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I have been out of school for 5 years. My previous writing experience was nearly 10 years ago as I completed a BA in 18th century literature of a foreign language, and a BA in cultural anthropology. I've changed field for my masters degree and I am currently working on a PhD in a biomedical/population health science. This year I have struggled through most of the program because of the writing. One issue I've had is that qualities I once considered as strengths are bringing on my demise. The eloquent communication, pungent analysis and metaphorical language are no longer strengths and succinctness is not part of my style ( I actually don't know how to be brief). My mother tongue is a romance language, which may to some degree speak to my style of communication (but this is only an excuse). An honest self-assessment has shown me that when making a point I always resort to using an allegory to build suspense or just provide clear contextual knowledge to my audience.

My issues is this, in scientific writing manuscripts are often limited to 3500 words and providing long thought-provoking expository narratives translates into a ramble or in the worse case, it appears that I am just spilling out information to it's legitimize myself in the eyes of the audience.

Short of taking a technical writing course, I am trying to work on these issues on my own over the summer. My plan so far is to write a 500-words weekly blog post (NYTimes editorial style) on an issue in my field and to conduct as many critical appraisals of articles I review in preparation of a literature review I am working on as a way to familiarize myself with technical writing style for scientific publications.

I don't know if this is the best route, and would like to hear your suggestions on how to proceed. What type of activities and deliverables do you think would help me work on honing technical writing skills, aside from working on a manuscript? What reference books/websites have you used in the past to help you improve technical scientific writing for academia?

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First, don't be too hard on yourself. There are many scientists who struggle to write clearly and concisely. Additionally, some of your writing skills may be hidden strengths. For instance, being able to communicate complex scientific ideas to your readers through allegories can be very valuable.

Still, there are certain activities and resources that can be helpful. The following are standard texts in my graduate program for improving writing skills:

  • Gopen, G. D. (2004). The sense of structure: writing from the reader's perspective. Longman.
  • Gopen, G. D. (2004). Expectations: Teaching writing from a reader's perspective. Pearson Longman.
  • Gopen, G. D., & Swan, J. A. (1990). The science of scientific writing. American Scientist,78(6), 550-558.
  • Silvia, P. J. (2007). How to write a lot: A practical guide to productive academic writing. American Psychological Association.
  • Zeiger, M. (2000). Essentials of writing biomedical research papers - 2nd Edition. McGraw-Hill.

I attended one of Gopen's writing seminars on my campus several years ago and found it to be very helpful. It made me radically re-think how I organize my writing and has helped me streamline my papers. His "The sense of structure" is an excellent starting text, while "Expectations" provides more supplemental information. Gopen & Swan (1990) will give you a nice overview of his technique. Silvia's book is given to all students when they enter the program. It's short, well-written, and covers not only writing well, but writing efficiently. Zeiger's book, like Gopen's, is more about the mechanics of writing and will help you clarify and shorten your writing.

In addition to these texts, I've found three techniques that have improved my writing.

"Kill your darlings"

Start by writing your initial draft of a paper in whatever style seems most fluid for you. Don't worry about reducing your length or verbosity at this point; that will probably hinder your flow of thought and slow the writing process. Once you've written the first draft you can worry about cutting for length and clarity. Next, take that first, raw, overly-expository draft of your paper and cut it by 20% of its length. I prefer to do this by word count, but you can do it by page length. Let it sit for a day or two, then cut the second draft by 20% of its current length. You can continue this exercise until you hit a roadblock and feel you can cut no more, but I usually go through at least three cycles. At this point, if you are able, give the paper to a close friend or classmate and ask them to cut 20%. Often, they aren't as married to certain phrasings and they are able to do this readily! Granted, 20% is an arbitrary number, but the point is to learn how to reduce the volume of your writing gradually. Overtime you'll be surprised how much more natural this will become. A quick google search can provide you with examples of common words and phrases that are generally unnecessary in writing, providing you with a starting point for this task.

Keep a "Look Book" of well-written articles

I have a folder on my computer where I keep articles or pieces of writing that are particularly well-written. These are often instances where complex ideas were explained clearly and succinctly. I especially earmark any examples that pertain directly to my area of study. When I feel stuck writing a particular section or paragraph, I look back at these examples for inspiration.

Write using active voice

This suggestion is a bit contentious. Traditionally, scientific students have been encouraged to write in the passive voice, and some faculty and journals still require this convention. In recent years, the scientific community has begun to acknowledge the benefits of writing in an active voice (Hudson, 2013). Active voice is generally clearer and is often more concise. If your program will allow it, this can be an effective way to reduce the complexity of your writing while maintaining your meaning.

Additional Citations

  • Thank you. This is extremely helpful. You have answered my question and provided an invaluable response. – Octavia Butler Jun 25 '15 at 3:43
  • Ironically, your sentence "Traditionally, scientific students have been encouraged to write in the passive voice, and some faculty and journals still require this convention" is a good illustration of how the passive voice can be useful. – half-pass Aug 15 '17 at 4:56
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In my own experience, I have found the best way to improve my writing is by reading papers from groups who publish high-quality work. I know with my first, first-author paper, I went through writing probably 50 different versions. It's just something that takes time to work on and develop. I know I will continue trying to improve as well. Best of luck!

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I have found David Lindsay's books very invaluable in my journey of scientific writing and I would therefore recommend them in addition to those listed above.

  1. A guide to scientific writing by David Lindsay. This is a very concise book which gives you an overview of scientific writing.

  2. "Scientific writing = thinking in words"-David Lindsay. It's available online at this link.

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