Most blog posts are written by Marina Hurley. If you are interested in seeing a topic covered as either a blog post or a writing guide, please let us know. Guest authors are invited to submit educational-based blogs relating to science writing and research. Please email for further information.

6 essential features of a clear and compelling grant application

6 essential features of a clear and compelling grant application

Grant applications are usually competitive with multiple applicants applying for the same funding source. A limited pool of money will be available and grant reviewers have to decide which projects are most likely to produce a successful outcome. Ensuring that your grant application is clear and compelling can give you an edge over the competition.

1. Hook the reader from the beginning

When grant applications are reviewed, they often go through an early triage process to rank the applications, with some applications removed from further consideration early on in the review process. Ensuring that your application is clear and compelling from the start may encourage the reviewer to read on and seriously consider the application.

A catchy and concise title that engages the reader is an important first step. Titles should be short, free of jargon and abbreviations and understandable to the lay person.

If the application guidelines allow, first present a brief overview that neatly encapsulates the entire application. Include a clear summary of the background to your topic, a statement of the problem and why it is important, followed by a brief statement of why your project is the most obvious way to solve the problem. Clear, simple diagrams on the first page that visually describe the problem can be helpful to the reader.

2. Explain the relevance of your project

Grant agencies usually clearly outline their scope; this is a description of the type of grants and areas of research they will fund. You need to state how your project fits within the agency’s goals at the beginning of the application.

Once you have defined the problem that your project will solve, the next step is to convince the reader that the problem is important and urgent. How common is it? How many people does it affect? What could happen if this problem isn’t solved soon? What does this problem cost the government, the tax payer and the community? Can the costs of this unaddressed problem be given an estimated dollar figure? Use statistics to back up your claims and cite government documents or published literature wherever possible.

3. Tell a story

The most compelling grant applications tell stories that make the reviewer want to find out how they finish (and they will want to give you money to see how it ends). Ensure that the reader has all the information presented to them in a logical order, so that they can easily follow the story. Explain each concept before moving onto the next and make sure there are no gaps that will leave the reader confused. Don’t assume that your reader is familiar with the nuances of your project.

Outline the big picture: begin with an introduction to the broad topic area that over-arches your project. Then narrow your focus to discuss the problem that your project will address. Simply describing a problem and stating that ‘it is important’ is not sufficient. Provide the reader with sufficient background information so they can easily understand why this issue is so important. Never assume your grant reviewer has in-depth knowledge of your topic. Explain all aspects of the problem and then discuss what is not known, so that the reader has an understanding of what will be needed to solve it.

Gradually weave your research intentions into the story, to show how it fits in. What prior knowledge or relevant expertise do you have? Explain all aspects of the problem and your role in the solution, so the reader can easily see what your project will do and how you aim to solve the problem.

4. Show why you are the best person for the project

Convince the reviewer that you are the best person or team to execute a successful project. What sets you apart from others that have worked in this area? What have you successfully completed in this area? What unique resources or special skills do you have?

Give examples of your previous work or publications where possible. If the project involves developing new skills or techniques, the grant application should explain how you have been successful in developing other skills or techniques in the past.

5. Demonstrate that the project is feasible

The reader should be left with absolute confidence that you can get the work done on time and on budget. Phrases such as “…we have already established…”, “…now that we have found x, we will investigate y” convey momentum and establish feasibility. The grant should drive home the message that the only thing stopping you from completing the project is lack of money.

At the end of the story, tell the reader what will happen next if it is funded. State the expected outcomes of your project. However, if listing additional benefits of the project, ensure that they don’t cloud the original aim. What you are likely to achieve and how this project will solve the problem should be abundantly clear.

6. Use clear and concise language

Clear and concise language is more engaging and compelling than writing that is dry and long-winded. Too many abbreviations can make the text difficult to read, so try to find a balance between readability and any word limits. Defining abbreviations at the beginning of the document and using bold text makes it easier for the reader to revisit the abbreviation if needed.

Avoid jargon (undefined terminology) and overly-complicated language. Define key terms when first mentioned and avoid using different terms for the same thing. Ensure that each sentence is clearly constructed. A good rule of thumb is to ask a colleague or friend to read the application and highlight any sentences that they had to read more than twice.

Thoroughly re-read and revise the application, gradually simplifying the language as you rewrite and edit, without comprising the integrity of your story. Ask an independent person to read the near-final draft to look for spelling or grammatical errors that could interfere with clarity and quality.

