The reader’s job is to pay attention and remember what they read.
The writer’s job is to make those two things easy to do. One of the principal problems with writing a manuscript is that your individual voice is stamped out.
I encourage scientists to read outside their field to better appreciate the craft and principles of writing. Writers can be stigmatized by mentors, manuscript reviewers or journal editors if they use their own voice.
Beware the curse of ‘zombie nouns’Zoe Doubleday, ecologist, University of Adelaide, Australia; co-author of a paper on embracing creativity and writing accessible prose in scientific publications. Students tell me they are inspired to write, but worry that their adviser won’t be supportive of creativity. We need to take a fresh look at the ‘official style’ — the dry, technical language that hasn’t evolved in decades.
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Manuscripts may have a rigidly defined structure, but there’s still room to tell a compelling story — one that clearly communicates the science and is a pleasure to read.Countless manuscripts are rejected because the discussion section is so weak that it’s obvious the writer does not clearly understand the existing literature.Writers should put their results into a global context to demonstrate what makes those results significant or original.Create a logical framework Brett Mensh, scientific adviser, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Janelia Research Campus, Ashburn, Virginia; consultant, science communications. If you don’t get the structure right, you have no hope. For the whole paper, the introduction sets the context, the results present the content and the discussion brings home the conclusion.It’s crucial to focus your paper on a single key message, which you communicate in the title.One of the most important is omitting crucial information from the methods section.It’s easy to do, especially in a complicated study, but missing information can make it difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce the study. It’s also important that the paper’s claims are consistent with collected evidence.Always think of your busy, tired reader when you write your paper — and try to deliver a paper that you would enjoy reading yourself. Author Helen Sword coined the phrase ‘zombie nouns’ to describe terms such as ‘implementation’ or ‘application’ that suck the lifeblood out of active verbs. Once the paper has a clear message, I suggest that writers try some vivid language to help to tell the story.Why does scientific writing have to be stodgy, dry and abstract? If we don’t engage that aspect of ourselves, it’s hard to absorb the meaning of what we’re reading. We should engage readers’ emotions and avoid formal, impersonal language. For example, I got some pushback on the title of one of my recent papers: ‘Eight habitats, 38 threats, and 55 experts: Assessing ecological risk in a multi-use marine region’. There’s probably less resistance out there than people might think.Think about the message you want to give to readers.If that is not clear, misinterpretations may arise later.