The “ABC” of writing or editing scientific manuscript

If you’re doing science, you need to, inevitably, write a manuscript. I have read and collected, from various sources, some of the important points about writing in science. The most important and recommendable source is the “Writing in Science” course by Stanford University! I would like to share my collection with my readers. Don’t worry, I will keep it short and concise so that you don’t need to read it like a novel but you can always refer to it while writing.

The aim of the writer should be to make the manuscript clear, elegant, and stylish. It should have streamlined flow of ideas for which the writer must follow some set of rules. After completing the sentence, the writers must ask themselves whether it is: readable, understandable, and enjoyable to read.

Editing the manuscript:

Sentence Level Editing:

Writing a manuscript always starts with editing at the lowest level, which is a sentence. For editing the manuscript at the sentence level, the writer should keep in mind a few things:

  1. Use active voice (Subject + Verb + Object). It is livelier and easy to read.
  2. Write with verbs (instead of nouns).
    • Use strong verbs
    • Avoid turning verbs into nouns
    • Don’t bury the main verb
    • Pick right verb
    • Use “to be” verbs purposefully and sparingly.
    • Don’t turn spunky verbs into clunky nouns.
    • “Compared to” to point out similarities between different things. “Compared with” to point out differences between similar things (often used in science).
    • “That” defining. “Which” non-defining
  3. Avoid using “his/her”. Instead, use “their”.
  4. Cut unnecessary words and phrases ruthlessly. Get rid of
    • Dead-weight words and phrases. E.g., as it is well known, as it has been shown.
    • Empty words and phrases. E.g., basic tenets of, methodologic, important.
    • Long words or phrases.
    • Unnecessary jargons and acronyms
    • Repetitive words or phrases
    • Adverbs. E.g., very, really, quickly, basically, generally etc
  5. Eliminate negatives, and, superfluous uses of “there are/ there is”.
  6. Omit needless prepositions. Change, “They agreed that it was true” to “they agreed it was true”.
  7. Experiment with punctuation (comma, colon, dash, parentheses, semicolon, period). Use them to vary sentence structure.
    • Semicolon connects two independent clauses.
    • Colon to separate items in a list, quote, explanation, conclusion or amplification.
    • Parentheses to insert an afterthought/explanation.
    • Dash to add emphasis, or to insert an abrupt definition or description, join or condense. Don’t overuse it, or it loses its impact.
  8. Pairs of ideas joined by “and”, “or”, or “but” should be written in parallel form. E.g., The velocity decreased by 50% but the pressure decreased by only 10%.

Paragraph level Editing:

  1. 1 paragraph = 1 idea
  2. Give away the punch line early.
  3. The logical flow of ideas. General -\> specific-\> take home message. Logical arguments: if a then b; a therefore b.
  4. Parallel sentence structure.
  5. If necessary then transition words.
  6. The emphasis at the end.
  7. Variable sentence length. Long, short, long
  8. Follow: Arguments, counter-arguments, rebuttals

Writing Process:

Many writers are not sure how to start and how to organize their work. Here are some tips.

  1. Prewriting: give 70% time
    • Get Organized first
      • Arrange key facts and citations from literature into a crude road map- think in paragraphs and sections.
      • Like ideas should be grouped; like paragraphs should be grouped.
  2. Writing the first draft: give 10% time
    • Don’t be a perfectionist: get the ideas down in complete order.et
    • Focus on logical organization
    • Write it quickly and efficiently
  3. Revision: give 20% time
    • Read out your work loud: Brain processes the spoken word differently
    • Do a verb check: Underline the main verb in each sentence (lackluster verbs, passive verbs, buried verbs).
    • Cut clutter: Watch out for: dead weight words, empty words, long words and phrases, Unnecessary jargons and acronyms, repetitive words or phrases, adverbs.
    • Do an organizational review: tag each paragraph with a phrase or sentence that sums up the main point.
    • Get feedback from others: ask someone outside your department to read your manuscript. They should be able to grasp: the main findings, take-home messages, and significance of your work. Ask them to point out particularly hard-to-read sentences and paragraphs.
    • Get editing help: find a good editor to edit your work.

 

Checklist for Final Draft

  1. Check for consistency: the values of any variable (such as the mean temperature of your data) used in different sentences, paragraphs or sections should be the same.
  2. Check for numerical consistency:
    • Numbers in your abstract should match the numbers in your tables/figures/text,
    • Numbers in the text should match those in tables/figures.
  3. Check for references:
    • Does that information really exist in that paper?
    • Always cite/go back to primary source.

