Unlike other types of writing, scientific writing is purely a tool to communicate information. Forget the eloquent prose, flowery descriptions, and exclamation points—the goal is not to impress or exaggerate but simply to convey ideas and results clearly and efficiently. For many students, acclimating to this new way of writing can be difficult. Here, we have assembled some of our best advice on how to write in the sciences.
One of the most important things for a scientist to keep in mind is precision. This is equally true when writing in the sciences. By this, we don’t just mean accurately reporting results–because, of course–but also in your word choice, detail, and description. Be aware that your reader may not be as familiar with the material as you, so leave nothing to the imagination. Be confident and clear in what you say, and be as detailed as possible, prioritizing quantitative over qualitative descriptions. Take care to leave out anything distracting or irrelevant, but help the reader follow along as you guide them through your reasoning, methods, and results.
Along with precision, it is important to keep scientific writing as clear and concise as possible. Avoid trying to fit too many ideas in one sentence, as this may confuse readers. It is also important to use familiar terms in your writing, as long as those terms don’t introduce ambiguity. Keep your audience in mind and be sure to include definitions for technical terms when possible.
Additionally, avoid unnecessary phrases and wordy sentences. A quick way to check for the addition of unnecessary phrases is to ask yourself the question: do you feel out of breath after reading your sentence aloud? That means it is too wordy. Another way to shorten convoluted sentences is to remove unnecessary interjections.
Passive voice, while loved by scientists, is not preferred by others. Why? Well, passive voice can be a useful tool for objectivity, but it can also introduce ambiguity. But to use passive voice, we first need to understand what it is. A very simple rule for passive voice is, if you can put “by zombies” at the end of the sentence, it’s likely passive voice. For example, “The sample was taken.” We can add “by zombies” to the end to get “The sample was taken by zombies.” Compare this to “The scientist took the sample,” where adding “by zombies” doesn’t sound right. By focusing on the object of the sentence rather than the actor (e.g. the sample being taken rather than who’s taking it) we are viewing the situation more objectively. A word of caution: sometimes, passive voice can be detrimental, even in scientific writing. If you don’t specify who is doing the action, you introduce ambiguity, which we want to avoid. However, knowing the mechanics and function of passive voice can strengthen your scientific writing overall.
In scientific writing, we try to acknowledge any limitations in the studies we’re writing about and avoid gross overgeneralizations. This means we stay away from drawing conclusions that are too broad. In scientific writing, there is very little we can conclude is 100% true – science largely consists of observations that have the potential to be proven false (even those made in controlled experimental conditions).
Scientific writing may seem daunting at first, but hopefully with this guide, you’ll be ready to tackle any STEM assignments that come your way!