5 common myths about scientific writing – and why they aren’t true

Why you might be setting yourself up for failure.

 

When talking to scientists – be it friends, former colleagues, clients or people on social media – I have noticed that I come across certain false beliefs about writing scientific papers and proposals again and again. This is a shame, because in most cases those opinions and assumptions can be damaging and might hinder you from becoming an excellent (and happy!) scientific author.

Here are some false beliefs about writing that I hear frequently and what I think about them:

 

1.   You need to be a native English speaker to write great articles and proposals

If English is your mother tongue you are undeniably at an advantage: You won’t need to learn another language’s words and grammar before you can publish or apply for funding. But that doesn’t mean that every native speaker automatically knows how to write – let alone how to write papers and proposals. (Scientific) writing is a craft everyone has to learn, and it is a different skill than being proficient in English.

As a native speaker of English, you will probably not struggle (as much) with finding the right place for a comma. However, being a native speaker can complicate things too. You might be prone to using unnecessarily long and complicated sentences, as well as words that scientists from other parts of the world don’t understand.

What’s more, writing well doesn’t only mean  using words and punctuation in the correct way. A well written paper and proposal also needs a good structure and to tell a story. Therefore, knowing a language doesn’t mean you automatically know how to write good papers and proposals.

 

2.  Story-telling covers up holes in your research

I sometimes hear this criticism of using story-telling to communicate scientific findings and ideas. And I think I do understand where people are coming from. A “story” can mean so many different things, but mostly it means to invent something. Those criticising the use of story-telling in papers and proposals seem to think that you can make weak and irrelevant research sound better by wrapping it in a story. But – in my experience – this isn’t the case.

When I use my “Story Method” to identify the crucial story elements in a client’s manuscript, I easily understand how solid and relevant the research of a study is. This is because I’m stripping down the fluff and identify story elements such as the problem, the main message and the conclusions in the most specific way possible. Fluff in this context can mean overly complicated words and sentence structures, too many synonyms for one and the same thing or “buzz words” that aren’t specific.

So, my experience has been that a story-telling approach uncovers holes in a research study rather than filling them.

 

3.  You need to use complicated English to sound like an expert

The one essential thing that decides the fate of your article is whether you have been understood or not. Using complicated language is one sure way to confuse your readers. Your readers won’t know your research as well as you, and they don’t want to put much time at all into trying to understand what you mean. Therefore, using complicated English doesn’t impress your readers, rather it frustrates them. They are more likely to stop reading your paper or proposal altogether when they have to pause frequently to be able to follow your train of thought.

Therefore, my scientific writing “mantras” are simplicity and clarity. Don’t shy away from short sentences, easy words and repeating yourself. This way you will impress you reader (and reviewer) much more than with any complicated language.

 

4.  You should hire a scientific editor to correct the English

Often, I get approached by clients asking me if I could correct the English in their article. While this is part of what I do and I think this is an important aspect to help readers understand your writing, it’s often not the most crucial thing your paper needs. Most papers would actually benefit way more from improving their structure, clarifying their main message and simplifying the writing rather than moving commas around. When you have me edit your paper, you will get all of this.

In fact, there are many different types of editors, which most scientists aren’t aware of. By knowing what each of them does, you can pick one more wisely. Proof readers and copy editors – which are also sometimes referred to as language editors – will correct spelling and grammar mistakes. Proof readers typically only come in once a text is nearly finished, and in contrast to copy editors they won’t rewrite anything or flag jargon words. However, in practice, the scope of what these two types of editors do is a little muddled. I recommend making sure to check what exactly is included in the service before you hire them.

Then there are editors like me, who are “structural editors” – also sometimes called “developmental editors”. They go deep into the structure of your texts, rearrange sentences, paragraphs and sections and do rewrites when necessary. On top of that, when I edit your paper or proposal, I will suggest language improvements and correct the grammar – but not all structural editors do this. So, again, make sure to know what is included in someone’s service.

There’s yet another distinction when it comes to scientific editors. Some edit papers in all fields of research and others only those in their area of scientific expertise. The latter kind will probably be able to offer you a more thorough edit and be able to flag concerns that a reviewer will likely have. I, for example, specialise on papers in areas related to the Physical Sciences and will only decide on editing your paper once I’ve seen a draft. This way I can ensure I am able to provide edits of the highest quality.

To sum up: Because correcting English is only a small part of what structural scientific editors do, native English speakers can also benefit from their services.

 

5.  Writing papers is tedious

If you scroll through Twitter or Instagram or listen in on conversations in your departmental coffee room, you will most likely hear scientists complaining about the writing they have to do. It seems generally accepted that writing is an unwelcome chore that is frustrating and takes way too much time.

It doesn’t have to be like this! There are people (among them scientists, I swear) who enjoy the writing process and for whom it is not an endless time sink. I think the secret of these authors is that they a) accept that being a scientist means that they are professional writers and b) have a working system in place.

One part of this is to find your preferences for writing routines. Then you need to know how to use the time you dedicate to writing most efficiently. I believe that my “Story Method”, which I teach my clients, is the best way to move quickly from data to published article. Finally, you also need to incorporate your co-authors in your writing system and set up a workflow that doesn’t create unnecessary work for anyone. This way, writing papers and proposals isn’t frustrating and time-consuming but an efficient and creative process that is fun. 😊

 

There you have it: 5 commonly held beliefs about scientific writing that I don’t believe are true. What do you think? Do you agree? Let me know in the comments below!

Do you need help to get your paper in shape for publication in a high-impact journal? I can help you to craft a story for your paper and make your writing clearer and more concise, and I'd love to work with you! We can work together in the following ways:

  • I can edit your paper (for authors working on a topic within Chemistry-related fields)

  • I can give you advice on your paper in a strategy session

  • I can teach you and your peers how to write high-impact papers in a workshop.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

I’m Dr Anna Clemens, a scientific editor and writing coach for scientists. I give workshops about scientific writing, offer strategy calls and edit papers and proposals. I’d love to work with you, please click here for more information.

I also regularly blog about scientific writing and write articles about science for magazines and websites. I hold a PhD in Chemistry/Materials Science.

When I’m not at my desk, I’m probably out and about with my dog and assistant Zuza.

I’d love to connect on Twitter (@scientistswrite) and Instagram (@scientistswhowrite)