The Original Manuscript:

Recommended order of writing:

  1. Tables and Figures: Very important
    • Should stand-alone and tell a complete story. The reader should not need to refer back to the text.
    • Use fewest figures/tables
    • Do not present the same data in both table and figure.
    • Figures: Visual impact, show trends and patterns, tell a quick story, tell a whole story, highlight particular result
      • Keep it simple (If it’s too complex then maybe it belongs to the table)
      • Make easy to distinguish the group.
    • Tables: give precise values.
      • Use superscript symbols to identify footnotes and give footnotes to explain experimental details.
      • Use three horizontal lines for table format.
      • Make sure everything lines up and looks professional
      • Use a reasonable number of significant figures
      • Give units
      • Omit unnecessary columns
  2.  Results:
    • Summarize what the data show
    • Point out simple relationships
    • Describe big picture trends
    • Cite figures or tables that present supporting data.
    • Avoid repeating the numbers that already available in tables or figures.
    • Break into subsections with headings, if necessary.
    • Complement the information that is already in tables and figures
    • Give precise values that are not available in the figure
    • Report the percent change or percent difference if the absolute values are given in tables.
    • Don’t forget to talk about negative results.
    • Reserve information about what you did for the methods section
    • Reserve comments on the meaning of your results for the discussion section.
    • Use past tense for completed actions:
      • We found that…
      • Women were more likely to…
      • Men smoked more cigarettes than…
    • Use the present tense for assertions that continue to be true, such as what the tables show, what you believe, and what the data suggest:
      • Figure 1 shows…
      • The findings confirm….
      • The data suggest…
      • We believe that this shows…
      • Use the active voice
  3. Methods:
    • Give a clear overview of what was done.
    • Give enough information to replicate the study.
    • Be complete but make life easy for your reader:
      • Break into smaller subsections with subheadings
      • Cite a reference for commonly used methods
      • Display a flow diagram or table where possible.
      • May use jargon and the passive voice more liberally
    • Use past tense to report methods (“we measured”)
    • Use present tense to describe how data are presented in the paper (“data are summarized as means +- SD”)
  4.  Introduction:
    • Typically 3 paragraphs long (recommended range 2-5)
    • Should focus on the specific hypothesis/aim of your study
    • Information comes in Cone format:
      • What’s known: Paragraph 1
      • What’s unknown: limitations and gaps in previous studies: paragraph 2
      • Your burning question/hypothesis/aim: paragraph 3
      • Experimental approach: paragraph 3
      • Why your experimental approach is new, different and important: paragraph 3
    • Keep paragraphs short
    • Write for the general audience (clear, concise, non-technical)
    • Do not answer the research questions.
    • Summarize at a high level
  5. Discussion:
    • Information comes in inverted cone format
    • Answer the questions asked
    • Support your conclusion
    • Defend your conclusion
    • Give a big-picture take-home message: what do my results mean and why should anyone care. Make sure your take-home message is clear and consistent.
    • Use active voice
    • Tell it like a story
    • Don’t travel too far from your data
    • Focus on limitations that matter
    • Verb Tense:
      • Past when referring to study details, results, analyses, and background research. E.g., we found that…, Subjects may have experienced…, Miller et al. found…
      • Present when talking about what data suggest. E.g, the greater weight loss suggests…, the explanation for this difference is not clear, potential explanation includes…
  6. Abstract:
    • Overview of the main story
    • Gives highlights from each section of the paper
    • Limited length (100-300 words)
    • Stands on its own
      • Background
      • Question/aim/hypothesis

      • Experiment
      • Results
      • Conclusion
      • Implication, speculation or recommendation

Plagiarism:

In the end, it is profoundly important to stay away from plagiarism. Do not pass off other people’s writing (or tables and figures) as your own.

What is plagiarism:

  1. Cutting or pasting sentences or even phrases
  2. Slightly rewriting or re-arranging others’ words. It is unlikely that 2 people will come up with exact 7-8 strings in a sentence independently.

-Utpal Kumar

Institute of Earth Sciences, Academia Sinica

Published by

utpalkumaries

For any comments and suggestions, write to me at: utpalkumar50@gmail.com

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