The rules of (science) writing


    The quotation, “If you can’t explain something to a first year student, then you haven’t really understood it,” is commonly attributed to Richard Feynman. It highlights the fundamental challenge of being a good scientist: communicating your discoveries to others. This is a challenge that the scientific establishment only sometimes meets. After delving into the books provided by our university library addressing scientific writing, I have contrived this précis of commonly expressed concerns from critics (at least those that were so bothered by the mayhem of science writing that they felt it necessary to write a book about it).

    Jean-Luc Lebrun develops a clever acronym to keep in mind when considering the FOCCCI of your writing: Fluid, Organized, Clear, Concise, Convincing, and Interesting. He emphasizes that truly proficient writers will MINIMIZE the time needed to read and MAXIMIZE the motivation of the readers. I find this advice holds true for all forms of science writing, be it a grant or an article.

    General advice for minimizing the time (and energy) needed to read your paper:

    Keep it concise

    Concision is only partially related to overall word count. It is about using as few words as necessary to express an idea while maintaining clarity. Help the reader better understand your paper by reducing how much information must be retained in his/her working memory. We want to make reading less laborious so the reader can successfully finish a paragraph and bear in mind the main idea.

    RTR (Remember the Reader)

    For whom are you writing? While it becomes increasingly difficult to put yourself in the shoes of someone who is not an expert in your field, it is important to be aware of the level of expertise of your audience. Define ambiguous terms and adjust usage of vernacular appropriately.


    It may be frowned upon by your high school English teacher, but for busy researchers that are merely skimming your paper, repetition may be necessary to emphasize your main focus. The reader will most certainly not remember the details of your paper. You may have learned this as “the take-home message.” To prevent ambiguity and leave your readers happy, do it like Cheeseboard and give them an extra slice of your message to take home.

    Suggestions for maximizing attention and motivation are as follows:

    “Attention Grabbers”

    Not to be bold, but do I have your attention? I am not suggesting we turn our grant applications into a Las Vegas strip of font-formatting rendezvous, but if you have one sentence that laconically encapsulates the main idea, making it bold could be both dignified and appreciated.

    Meet expectations

    Your readers expect evidence for your claims. They expect you to be addressing something novel (or at least something interesting) in a logical cascade. Making an outline may help you to meet your own expectations.

    Move the reader

    Move your reader forward with words like “besides”, “moreover”, etc. Let your reader rest and review with phrases like “briefly put” or “for example”. These words create momentum to keep your reader reading.

    Engage your reader with questions

    We all know how strange, bizarre, and intriguing scientific research can be. Without drowning your data in superfluous analogies, you can still create a sense of suspense to keep your reader on the edge of his/her chair. Do you ever feel excited when you are reading a good book, so much so that you cannot put it down until you have finished? That, my friend, is a good writer.

    In this article, I ask for your humble opinion. Personally, I love to share what I have learned and hear about what others have gained from their experiences. If somewhere in this rigmarole you found some insight, or you remembered something you already knew but had temporarily forgotten, please share a comment so we can all become better science writers.

    We the writers (and, ultimately, the readers) of scientific writing will thank you.

    For those interested in reading more about science writing, here are some recently published books available in Marian Koshland Bioscience and Natural Resources Library:

    Ascheron, Claus and Kickuth, Angela. Make your Mark in Science: Creativity, Presenting, Publishing, and Patents. A Guide for Young Scientists. New Jerser: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2005. Print.

    Lebrun, Jean-Luc. Scientific Writing: A Reader and Writer’s Guide. London: World Scientific Publishing Co., 2007. Print.

    Goldbort, Robert. Writing for Science. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2006. Print.