Phil Gibbons, a colleague from The Australian National University, told his class “undergrads are crap writers“. Now, that won’t endear you to your students, unless you have Phil’s lovely wry humour.
But everyone can improve their writing, undergrad, postgrad or seasoned scientists alike. How can you write well? David Salt, a professional editor and writer in the environmental arena, recommends using plain English and active voice, keeping things short and simple, varying sentence and paragraph lengths, and being enthusiastic. And you will need to practise.
Also, simplify your sentences. There was a time when it was seemingly usual for people to prepare written scientific material using extremely long-winded passages that might have been unnecessary, but were thought by some to cast a certain air of importance, especially with the use of passive voice*. It was mostly hot air of course. Write succinctly using active voice. Your readers will thank you**.
Measure your writing’s girth with The Writer’s Diet test, which will highlight problem areas. Jargon makes some science writing heavy on large nouns (e.g., nomilizations), so some highlighted problems might be fine, or at least unavoidable. Otherwise, this test is very helpful.
Writing succinctly improves communication. Similarly, good grammar is important. Some might claim that poor grammar is unimportant when the meaning is still clear. However, poor grammar takes longer to read, and everyone has a finite life, so it takes away time from doing other things; effectively, your poor grammar is killing your reader.
Just as good grammar is a matter of following convention, scientific writing has other conventions. Here I list a few common issues I encounter regularly:
1. Know the difference between a figure and a table. A figure is a diagram or graph. A table displays tabulated data and information. Avoid presenting the same data in both figures and tables.
2. Place a figure caption under each figure. The caption should make the figure interpretable without reference to the main text. Cite all figures in the main text. Number them in the order in which you cite them. Identify the units in axis labels of graphs.
3. Place a table heading above each table. They serve a similar purpose to figure captions, with sufficient detail that the table can be understood without reference to the main text.
4. Use units appropriately by separating the number from the unit. For example, write 5 kg, not 5kg. If using the units as part of an adjective, you could use a hyphen between the number and unit (e.g., a 5-kg mass).
5. Make sure the labels on figure axes are readable. Remove items from figures that do not communicate important information (e.g., grid lines and 3-d effects are often unnecessary).
Want more pointers? Click here for some examples of succinct writing. And please suggest other tips via the comments.
Edit (3 July 2013): I just came across this post at The Thesis Whisperer – it is worthwhile reading for any style of academic writing: How to create ‘authoritative voice’ in your writing.
*As a task: re-write this sentence more simply in active voice.
**A previous graduate emailed me recently saying that she hoped I still taught succinct writing skills because she uses them frequently in her job.