Writing Manual

Writing Style

Style refers to the way writing is used to express ideas, distinct from the ideas themselves. Style can also refer to specific guidelines for spelling, punctuation, and formatting established by an instructor or publisher. In this manual we focus on the scientific writing style required by most journals in the sciences as well as by Biocore instructors for lab reports and term papers.  Scientific writing is clear and concise and uses correct grammar and spelling. Clarity demands that you follow the conventions of proper English usage. Two of the best aids available to writers are a style book, such as The Elements of Style (Strunk and White, 1979) or How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper (Day, 1994), and a dictionary. These books are good investments for anyone interested in improving his/her writing skills.

Avoid trying to sound “scientific”

Choose the simplest, most precise words you can.  They will help you convey information quickly and clearly.  Do not write to impress your reader; the task is to explain scientific ideas. If you are using a word that is new to your vocabulary or has uncommon usage, make sure you are using it precisely. Look it up in the dictionary if you have any doubts!

Use the active voice most of the time

In active voice, the actor comes before the verb and the object, whereas in passive voice, the actor comes last.  Active voice is more dynamic and less likely to lead to wordiness and ambiguity.

POOR: The bacterial plates were examined by the research team everyday. (passive)

BETTER: We examined the bacterial plates daily. (active)

This is your story.  It is appropriate to say, “This is what we did, this is what we found, and this is what we think it all means.”  However, there are situations where the passive voice is appropriate, for example, when the subject of the sentence is irrelevant in the context (e.g., Biocore was founded in 1967).  It is common to use passive voice in the Methods section.

Word Choice and Wordiness

Ask yourself, “will this paper read poorly without this word or sentence”? Unless the answer is yes, throw it out! Don’t hesitate to throw out a sentence that doesn’t fit, even if it is well-written.

  • Avoid unnecessary phrases and words (it is interesting that, due to the fact that, at the present time, there is little doubt that) and verbs into nouns.

POOR: It is interesting that at the present time there are many people who like to garden due to the fact that it is relaxing.

BETTER: Many people find gardening relaxing.

POOR: Many student papers, especially those which consistently exceed 15 pages, are too long. Therefore, in dealing with papers which are not concise, instructors need to resort to drastic measures in order to urge the authors of long papers to edit their papers.

BETTER: Many students need to edit their papers to make them shorter.

POOR: The sample was subjected to centrifugation.

BETTER: We centrifuged the sample at 500 x g.

  • Make sure the language you use reflects the scientific activity in which you are engaging. Phrases such as “I believe”, “We would hope”, or “I think that” have little place in scientific writing.
  • Avoid using “one” or “you” as the subject of the sentence; put biology in center stage.
  • When using a comparative adjective, make sure the object of comparison is clear. Answer ‘lower’, ‘greater’, ‘better’ than what?

POOR: The water chemistry made algal diversity lower.

BETTER: Algal diversity was lower at high salt concentrations than at low salt concentrations.

  • Read your paper aloud. You may be able to hear problems you didn’t recognize previously.
  • Ways to prevent awkward or wordy sentences:
    • Many problems stem from overuse of the verb “to be.” If it does not serve the function of an equals sign in the sentence, try to eliminate it.
    • Put the agent of cause in the subject and the action in the verb. Go for a verb that is interesting and informative.
    • Use “which” and “that” sparingly.
    • If a sentence is more than two lines long, try to break it up into two sentences.
  • Avoid the naked this. “This” should always precede a noun.

POOR: This shows that…

BETTER: This behavior indicates…

  • In the discussion, it’s not necessary to tell the reader that you are basing a particular conclusion on data presented in the results. If you have presented the data well, the reader will know that you are basing your conclusion on your data.

POOR: Based on the results presented in figure 1, one can see that the Daphnia  grew faster when exposed to higher temperatures.

BETTER: Higher temperatures favored Daphnia growth.

