Like software engineering, or playing a game of the Dark Souls series, writing scientific papers is a challenging activity that blends multiple goals and pitfalls. As in software engineering, one way to learn the tricks of the trade is to look and comment upon harmful behaviors, known as anti-patterns.
We needed to do this¶
This one applies to both scientific writing and presentations.
Description: the solution to a problem is presented as necessary.
- Oral: "And so, to do this, we needed to measure..."
- Written: "To achieve this, one needs to update..."
Necessity has a precise meaning: a solution is necessary when there is no other way. While it is reassuring to think that your method emerged as "the" logical response to your problem, truth is, it bundles a natural chain of contingencies, and there are most likely other ways to solve the same problem. Doubt is a crucial practice in science. The mistake that appears in this anti-pattern is to shun it out.
Remedy: cut to the point.
- Oral:" And so, to do this, we measured..."
- Written: "To achieve this, we updated..."
This one applies to related work sections. It is discussed in the short presentation How to Write Papers So People Can Read Them by Derek Dreyer.
Description: the paper merely enumerates other works on the topic without comparing them to its own solution: "A et al. did this. B et al. did that. C et al. did that. etc."
Remedy: explain in detail how your work addresses your problem in a way that related work doesn't.
General writing advice¶
Keep in mind that reading, like watching a movie, is not a fully conscious process. To be receptive to the ideas conveyed by your writing, you want to keep your reader in a state of flow. Linear storytelling is a common strategy to realize this, using temporal or logical connectives to stitch paragraphs one after the other. This point is well explained in the short talk How to Write Papers So People Can Read Them by Derek Dreyer.
Active or passive voice¶
There is a bit of debate surrounding this question, as it certainly boils down to a personal choice of writing style. Some scientists argue that, the objective of scientific papers being the communication of facts and observations, scientists themselves should be grammatically excluded as subjects. Neither "we" as in "we developed...", nor "our" as in "our method...". This line of thought yields to an intensive use of the passive voice.
Science is built up of facts, as a house is with stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house. (Henri Poincaré)
However, passive-voice sentences are a slippery path: they use more words, and have a tendency to produce more complex and vague sentence structures. Vagueness is the main matter of concern here, the nemesis of scientific writers. For this reason, unless there is a clear motivation to use the passive voice (to emphasize the action over its actor, to describe actions from anonymous actors, ...), try to use the active voice whenever possible.
Thesaurus and dictionary¶
Two advices especially targetted to non-native speakers like me:
- Beware of false friends: whenever unsure, check the definition in a dictionary.
- Use a thesaurus to avoid repetitions, and to improve your phrasing by selecting words that express best what you want to say.
To go further¶
Anti-patterns and useful techniques don't cover the whole topic of paper writing. The underlying challenge for you, as a writer, is to put yourself in the position of your readers. Some researchers have shared their experience on this in reports and talks that are definitely worth checking out:
- How to Write Papers So People Can Read Them by Derek Dreyer
- How to Write a Great Research Paper: slides and talk by Simon Peyton Jones
- How to Read a Paper by Srinivasan Keshav
- Novelist Cormac McCarthy’s tips on how to write a great science paper in Nature's career column
Thanks to all those who have contributed to the conversation so far. Feel free to leave a reply using the form below, or subscribe to the Discussion's atom feed to stay tuned.
Hey Stéphane, thanks a lot for writing up a post on writing and I come back often to refresh my understanding. Great now you also allow posting comments.
I'm glad if this could help somehow :-) Feel free to let me know if there are other points you have picked up in the course of your career that could be mentioned here.