A very brief guide to writing

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In this post, I’ll share some guidelines and keys to success for effective writing as described in Jan A. Pechenik’s A Short Guide to Writing about Biology. Even though it’s a book aimed at scientific writing in Biology, I believe it has useful information for academic writing in many other disciplines.

Before we learn the tips and tricks of good writing, it is important to understand that all good writing has two struggles. The struggle to understand whatever it is that you want to write about, and the struggle to communicate that understanding to your readers. There are no shortcuts when it comes to being good in writing. Practice, practice, practice. Reading helps too. It helps to read a lot of good writing, and not just in Biology. I find that reading books in Philosophy and even fiction is useful for distinguishing good writing from the bad. It also helps to read well-written sentences aloud to register good patterns of writing in the brain. Since I do most of my readings in public areas where other people around, I tend to read as if I’m whispering to myself to be more actively engaged with the reading.

Moving on, here are some guidelines when writing your first draft and finalising your last. It would be a good idea for you to go through these items as a checklist before each time you start your writing assignment.

10 MAJOR RULES FOR PREPARING YOUR FIRST DRAFT

Work to understand your sources

You’ll need to overcome the struggle of understanding. Otherwise, you’ll end up with nothing worth mentioning in your paper or worse, wasting the reader’s time. It is necessary to spend time, as much as you need, to patiently wrestle with the information you have obtained from your sources. Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t understand something after working on it for a while. Discuss the material with other students or your professors! Sometimes, they’ll be able to cover your blind spots, give advice, or unexpectedly give you new ideas.

Don’t quote from your sources

Imagine that you’ve got a friend who’s fairly intelligent, knows a bit on the subject you’re writing about and you would like to share about it. How would you describe your work to your friend? If you can’t explain things to others using your own words, chances are you don’t even understand the content as well as you’ve thought. If you’ve directly quoted from your sources, the reader might assume that you do not understand the material.

Don’t plagiarize

I suppose many students will not commit plagiarism because it is the most serious of crimes in academia and in doing so, students might risk failing a course entirely. Plagiarism shows a lack of conscientious effort because even if certain words have been rephrased here and there, or the order of words have been changed, it is still plagiarism. To avoid committing plagiarism, you’d need to have enough practice so that you’d be able to generate your own good ideas and present them as an original work of yours.

Think about where you’re going before you write

One of the joys of writing, I find, is that the real work of writing lies in the thinking before the writing. Good writing reflects clear thinking and bad writing reflects fuzzy thinking. The hard work of thinking before writing each draft mustn’t be avoided. What is one key idea you would like to give as a gift to your reader? Think before you speak. Think of a plan and have a destination in mind. And as you write your first draft, new ideas might come in to play but you’ve got to have a plan to keep these new ideas in focus. Gradually, your writing will clarify your thinking and vice versa.

Failure_to_CommunicateSome people like to think on the keyboard as they write. Others, a pen and paper. Me, I like to have a big enough whiteboard to map out my thoughts and ideas, like Dr. Greg House.

Practice summarising information

Summarising information is an important and useful skill to have. If you can summarise the findings of one research paper, you could do the same for other similar papers and see if there’s any relationship between such papers. During one of my internships, I had a principle investigator who would often prompt a 2-sentence summary of my weekly experiments and it proved to be a good practice to present information in my own words.

A good summary is:

  • Accurate
  • Complete with all major points
  • Self-sufficient (the summary is understood by the reader even if the reader has not read the original text)
  • In your own words

Write to illuminate, not to impress

Successful communication is the second struggle to overcome. Use the simplest words and simplest phrasing you can to convey your message. It might even make you sound smarter. A scientific paper can be quite technical and because of this, reading one can feel like a painful chore. Avoid all acronyms and define all specialised terminology. Don’t try to impress your readers with big words or “flowery language” as I like to call it. Focus instead on getting your point across.

Write for your classmates and your future self

Writing shouldn’t be done just for writing’s sake. Write for an audience. Imagine that you are writing for your fellow classmates. Surely you’d want your work to be an interesting and pleasurable read for them, so your writing would have to be easily understandable. You should also write so that it would be meaningful to you, should you read your writing again far in the future. Keep both of these audiences in mind – your peers and future self – and your writing should improve.

