Manuscript Writing: Tips for Authors
Why should you care about the quality of your manuscript writing?
- Career advancement: good writing makes your manuscript more competitive for publication.
- Collaboration: good communication leads to more cross-disciplinary opportunities.
- Communication: a well written paper allows the public - the people who fund you research - to understand it.
At Authorea, our mission is to bring people together to facilitate scientific collaboration. While we can't write your manuscript for you, we can provide some tips to help you write more effectively.
Why is there so much poor writing in science?
Researchers are a smart, evidence-based group. So why is there a problem with bad scientific writing? One answer is that training overlooks writing development. Researchers are expected to "pick things up" as they go along. Which means there is no structured guidance for the communication process.
Unfortunately, most researchers learn to write by imitating poor writers. For example, you pick up a convoluted manuscript that is making waves in your discipline. Maybe you have read a paragraph two or three times to get the main idea. Man, it looks impressive! And after you sort it out, you feel smart.
"Modern English is full of bad habits, which spread by imitation and can be avoided if one is willing to take the trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly."
- George Orwell
If you write prose that is nearly unintelligible not just to the general public, but also to graduate students and fellow academics in your discipline, you are not advancing knowledge. And, honestly, you don't sound smart. There are ideas that are so difficult that their expression must be complex and dense. But I can tell you, after years of rejecting manuscripts submitted to university presses, most people's ideas aren't that brilliant.
Did you catch the part about rejection? Editors don't have the patience to sift through bad prose. They aren't going to spend time poring over your work without a good reason. So: unless you've just irrefutably identified the Higgs boson, it's a good idea to work on your writing.
Science is complex: your manuscript should not be
First of all, the idea that science is hard to read because of its complexity is false. Most of the time, science is hard to read because scientists don't know how to write effectively.
Dr. George D. Gopen, an iconic figure in the field of scientific writing developed The Reader Expectation Approach method. The idea is that writers need to predict how readers will interpret a manuscript. In his book, The Sense of Structure, he explains the reader's expectations for structure, language, and context. For example, the location of words in sentence often matters more than the word choice. When a researcher is aware of structures like the "stress position" and "topic position" the writer can control how the information is interpreted.
Let's look at an example from Dr. Gopen's article, The Science of Scientific Writing - one of American Scientists Magazine's "classic articles in the last 100 years". He discusses the importance of the "topic position". When readers come across a sentence, they expect the rest of the information to be about the idea located in the topic position:
Bees disperse pollen. vs. Pollen is dispersed by bees.
The reader of the first sentence expects information about bees. In the second, they expect information about pollen. How does this play out in scientific writing?
Know your flow!
Flow is the concept of order in a manuscript, where old ideas flow into new ones. Take the following sentence:
We searched the database of sequences to look for similar structures. A protein involved in the regulation of the BRCA1 gene in humans was identified by the search.
Readers immediately know that you searched a database (idea #1), then found a protein (idea#2). But then, the story jumps back to how it was found, the search! The idea flow looks like this: