Scientific Writing Conventions

To write well for science (and to get a good grade in this course!) you must consider three characteristics of your document:

  • Organization
  • Content
  • Correct grammar and spelling

Guidelines for Good Writing Style for Scientists

Make your writing:

1. Simple

2. Clear

3. Logical (write from an outline!!!)

4. Accurate – edit your work several times – check mechanics:

  • grammar
  • punctuation
  • spelling – Spellcheck and visual check
  • subject-verb agreement
  • format
  • organization
  • precision of language

5. Scientifically sound – check all facts!!

Revise, Revise, Revise!!!!!!

Proper Prose Style for Scientific Writing (from CBE Style Manual)

  • Sentence length & structure: Short sentences are easier to understand than long sentences. Check the length of any sentence of more than 4 typed lines. Repeating a given structure (subject-verb-object, for example) is monotonous; try to vary types of sentence structures.
  • Verbiage: See lists of suggested substitutions for wordy phrases.
  • Abstract Nouns: Use active verbs rather than abstract nouns that end in “tion” (for example, use “produce” rather than “production”). This usage usually has the added benefit of increased clarity!
  • Tense: Completed observations are past tense. References to stable conditions, directions, and conclusions are present tense. Past perfect (“Smith had completed his studies…”) and present perfect (“Moths have been studied under varying conditions…”) may be used when appropriate.
  • Subject-verb agreement: Data is a plural noun (“data are” not “data is“). Check the subject-verb agreement by one editing run-through devoted to check only this!! (It’s boring but worth it!)
  • Active voice: Current style is moving toward active voice in scientific prose. In the past, passive voice was typical. Passive voice may be properly used when the agent of action is irrelevant in context.
  • Jargon: Vocabulary so peculiar to a discipline that it inhibits rather than promotes the exchange of ideas should be avoided.
  • Gender neutrality: Use of “man” or “men” to denote the human race is not only offensive to women but also ambiguous and confusing in scientific, especially medical, writing. Use gender neutral terms.
  • Made-up words: Don’t use words not in the dictionary or that are incorrect usage (“impacted” vs “have an impact on”).
  • Appropriate abbreviation: Write out terms and designate the abbreviation the first time it occurs; thereafter, use the abbreviation when necessary.
  • Hedging: As part of communication convention, most scientists use qualifying words in their conclusions (“suggests” vs “proves”, etc.)
  • Precise usage: “Which” vs “that”; “because” vs “since”; overuse of “that” and “of”’; dangling participles; overuse or mixing of metaphors.