Support all statements of fact and opinion with evidence

Facts and opinions must be supported by evidence or explanation if you want your argument to be convincing to the reader. Statements are usually backed up by references to another writer’s  data or even references to statistical analyses such as the results of a t-test.

Always distinguish fact from possibility

As you read from your sources, you’ll come up with your own opinions on things, but be careful not to state your opinion as though it were a fact. Use words and phrases such as ‘seems’ or ‘the data suggests’ to indicate expressions of opinion.

Allow time for revision

It helps to take some time off after writing your first draft before making revisions and starting on the next draft. Certain ideas that you have been having problems with might become clearer after a day’s worth of break (or maybe two) and you can revisit these issues on your next draft. Also, start your writing assignments as soon as possible after receiving them and allow a few days between your final drafts for thoughtful revision. One of the great things about submitting a masterfully written assignment is not only about the quality of writing achieved, but the quality of learning you get from the assignment as well.

So far, we’ve covered 10 things to take note when writing your first few drafts. Now, let’s look at how you can refine your final draft.

7 MAJOR RULES FOR DEVELOPING YOUR FINAL DRAFT

Stick to the point

Delete any irrelevant information, regardless of how interesting it is to you. Don’t let unnecessary ideas or concepts interrupt the flow of your writing.

Say exactly what you mean

Words can be tricky. So don’t be ambiguous with your phrasing as it makes readers guess and they often do so incorrectly. Good scientific writing is precise. It helps to read aloud what you’ve written and listen out for poorly written areas.

Never make the reader read back up

Don’t let your reader navigate your writing. Map out your writing well by using transitions (‘in contrast’, ‘as a consequence of’). These sign posts that you’ve put down for the reader help to build a clear and logical argument that they can follow easily.

Link your paragraphs in a similar manner too, and it is helpful to remind the readers periodically of what they have already read. A short summary would do.

Avoid the casual use of the words ‘it’, ‘they’ and ‘their’ as well to eliminate any ambiguity. Sometimes these words can force the reader to read the preceding sentence to find out what ‘it’ refers to exactly. Don’t be afraid to repeat a word that has appeared before. If it’s the right word and avoids ambiguity, use it!

Don’t make readers work harder than they have to

Never put the burden of interpretation on the reader. For example, never write something like:

The difference in absorption rates is quite clearly shown in Table 1.

Instead, write something like:

Clearly, alcohol is more readily absorbed into the bloodstream from distilled beverages than from brewed beverages (Table 1).

That way, the reader knows exactly what you have in mind and can examine Table 1 to make their own interpretations of your results.

Be concise

Eliminate as many words as possible without any loss of content.This helps your readers to digest the paper more easily, and read it with pleasure and less impatience. As an example, why say:

Our results were based upon observations of short-term changes in behavior. These results showed that feeding rates did not vary with the size of the caterpillar.

When you can get away with just:

Feeding rates did not appear to vary with caterpillar size.

Being concise not only makes your writing clearer and more aesthetic, it also saves costs in publication where cutting down on extra words saves money to publish a scientific paper.

Don’t be teleological

I suppose this point is specifically for biological studies. Don’t attribute a sense of purpose to other living things, especially when discussing evolution. Don’t write statements such as ‘Insects may have evolved flight in order to escape predators.’, which falsely suggest that evolution has an element of behavioral desire. Instead, write: ‘Flight among insects may have been selected for in response to predation pressure.’, which shows, more accurately, the nature of evolution as random genetic events and chance before selection occurs.

Proofread

Many students would like to receive a good grade for their writing yet many are also not keen to proofread. Maybe. Nonetheless, there is a subjective element when it comes to a professor grading your work, or a committee reading a grant proposal. Sloppy work could suggest sloppy thinking and it is insulting to the reader because it implies that you don’t value their time. In addition, a carelessly proofread paper may suggest that the research was carelessly performed too. It can tarnish a professional’s image. Turn in a piece of work that you’d be proud to call your own!

There you have it. A list worth going through at the start of each semester or whenever you begin a new writing assignment. If you’ve any tips of your own or articles on good writing to share, please do so in the comments!

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