Writing advice from a proofreader

Susan Wiedner

Scientific writing is one of the most essential skills you need to be a successful scientist. However, it is sometimes not the first skill you learn in graduate school; in fact, it isn’t always on a student’s radar until that first publication is ready to be written. My writing skills weren’t my number one priority for much of my graduate school career. In fact, it wasn’t until my graduate advisor informed me that I needed writing help (and I better take time to find it, quick!) that I started to take stock of my writing ability. Luckily, I found online tutorials and quizzes that helped me practice writing, review grammar, and learn writing style. One of my proudest moments in school, was seeing the word “Wow!” written in red ink next to a concluding paragraph in my thesis. Unlike column chromatography, writing is a skill that will continue to be essential to a scientist throughout their entire career.

Fast forward 13 years, and I’m now the founder and proofreader for SciTech Proofreading, LLC. I specialize in proofreading scientific and technical work of all kinds. During the intervening years between earning my PhD and founding a proofreading business, I discovered a passion for helping scientists, researchers, and writers polish their writing to help facilitate effective communication of science. A poorly written document at best momentarily induces a reader to shake their head and reread; however, at worst, poor grammar, poor sentence structure, and typographical errors can hinder or halt publication. As The ACS Style Guide, 3rd Edition states, “Science writing, in particular, must be precise and unambiguous to be effective.”

Preparing a manuscript of years’ worth of research can be daunting for some but easy for others. In either case, after multiple rounds of planning, writing, editing, and revising, the brain can automatically fill in gaps or errors in the writing that the author no longer notices.  That’s where a proofreader or copy editor becomes necessary to find any remaining errors. During my tenure as a proofreader, I’ve notice reoccurring errors that are easily fixed by the author. Below are three mistakes I commonly encounter. Young researchers and graduate students should try to avoid these common errors, which can muddle up writing.

  • Incorrect or inconsistent style
  • Wordiness and redundancy
  • Voice

Style. Most journals will provide a guide for authors on their journal website. If you know the journal you are targeting, it is best to consult that guide before you start writing. Aside from manuscript length, file format, and audience/topic, it will designate how you will cite references, if British or American English is required, and article format. Journals will even recommend a style guide for authors to follow. For example, the American Chemical Society published The ACS Style Guide, an invaluable resource for authors, reviewers, and editors of ACS journals. Simple inconsistencies in style can distract the reader. I’ve encountered many times the incorrect placement of citation numbers or use of citation numbers instead of author name and paper publication year. Editors may even point out incorrect style and request that the manuscript be revised to incorporate the correct style before resubmission or assignment to reviewers. Sometimes, authors will switch between British and American English; you must pick one and stick to it. Another example  is the serial, which is recommended in science and literature but not typically in journalism. The bottom line is pick a style the journal will accept and be consistent.

Wordiness. Wordiness in scientific writing should be avoided because wordy and convoluted sentences can obscure the message you are trying to convey.  Many long introductory or preposition phrases possess one-word or two-word equivalents. Perform a quick Google search to find one-word alternatives to long phrases. Although, adjacent short, declarative sentences are choppy, long phrases, which provide sentence structure variability, should still be condensed. Some phrases, such as “As already noted,” are completely valueless and should just be removed. This applies to redundancy as well. Redundant words and phrases increase sentence clutter and do not add value to the sentence. For example, when stating a reaction temperature in degrees Celsius, the word “temperature” is unnecessary after the temperature unit.

Voice. This component of writing can be incredibly difficult to choose. Active voice is generally preferred because it is usually more straightforward. However, sometimes active voice can be awkward when the author is trying to avoid using personal pronouns. In contrast, passive voice is useful when the doer is unknown or unimportant, as in the experimental section of a paper. In general, it is good practice to use a mix of active and passive voice. However, if the voice makes the sentence difficult to construct or understand, it should be rewritten.

Writing takes practice, time, and effort. Whatever method you choose for manuscript writing, know that there are resources available for help.

Dr. Susan Wiedner is founder of SciTech Proofreading; her goal is to help scientists and researchers clearly communicate their work

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