A Simple Introduction to Scientific Writing

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!

Where Am I In This Paper?: Honing Your Academic Voice Through Journaling

I can’t remember a time in my life when I was without a trusty little journal. When I was five, it had a princess and castle on the front cover with pink, lined pages inside. It turned purple when I read Anne Mazer’s The Amazing Days of Abby Hayes in elementary school, as I adopted the book series’ purple pen-wielding, budding journalist of a protagonist, Abby Hayes, as my writing hero. A teacher gifted me a new hardcover journal with an embroidered, flowery cover when I entered middle school and, upon filling it, I switched to a sleek, black Moleskine on the first day of January 2020. That same Moleskine is currently tucked in my backpack as I sit here, three hours into my train ride home for spring break.

After packing last night, I picked up my journal and wrote for the first time in a while. It always feels familiar, as this was my routine almost every night before going to bed for around 14 years, until about halfway through my freshman fall semester, when, as is the case for most folks, schoolwork and life started to intervene. Even still, I’ve made it a point to journal after the big moments: the first day of classes, the last day of exams, birthdays, the major triumphs, the occasional emotional breakdown- you know. After I finished writing that night, I flipped through my older entries and found myself pleasantly surprised by what I had written over the course of the last two years. My pensive entries, as well as the short, hurried scribbles that divided them, effectively graphed my experiences and personal development since arriving at William & Mary. Like a sine function, my journal entries depicted peaks and troughs in how I’ve felt along the ride, but one thread running consistently through every entry, whether joyous, anxious, or any mood in between, was the sense that those scribbles all originated from, and were unique to, me.

Finding Ourselves in Academic Writing

With all this said, you may be wondering: What does journaling have to do with our role as academic writers? How can journaling be applied to our work here in the Writing Resources Center? Sure, journaling is undeniably a form of writing, but it’s often viewed as fundamentally different from the academic writing we do as students. However, I’ve found that journaling, even just once in blue moon, has benefitted my academic writing in terms of honing a personalized voice. We’ve all written something over the course of our academic careers that felt like pure word-vomit, completely disconnected from ourselves. In those academic situations, how can we make our writing our own every time? A unique academic writing voice isn’t something that one can be taught; it arises out of experience and lots of experimentation. This can be risky, however, especially in graded, academic situations. This is where journaling comes in handy. My English major advisor encouraged me during my freshman fall semester to return to my journal after submitting a paper for her class for precisely this reason. She posed a question that still sticks with me every time I sit down to write or revise: “Where are you in this paper?” Reading back over that first paper after receiving her feedback, I remember asking myself, “Yeah… where am I?” What I saw on the page were robotic-sounding, analytical sentences that contained my insight, but were lacking a definitive style that would distinguish them as belonging specifically to me. My professor urged me to uncover what makes my voice stand out amongst the crowd. So, I retrieved my journal from its shelf and wrote about anything and everything that came to mind for 30 minutes. It felt good; it was as though I was reeling in a piece of myself that takes off running in the other direction whenever my writing shifts into serious mode.

She posed a question that still sticks with me every time I sit down to write or revise: “Where are you in this paper?”

Try It Out

My journal serves as a place in which I can explore and trial-and-error my unique voice without pressure to sound eloquent or meet anyone’s standards but mine. I encourage you to try it out sometime: Grab a pen or pencil and a piece of paper. Set a timer for 15 minutes and just write. Need help getting started? Here are a few ideas to get the ball rolling:

You might find that snippets of your voice shine through when writing passionately, whether it be an analysis of whatever it is in that song that draws you to it or an expression of something that made you smile over the course of the day. You don’t have to do this every day but, making time for it every now and then can help in getting more in touch with your voice, which you can then extract and incorporate into your academic work. From here, you can experiment with personalization, such as anecdotal introductions if appropriate in the context of your assignment. Enjoy the experimentation and, through doing so, I hope you find something that you can identify as your own. It’s a skill that I certainly haven’t perfected but, nevertheless, am constantly seeking to improve. Ultimately, there’s no better feeling than asking yourself, “Where am I in this paper?” and being able to point to something, no matter how small it may be, and answering, “That’s me. I’m right there.”

Why Leaders Need Reflective Writing

Close-up of hand writing with pencil in a spiral-bound journal.

I spend much of my work week reacting: responding to questions, solving problems, mediating disputes, seeking answers, tackling some goals, setting others aside, listening actively, practicing patience, adding to my to-do list. Most of this I do reflexively, without deep consideration. The result is that my brain is full of moments–unfinished conversations, looming deadlines, unwritten emails, overfull agendas, and unrealistic timetables. It can feel out of control, and that feeling manifests as physical and mental stress. 

Leaders of all types — from those who head organizations, lead teams, and manage staff to those who plan programs, teach classes, and parent children — sometimes feel overwhelmed by the cacophony of other people’s needs and expectations. During the work week, everything moves so quickly, there’s rarely time to consider the impact of decisions and actions and to connect our daily tasks to our “why,” the priorities and values that guide our efforts.

So what does it take for leaders to quiet this noise and gather themselves and their thoughts so they can move from scattered and reactive to coherent and planful?

Reflective writing. 

For those of you who dislike writing, hear me out. 

Writing about your experiences turns down the volume and creates a quiet space where you can reconnect to your “why.” In their book Journal Keeping: How to Use Reflective Writing for Learning, Teaching, Professional Insight, and Positive Change, Danelle Stevens and Joanne Cooper remind us that humans develop through an ongoing process of meaning-making. Making sense of our experiences happens through conversations with others and with ourselves. They argue that reflective writing “can be an important tool in facilitating conversations with the self and furthers a deeper understanding of our values and beliefs” (42). Journals, diaries, daybooks, logs, or lists are spaces for self-talk. And it’s in these spaces that we can observe and make sense of our worlds. 

“Writing about your experiences turns down the volume and creates a quiet space where you can reconnect to your ‘why.'”

Beyond reconnecting us to our values and beliefs, reflective writing also: 

Improves Focus and Clarity

Productivity guru David Allen famously said that “your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” By writing everything down, we clear our minds of the clutter. A clear mind is more available for creativity and positivity, more open to possibilities. In his memoir Greenlights, actor and lifelong journal-keeper Matthew McConaughey says “I never wrote things down to remember; I always wrote things down so I could forget.” Forgetting–or setting aside–the things that don’t matter makes it possible for us to attend to the things that do. 

Records Your Development Over Time 

Habitual journalers provide a gift to their future selves: a chronicle of their experiences. Fellow trekkies might remember Jean Luc Picard’s Captain’s log–a record of encounters, ambiguity, adversity, and resolution. Your log will reveal evolving goals, beliefs, behaviors, failures, successes, and more. This record can be tapped when working through challenges (“How did I handle this last time?”) and when there is a need for perspective. A review of your reflections can also reveal patterns of behavior, knowledge that can prompt personal change.  

Helps You Prime for Spontaneity

In The Art of Framing, Gail Fairhurst explains that leaders must stay in control of the vision they frame for others, even within spontaneous communication. They do this by developing mental models, structured ideas that ground their words: “If you take the time to consciously and periodically think through your mental models as a leader, you are priming your unconscious to select and interpret new information using the models as a reference point.” Reflective writing creates private space for leaders to revisit and rehearse their mental models. 

“Reflective writing creates private space for leaders to revisit and rehearse their mental models.”

Reflective writing can take many forms. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be writing. Visual journaling has a loyal following among artists and doodlers. Bullet journals combine to-do lists and reflective writing, using icons and other visuals as tools for focus. Apps like Day One allow you to record images and metadata (like weather and location), in addition to words. But the physicality and measured pace of the old-fashioned diary has significant advantages when the goal is to slow down and spend time in quiet conversation with yourself. 

I think it’s time for me to give reflective writing a try. How about you?

This post was originally published as a LinkedIn article on May 27, 2021. It was inspired by the W&M Washington Center’s course Modern Leadership: Reflections and Tools for the Values-Based Leader.