully or make the necessary decision? Did the reader do what you wanted (i.e., sign off on your dissertation or fund your grant)?

Becoming a world-recognized novelist or highly acclaimed science writer requires talent in addition to basic writing skills. However, most of us can improve our general writing skills by applying a few basic principles to what we write. In this blog series, we will explore ten simple principles that you can use to make your writing more effective.

The first principle: Know your audience, purpose and desired outcome.

I realized that the purpose of writing is to inflate weak ideas, obscure poor reasoning and inhibit clarity.—Calvin (from Calvin and Hobbes)

Audience. No matter how precisely and deliberately you write about your science, your efforts are wasted if the members of your target audience do not understand what you wrote. If a journal editor sends you a copy of Strunk and White, The Elements of Style, along with your rejected manuscript, you can rest assured that you didn’t communicate your message.

Ask yourself when your readers will encounter your work. If you are writing something that will be read at the lab bench, you probably need to use a “modular” approach and create sections that can stand alone. Your text may need to be written in numbered steps. You will want your writing to be as concise as possible so that it can be understood at a glance. If your writing is intended for more leisurely reading, you can use longer sentences and paragraphs, and you can create a piece that leads the reader from beginning to end, with the assumption that they read the entire document.

Purpose. Why are you writing this document? Your purpose will dictate much of your writing style and organization. For instance, a piece that is primarily educational may be organized around a main theme with several supporting points. If you are creating a protocol for a new techniques, your writing will probably involve a chronological series of steps. If you are trying to convince people of the quality of your science, you might organize your writing by stating your hypothesis and countering each argument or objection to that hypothesis. If you are trying to get published in a particular journal, the instructions to authors will tell you whether or not your results and discussion should be combined, whether methods will be part of figure legends, and how long your abstract should be.

Your purpose will also keep you on track. If you are writing a paper to discuss the use of cell-free protein synthesis systems to study the endoplasmic reticulum pathway, you probably don’t need a diversion into the details of the intrinsic apoptotic pathway. As you write and review, evaluate each sentence to see if it contributes to the topic or purpose of the document.

Would all of your committee members approve your dissertation and heap unqualified praise upon you?

Desired outcome. If this piece of writing were perfectly crafted, what would be the outcome of your target audience reading it? Would your grant be funded? Would your paper be published without revision? Would all of your committee members approve your dissertation and heap unqualified praise upon you? If you write with the outcome in mind, you are more likely to achieve it. For instance, if you really want your paper in Cell, follow the instructions to authors. If you want your grant funded, be sure you build your case by using the appropriate rationale, and again, follow the instructions to authors.

Literature cited

  1. Plain Language. (accessed 02 June 2009)
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Michele Arduengo

Michele Arduengo

Supervisor, Digital Marketing Program Group at Promega Corporation
Michele earned her B.A. in biology at Wesleyan College in Macon, GA, and her PhD through the BCDB Program at Emory University in Atlanta, GA where she studied cell differentiation in the model system C. elegans. She taught on the faculty of Morningside University in Sioux City, IA, and continues to mentor science writers and teachers through volunteer activities. Michele supervises the digital marketing program group at Promega, leads the social media program and manages Promega Connections blog.

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