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Two obvious tips to improve your scientific writing

If you asked 16-year-old me what a scientist did with their time I would have given you the obvious answer: in the lab doing experiments. If you ask me now, I would rather say it is a close tie between lab work and writing. Between lab books, update reports, funding grants and research publications a scientists can easily spend as much time writing as they do in the lab.

Over the last four years of my PhD, I have written literature reviews, scientific publications, semi-regular blog posts, the majority of my thesis and the occasionally humorous tweet. During that time, I have identified two key pieces of advice that I would give to anyone who wants to improve their writing, scientific or otherwise. I warn you now, these aren’t groundbreaking tips, you’re not going to read this blog and suddenly write the next great best seller (although if you do feel free to give me some of the credit).

Sometimes we get stuck in our own heads and miss what is right in front of us; we’re too busy looking for life-hacks and quick solutions that will give us results. Unfortunately, with writing there is no quick solution – no shortcuts. But if you are looking for a way to improve your writing then here are two suggestions that I hope you will take on board.

Read everything you can get your hands on

Remember growing up when your parents wanted you to eat vegetables and you would say “I don’t like it” and they would reply with “you don’t know until you try”? The same is true about good writing, until you’ve read good and bad writing you won’t know the difference. And I don’t just mean research publications because you can learn about good writing anywhere: magazines, news articles, fiction, non-fiction. Make reading as much a priority as writing.

If you want to convince people that the work you do is interesting, then you are going to have to sell them a story, one that they will want to read. To achieve that goal you need to understand what makes a good story, and how to tell one. Every time you read something ask yourself what is keeping you interested; is it easy to understand, are you invested in what is happening, do you care about the outcome? Once you have those answers, you know what you need to start including in your own writing. 

Write, edit, repeat…

I usually hate clichés, but they exist for a reason, so here it goes: practice makes perfect. It sounds simple: if you want to improve your writing – then write more. As I said in the intro this will seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how often we miss the obvious. Just because something is simple does not mean it will be easy. It can feel impossible to find time to write when you’re balancing lab work, data analysis, meetings and having a personal life. Personally I’m a big fan of the Pomodoro method, set aside 25 minutes each day with no interruptions and dedicate it to writing. That will be enough to keep your writing skills sharp.

Whether it’s for a publication, a personal blog, or just one sentence of your thesis, making writing a habit is how you improve over time. Finally, never underestimate the power of editing (I edited this blog post 3 different times, and I guarantee there will still be errors). If you know you have a deadline then leave at least a few extra days for editing. Time spent editing can take an average piece of work and turn it into something outstanding. 

These suggestions aren’t ground-breaking, but they are harder than they sound. Investing time in reading, to learn what good writing actually is, and consistently dedicating time to writing will not be something you can achieve overnight. Start small, set aside 5 or 10 minutes each night before bed to read and add 15 minutes of writing time in your calendar each day. Likewise, you need to change your mind-set; writing isn’t something that you’re either good at or terrible at. It’s just about investing your time to develop a skill. So go out and start practicing – I look forward to reading the next thing you write! 

Photo by Kamyq from FreeImages.com under FreeImages.com License (CC0).

About the Author
  • Steven Gibney 0000-0002-3309-1522

    Steve is currently a member of the EPSRC CDT in Advanced Therapeutics and Nanomedicines at the University of Nottingham. He uses bioelectronics to design new treatments and diagnostic devices. When he's away from the lab he can usually be found lost in the woods or up a mountain. Twitter: @Steve_Gibney

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