The aim of this section is to provide the basics you need to produce accurate and effective scientific writing. It is divided into two main parts, Writing Style and Writing a Manuscript, and each of these is divided into topics: click on each topic below for the detail. There is also a Resources section at the end.
These pages use grammatical terms such as verb, noun, passive and active voice, tense and so on. If you are not familiar with these terms you will need to revise them in order to get the most from the material here.
All the material included in the Scientific Writing pages has been provided by Dr John Dixon, of Libra Scientific Communications Ltd, who retains the copyright. John delivers the division's in person course Scientific Writing: Core Skills.
The first most important thing you must do is to think about your audience(s), the language they use and abbreviations they are familiar with. What is interesting and relevant to them? Often readers will not have time to read everything in a document - they will only dip into what you've written. Therefore audiences need structure, signposts and logical flow. They also need clear, accurate language with straightforward non-technical vocabulary that describes your research. You do not want to distract your readers with dense text that contains unfamiliar jargon, abbreviations and acronyms.
There is only one essential goals in scientific writing: clarity. (Robert Day)
If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough. (Albert Einstein)
For details on how to write with clarity, click on the links below.
Summary of key points on writing style
The writing style most enjoyed by readers is usually one which contains varying sentence and paragraph length, familiar (nontechnical) vocabulary and a blend of the active and passive voice.
- Construct simple, clear sentences and consider splitting sentences above 30 words.
- Consider using the active voice when appropriate.
- Avoid smothered verbs.
- Keep acronyms and abbreviations to a minimum; define any unfamiliar ones at first use.
- Use tenses consistently.
- Don’t be afraid to use familiar (and shorter) nontechnical words.
- Think about paragraph construction and ways to make sentences flow from one to the next.
- Aim to organise the chapters/section of your documents in a logical sequence.
- Remember that the appearance of your document is important, white space being key.
Writing a manuscript can be a scary challenge for researchers early in their careers. However, the task can be made easier if you are armed with ideas about how to plan your writing and guidance on best practice for constructing each section of the manuscript. The sections below provide guidance - click on each topic for more details.
Dr John Dixon, author of these notes on Scientific Writing, has kindly provided them as a handbook: Notes on Effective Scientific Writing (download as a PDF).
The ACS Style Guide. A Manual for Authors and Editors. 1997., 2nd Edition. Editor: Janet S. Dodd. Washington, DC, American Chemical Society.
Alley, M. 1996. The Craft of Scientific Writing. Third Edition, New York, Springer-Verlag.
Burchfield, R. W. 2004. Fowler's Modern English Usage, Oxford, Oxford University Press
Day, R. A. 1995. Scientific English: A Guide for Scientists and Other Professionals, USA, Oryx Press.
Dixon, J., Alder, L. & Fraser, J. 2016. How to Publish in Biomedicine: 500 Tips for Success., Third Edition. CRC Press.
Gastel, B. & Day, R. A. 2017. How to write and publish a scientific paper, Eighth Edition. Cambridge University Press.
Jenicek, M. 2006. How to read, understand, and write 'Discussion'sections in medical articles. An exercise in critical thinking. Medical science monitor, 12, SR28-SR36.
O'Connor, M. 1991. Writing successfully in science, London, Routledge.