Avoid slang and jargon

Slang (got, neat, cool) is highly informal language that is outside of standard or conventional usage.

POOR: We got all kinds of neat stuff from the marsh and dumped it in a pickle jar.

BETTER: We collected plants from the marsh and placed them in a 1-gallon glass jar.

Jargon is highly specialized or technical vocabulary used by those in the same work or profession (e.g., using “chemotherapeutic agent” instead of “drug”). In science writing, jargon frequently consists of nouns modifying nouns and is common when writers use the passive voice.

Define any technical terms that may be unfamiliar to the reader

Example, leaf area index (the surface area of leaves in the plant canopy per unit ground area) is often measured in m2/m2.

Use inclusive language

Imprecise word choices may be interpreted as biased, discriminatory, or demeaning. For example, the use of man or men as generic terms for humans is ambiguous and inappropriate.

POOR: Man’s search for answers has led him to pursue avenues of scientific discovery.

BETTER: The search for answers has led people to pursue avenues of scientific discovery.

Use she/her as often as he/his when referring to a person who may be either gender.

Use the appropriate format for scientific names

The first time you refer to an organism, give the specific epithet (the scientific name- both the genus and species in italics) e.g. Daphnia magna. You may subsequently refer to the species with genus abbreviation, e.g. D. magna.

If you choose to use common names when discussing particular species, present the scientific name, in parenthesis and italicized, after the common name at least once in the paper. Common names are not capitalized unless the name is also a proper noun. Examples:

common goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)

Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota)

Learn the correct usage of the following words and abbreviations

  • Accuracy, precision: Accuracy refers to the closeness of a measurement to the true value. Precision refers to the repeatability of a measurement. If you measure something with a defective ruler many times and obtain the same length, you will have made a precise but inaccurate measurement.
  • Affect, effect: Affect is a verb that means “to influence” or “to have an effect on”; effect is a noun that means “result.”
  • Among, between: Among refers to more than two; between refers to two of something or indicates geographic location.
  • Amount of, number of: Amount of refers to general quantities of things; number of refers to amounts that can be counted.

A small amount of soil can contain a large number of organisms.

  • Cannot: This is one word.
  • Data, datum: Data is plural; datum is singular.
  • e.g., i.e.: The term e.g. (exempli gratia) means “for example”; i.e. (id est) means “that is.” Both should be italicized (because they are Latin terms) and followed by a comma (i.e., like this).
  • Ensure, insure: Ensure is to make certain or guarantee; insure is what insurance agents do to protect you from loss.
  • et al.: This stands for et alia, which means “and others.” Note the period after al.
  • Few, less: Use few to answer the question “How many?”; use less to answer the question “How much?”
  • Hypothesis, theory: Hypothesis is used in everyday language to mean an educated guess; however, scientists use the term hypothesis to mean a provisional idea with explanatory power that is consistent with available information. The hypothesis may be rejected if it turns out not to be supported by data generated by further experiments. A theory (e.g., the theory of evolution by natural selection) is a well-tested idea that has been supported by multiple observations and experiments over a long period of time. 
  • Its, it’sIts is the possessive pronoun (its tail); it’s is the contraction of “it is” (It’s hot today.)
  • Percent, percentagePercentage is used when no figure is given (a high percentage of students); percent is used when a figure precedes it (55 percent or 55%). In science writing, % is more commonly used than percent.
  • Prove: To prove something is to demonstrate it to be a fact. Scientists support hypotheses with data; they seldom prove something. Do not say you “proved” something when you have limited evidence.
  • Significant: In science writing, significant is used for statistical analyses. Do not use significant when you mean “important,” “notable,” “distinctive,” or “major.”
  • That, whichThat defines and restricts (the book that we need has not arrived); which is explanatory (an afterthought) and nonrestrictive (the plants, which seem bushier than usual, …).


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Process of Science Companion Vol. 1 by University of Wisconsin-Madison Biocore Program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.