Easy tips for effective writing

Why is it so hard to write clearly? Is it because we don’t know what to say? Is it because we jettison all common sense when we write and try to adhere to some fancy form we imagine is sophisticated? Is it because we just throw any old word down right before the deadline and pass it along without review? Well, stop! I’m getting cranky about it.IMG_1352

The more you write, the more you will become interested in the actual craft of writing. There are tons of books and websites out there to help you. Some focus on clear grammar. Some focus on pared down writing.  Others focus on how to put together a story, though they will call it a narrative. I read these books. I visit these websites. I think about my writing. I tweak some essays I write. Others I jettison because I have not discovered a story line that works.

Right now I’m thinking about writing because I just finished reading a packet of short proposals for undergraduate research from Wash U‘s SURF program. I also just read the monthly writing from my own group. Then I read a piece Jerry Coyne published in Why Evolution is True and one Dave Hillis linked to for scientists and journalists on Facebook from a meeting.

Writing well and easily is extremely important to a scientist. I think there are only two main difficulties that cause good people to fail at tenure: writing and collaborating.

Mike Singer, pausing from writing.

Mike Singer, pausing from writing.

Here are a few tips to get you going with the writing. (Tips on collaborating is a future topic.)

1. Learn the exact meaning and spelling of words and use them correctly. “All right” is two words. Utilize means use for a purpose other than the one the object was made for. “I used a fork to eat the salad, then utilized the fork to stab the cat.” Normally you will not be stabbing cats and so should not use “utilize.” If you are not sure which word to pick, choose “use.” Update: others say I’m wrong about utilize, so just skip using it.

2. Use parallel structure. This is a kindness to your readers who want to follow what you have to say, not do hopscotch over your complicated sentences.

3. Write short sentences in a logical order. I’ve seen sentences that have a whole paragraph of information in them. No sentence should take more than two lines. If you are a beginner, your sentences should be particularly short.

4. Use the active voice. “I kissed the cat.” is better than “The cat was kissed.” Did you get told not to use “I” in scientific writing back in high school? It is all right now, though there are other ways of writing in active voice. If you got told in introductory chemistry or biology labs that you should use the passive voice, consider it the sly revenge of the people that teach those classes and ignore the bad advice.

5. Do not use gerunds, verbs with -ing, very often. You are not doing the study right now. You did it in the past.

6. Your reader is impatient. Most readers will stop reading somewhere before the end of your piece. They might even stop in the middle of the first paragraph. Therefore you don’t get to set the scene with several paragraphs before you tell the reader why they need to know this stuff. But you want to write in a logical order, so this can be frustrating. I often write my piece the way I want to, then go back and look hard at it to see if I can move something more gripping to the beginning that will keep the reader’s attention for the back story.

7. Use transitions. They help the reader connect one thought to the next in the building of a story. Without transitions, you are giving the reader a bunch of blocks without telling her how they go together. She will not take the time for assembly.

8. Tell a story. Our brains are wired for stories. If we cannot make a story of a set of facts, we will not remember them. The aborigines remember their paths through the landscape with songs. You don’t have to be able to sing your work, but you should  be able to make it a story.

9. Write the title and abstract first. Both may change, but a summary of the story can keep you focused. If you are not ready to write the abstract, you are not ready to write the paper. You may not even be ready to do the research.

10. Look back at your piece as you write it. Does it make sense? Are there whole paragraphs that can be moved or dumped? Is every sentence as clear as it might be?

11. Pay attention to work you read. How does this writer connect one idea to the next? What kinds of transitions does he use? How does she deal with the problem of when to give background information? If you want to study some really great scientific writing, pick up anything by Richard Dawkins.

12. Listen to scientific writing. This can help you understand how structure works to tell a story.

Have fun! Clear writing is hard to do.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Tenure, Writing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Easy tips for effective writing

  1. In classes, I find that 50% of the students read and comprehend about 50% of the written material I give them. Fun fact: it appears that the 50% they each understand is different 🙂

  2. Jeremy Fox says:

    Good post Joan. For interested readers, further writing tips here:


  3. Liz says:

    All great advice! I also have a few articles posted on my lab website on the topic of good writing, including a set of rules my Dad (an English composition professor) wrote for me when I first headed off to college! (https://pages.wustl.edu/files/pages/imce/haswell/dadsdreidicta.pdf).

  4. This is great stuff. Thanks, Joan.
    Writing simply is good, and that’s a great example about needing a good reason to choose utilize over use.
    I disagree about the definition of utilize, though. At least, according to the OED and Merriam-Webster. I do appreciate a good excuse to look up a word!

  5. AgroEcoProf says:

    If you’re interested, Joan, Language Log has a variety of interesting, and often surprising, things to say about empirical linguistics (and therefore grammar and usage). They regularly disparage a lot of common usage advice (see, for example, “Prescriptivist Poppycock” entries), and recommend a few, like Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage.

    I mention this because the “exact meaning and spelling of words” is a tricky subject, but one that LL insists should be answered empirically, not on instinct, memory, or confirmation bias. On this count, “All right” is indeed correct; “alright” is arguably no less correct. Indeed, “All right”, to me, reads as weird and nonstandard and requires greater processing time on my part than “alright”. To make a reference to authority, from the New Oxford American Dictionary, “The merging of all and right to form the one-word spelling alright is first recorded toward the end of the 19th century (unlike other similar merged spellings such as altogether and already, which date from much earlier). There is no logical reason for insisting that all right be two words when other single-word forms such as altogether have long been accepted. Nevertheless, although found widely, alright remains nonstandard.”

    One might wonder what “widely found, but nonstandard” means, and they (on LL) tend to hypothesize that it means “commonly used, but often viewed as a class indicator by allowing one to check if a person comes from what is considered a desirable social class, where they would have been trained in the same, relatively arbitrary rules.” (This is a hypothesis one sees often on LL, and there certainly seems to be evidence for it, though I can’t say I’ve examined said evidence systematically.)

    Anyway, just wanted to point out Language Log, and to a resource that linguist Geoff Pullum praises as being worthy of the critical faculties we encourage our students to develop: “MWCDEU explains what actually occurs, shows you some of the evidence, tells you what some other usage books say, and then leaves you to make your own reasoned decision.”

  6. guest says:

    Thanks for this interesting and helpful advices! However, I think that in point 5 two different “-ing-forms” are mixed, the gerund and the present participle. I do agree that it makes usually no sense to use the present participle in a scientific text, but it might be useful to use the gerund.

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