Write away!

You picked Imperial to become a scientist, engineer or a medical doctor. What do these careers have in common? You’ll need to write a lot: scientific papers, grant applications, lecture notes, popular science articles. Unfortunately, university curricula lack writing courses, so we end up with thousands of unreadable scientific papers. In my research I’ve chosen some mathematical methods just because the authors made them easy to understand; nobody has time or energy to look for interesting science hiding behind word clutter.

Some scientific papers look like this…

I’m a mathematician, not a writer, and my writing is far from perfect. Let me share five tips to improve your writing so that you can learn from my mistakes.

  1. Keep it simple. You won’t impress the reader by sophisticated vocabulary or complicated sentence structures. To be a better researcher, you don’t have to utilise instead of use or terminate instead of stopNevertheless doesn’t sound smarter than but, by way of example more elegant than such as. In fact, in most cases you won’t even need the transition word as a logical paragraph construction will suffice.
  2. Use verbs, avoid nouns. Don’t get me wrong, we need nouns. But please decide, don’t make decisionsconclude, don’t reach conclusions; estimate, don’t obtain estimates. Strong verbs drive the language and make your paper lively. Just ensure you pick the correct, precise verb. For example, instead of XYZ predicts that approximately…, you can write XYZ estimates… And when you find a nice verb, don’t turn it into a noun: We rejected the hypothesis sounds better than Our study has resulted in the rejection of the hypothesis.
  3. Use active voice. Treatments aren’t found, phenomena observed and theorems proven – someone finds, observes or proves them. Own your achievement, announce proudly what you’ve done! But also take the responsibility, don’t hope that if the mistake has been made, nobody will realise it was you who made it! 

    Research isn’t ‘being done’ – someone works really hard to make it happen!
  4. Be direct. Instead of writing It was found that drinking gummiberry juice twice a day reduces the headaches by 30% you can just state: Drinking gummiberry juice twice a day reduces the headaches by 30%. Focus on the facts, don’t pack them into it seems thatthe study showsit is believed that – it’s usually clear from the context which study you’re talking about.

    This elongated yellow fruit has a name: BANANA.
  5. Watch out for repetitions. You learned at school to reach for thesaurus whenever you’re about to repeat the word. In most cases you can avoid this word altogether, for example In this article I share some tips on scientific writing and provide guidance on avoiding common mistakes could easily become In this article I share some tips on scientific writing and avoiding common mistakesBut when you really need to repeat a word, just do it. Please don’t call a banana an elongated yellow fruit. Just don’t.
  6. Bonus tip: write! The more you do it, the easier it becomes. Check out my first articles on this blog, I’m sure you’ll notice an improvement in my writing. Seriously, give it a go!

2 comments for “Write away!

  1. What a brilliant writing guide. Going back to basics never hurts, even for student doing essay based subjects. Your final tip is particularly key. Practice, practice, practice.

  2. This is such a handy guide. So many new students can be daunted by academic writing and some over complicate it in their minds. Brilliant that you bring up active voice too, as nervous students will often overcompensate by writing passively. Great blog!

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