Writing is one of those skills that is useful in almost any profession. Turning a blank page into a first draft is a daunting task, this is especially true in a scientific context because a high value is placed on accurate and precise prose, but it also needs to be easy to read and understand.
In 2017, I co-authored 10 scientific publications and played a major role in the writing of many of these. By far the largest work among these was the monograph on cucurbiturils. During this time, I found and tried many writing tips and techniques. Those that I found most useful are given below.
- Make a good outline
The writing process consists of three steps: outlining, prose construction, and editing. Each of these steps is quite intensive and should be focused on individually. The most important of these is the outline. George Whitesides (one of the most prolific chemists ever) detailed his groups’ approach to writing manuscripts in his paper, ‘Whitesides group: Writing a paper’ and preparing an outline is key. The group I currently work in has some Whitesides alumni in it, and we use their system to great effect. The major advantage of this approach is that it allows you to collect your thoughts at a high level, arrange and re-arrange them before you begin writing. A good outline will give you the story, and make the prose much easier to write. In technical papers, a good outline gives you a bird’s eye view of the story that can help you see where the gaps are, and what the story’s strengths and weakness are. The outline should be written as early as possible so you can see where the missing data are, and see if a more compelling demonstration is needed to convince the reader of the usefulness of your science.
- The first draft doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be done
Prose construction and editing are both difficult skills and require different mindsets. Usually, attempting to write the perfect first draft (or even a perfect sentence) is challenging and progress will be very slow. It is far easier to come back to a first draft -no matter how messy- than it is to a blank page.
- Set a word target and try and hit it every day
I set myself a word target every day, I didn’t care too much about the quality of those words, as long as they represented some coherent thoughts. I also set a target for the number of words or sections that I wanted to edit on a given day
- Write in short sentences
Short sentences are easier to understand, especially when complex concepts are being discussed. A good rule of thumb is 30-35 words. If you think that this might make your writing too simplistic, remember that no one ever complains about something being too easy to understand!
- Write in your own voice
Christopher Hitchens wrote that “if something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading.” Most people can speak more fluently than they can write, so writing the words as if you were speaking them is one way that you can get words from your head and onto the page. Afterwards, you can polish these words into a better piece of prose. On a related note, reaching for the thesaurus at every opportunity can make your writing difficult to read. Good writing has a rhythm to it; words that are not naturally in your vocabulary somehow don’t quite fit and that disrupts the rhythm of the writing.
- Don’t overuse the thesaurus
Sometimes the overuse of words can make writing repetitive and boring. However, using different words to describe the same concept or phenomenon in different ways in the same text can be confusing. The question you have to ask is: Are you trying to make something more readable by sacrificing clarity? Clarity is usually more important.
- Write at times that suit you
I find that fresh eyes in the morning are better suited to the surgical work of proofreading and editing. Later in the day, perhaps when inhibitions are reduced due to tiredness, prose construction is easier and the words tend to flow more freely. For you, It might be the case that words flow in the morning, and you are a better proofreader in the afternoon. Take note of what works for you and plan your day accordingly.
- Proofreading techniques
Without a doubt, the best way to get some critical feedback is to have someone else read your draft. However, there are some proof-reading tricks that you can do yourself. Among these, the most useful for me was to read the writing in a different medium to the one I wrote it. For example, if I wrote on a computer, I would proofread a hard copy. Or for relatively small chunks of text, I would email to myself and read on a phone. Every time I read the text through a different medium, I would see something different. Reading out loud is also a good technique to proofread a paragraph. You can also make a computer read a sentence back to you, albeit in a clunky machine voice.
- Use resources
There are better spelling and grammar checkers available than Word’s inbuilt one. Grammarly, for example, does a great job of catching spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. The Stanford writing course, ‘writing in the sciences’ is a free online course you can register for that has a lot of tips on how to revise and edit a first draft; it also facilitates practice exercises and peer feedback.