Tips for Effective Scientific Writing
Published on June 18, 2018
Do you enjoy creating scientific communications? Are you trying to launch your career or build your reputation as a science writer? Are you unsure of how to write attention-grabbing and engaging articles?
Before you start typing, ask yourself what you want your content to accomplish. Know your objectives from the beginning, keep them in mind as you write, and revisit them often to ensure your article is on track to achieve its intended purpose.
I follow these principles while writing scientific articles and hope you find them useful.
- Know your audience. Science and medical writing cover multiple fields, such as research, journalism, and pharmaceutical and health information. It may sound obvious but is worth reiterating: Your writing must target your audience and subject area. For example, the language you’d use to describe the mechanism of action of a new anticancer drug to a physician probably isn’t what you’d use to explain it to your grandma (unless she’s a physician, that is).
- Use a catchy opening sentence. Today’s Digital Age has spawned a population with a surprisingly short attention span. Instead of leading off with a generalized impact statement, craft a first sentence that demands the reader’s attention and entices them to read more.
- Tell a story about real people. Let’s say you want to create awareness of a disease. Scientists often try to emphasize the relevance of their research topic by providing statistics. Numbers are important, but when writing for a general audience, what’s equally, if not more, important is to show that the issue you’re discussing affects individuals who are just like them—people they can relate to. What better way to make this case than to tell a story about real people? For instance, if you’re writing about a disease such as fibromyalgia, include an example or a case study to demonstrate the disease’s impact and how the chronic pain it causes hinders even routine activities we take for granted.
- Keep it simple. The demands of science writing differ from those of conventional academic writing (for journals, grants, etc). Often, most of the audience are not subject-matter experts; hence, the writer should explain complex scientific terms and provide accurate definitions to help the reader easily understand the content. Simultaneously, the writer should avoid being overly descriptive. The ability to concisely summarize large bodies of information develops over time, but it will serve you well throughout your writing career. Knowing your objectives and audience is key!
- Be active. Avoid the passive voice, unnecessary jargon, and convoluted sentences. When I started as an undergraduate researcher, I believed these things would help my writing exude authority and command respect. In reality, the passive voice can give your writing a distant, impersonal feel. Several reputable scientific journals and organizations recommend using the active voice (however, in some cases the passive voice is accepted or even preferred).
- Fact check. Last but not least—and probably most important—ensure that the information you convey is scientifically accurate. If you’re creating medical content about disease states or the effects of drugs and treatments, it’s especially important to remember that your audience may use that information to make crucial decisions about their health. Whenever possible, ask someone familiar with the topic to go through your writing/article and verify its accuracy. Some reputed science and medical communications companies employ dedicated fact checkers and researchers for this purpose.
Remember that not all of these rules are absolute, as writers have individual styles and preferences. However, they can be useful guidelines to help you keep your writing focused, concise, and accurate.
This article was originally published in unedited form in the science outreach website Science Center.