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  • Heidi Waite

Scientific Writing: A beginner's guide

Updated: May 5, 2020


As an undergraduate, I struggled with writing especially for science. It was definitely a learning curve and I'm still learning. But, there are a lot of resources out there to help! Stanford Medicine has a free course online on this very topic. Dr. Kristin Sainani does a great job explaining the basics of science writing. This course is at your own pace and allows you to skip around. I'd really suggest going through the guided exercises and homework.


I can't do it better than Dr. Sainani, so instead, I'll just do a quick summary of her main points. These points can also serve as a good check-list when editing your scientific papers or lab reports.


Tips

  • reduce acronyms and jargon

  • use verbs (don't turn verbs into nouns; e.g. production vs. produces)

  • take out vague words that don't serve a purpose (e.g. physiologic - too broad)

  • use active voice

  • keep subject and verb near each other (you don't want any "buried" verbs)

  • cut unnecessary words and phrases (e.g. As it is well known, It can be regarded that, basic tenets of, important)

  • cut long words or phrases or unnecessary jargon

  • avoid adverbs (e.g. very, really, quite, basically) or make them more "crisp"

  • eliminate negatives (see below)

  • eliminate superfluous use of "there are/there is": e.g. There are many physicists who like to write. --> Many physicists like to write.

  • omit unnecessary prepositions: e.g. The meeting happened on Monday --> The meeting happened Monday.


Quick grammar tips:

  • "compare to": points out similarities

  • "compare with": points out differences between similar things

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  • that - restrictive (defining) pronoun, use if its followed by an essential clause

  • which - nonrestrictive (non-defining) pronoun, nonessential clause that you could surround by commas

e.g. The vial that contained her RNA was lost. (This implies there are several vials). VS. The vial, which contained her RNA, was lost.

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  • be sure to use parallelism when using "and" or "but". Pairs of ideas should be written in parallel form. e.g. The velocity decreased by 50% but the pressure decreased by only 1%. (subject-verb-x)



I hope these short notes were useful! But definitely check out the course.



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