© Liza O’Donnell & Marina Hurley 2017

Further reading

Any suggestions or comments please email 

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Ten Stages of the PhD Journey: Good Advice from Many Experts


Ten Stages of the PhD Journey: Good Advice from Many Experts

Designing, executing and writing up a PhD study takes a large chunk of your time and energy. Here is an overview of each stage of the process along with a list of excellent articles that will help you with different parts of your PhD journey. Some of the advice offered here may be specific to a discipline, country or university, or is heavily dependent upon one person’s experience. Nevertheless, you are likely to find most of this advice and instruction helpful in some way.

 1. What do you hope to achieve by completing a PhD?

It is important for you to seriously consider why you are undertaking a PhD and what you hope to achieve by completing a PhD

*   9 things you should consider before embarking on a PhD by Andy Greenspon

*   Familiarise yourself with the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research

*   A successful PhD student will be expected to possess key research skills and knowledge as listed here: Research degree graduate qualities by the University of South Australia

 2. Writing a Research Proposal

You might be offered a PhD project where the research proposal is already planned or you might need to devise a research proposal yourself, either before or after you have chosen a supervisor.

*   How to write a research proposal for a strong PhD application by the University of Sydney

 3. Choosing a PhD supervisor

Some students have one key supervisor, while it is not unusual for some students to have three or four. It is important to remember that your supervisor may have many students under their direction, so their time may be strictly limited. At Monash University, research supervisors supervise different numbers of students according to their accreditation, with Level 3 Accreditation supervising up to 25 graduate research students.

*   Choosing a PhD supervisor by Dr Nathalie Mather-L’Huillier

*   You and your supervisors by the University of South Australia

 4. Setting up a research budget

An essential project management skill when conducting research is the ability to effectively design and manage research budgets. If you need to request finances through a grant application, ensure you thoroughly investigate the necessary guidelines.

*   Budget Guidelines for Research Support Grants by the NHMRC.

*   How to make a simple research budget by Jonathan O’Donnell

*   6 steps to drafting a grant application Liza O’Donnell & Marina Hurley

 5. How to find completed PhD theses

It is always a good idea to check other PhD theses that are similar to your topic, have been completed recently and have been produced by your university department. You can gain a wealth of ideas about structure, size and overall thesis design.

*   How to find a thesis by Macquarie University

*   Finding Australian theses by the Council of Australian University Librarians

And on this page, there are other really useful inks:

 6. How to structure and format your thesis

Exactly how to structure and format your thesis will vary greatly depending upon your department, your university and your discipline. Always refer to your university’s guidelines for thesis format requirements. For example:

*   Style and format by the University of Western Australia

*   Thesis format requirements by the University of Queensland

*   Thesis structure by the University of New South Wales

 7. Writing a thesis with submitted papers

Increasingly, students are allowed, or even required, to submit a large proportion of their thesis as published papers. Not every PhD project can be easily written up as separate papers; however, take a look at recently submitted theses to see how people have done this.

*   What is a ‘thesis by publication’? by the University of Sydney

*   Six Misconceptions about the Three-Paper Route by PhD Life

 8. How to write a literature review

Reviewing the literature is important to assist your knowledge and understanding of your topic. Writing good literature reviews is crucial to show your examiners how well you know the literature. It is a common requirement that you write a separate chapter as a stand-alone literature review. However, for those theses that are predominantly composed of complete published papers, there might not be a requirement for a separate review section.

*   How do I write a literature review? by the University of Sydney

*   Writing a publishable literature review paper – four options by Pat Thomson

 9. Submitting your thesis

The process of submitting your thesis may include preparing additional tasks and preparation of paperwork (i.e. the Originality Statement).

*   Thesis Submission by UNSW

*   Submitting a thesis by the Australian National University

 10. The examination process

Usually there are three examiners. However, the process of thesis examination will vary widely according to discipline and university. Broadly speaking, your examiners will recommend that your thesis be accepted without alteration, accepted with minor alteration, accepted providing major changes are made or rejected. Usually your supervisor will choose who your examiners are and you may have the opportunity to choose one of your examiners.

*   HDR Thesis Submission and Examination Procedure by James Cook University

*   Examination Process by Curtin University

An oral examination for a PhD is not common in Australia universities but are sometimes required depending upon university, discipline or if there is a particular aspect of your thesis that requires clarification

*   Guidelines for the oral defence of the thesis by the University of South Australia

If there are any problems…

If things go drastically wrong at any time, it is essential that you seek assistance as early as possible. There are people within your university administration who are there to help you. To help dealing with problems, document any issues as they arise. It is essential for you to have excellent time-management and record-keeping skills.

*   Resolving problems by the University of Melbourne

*   Grievances, Complaints and Problems During Candidature by the University of Adelaide

*   Resolving problems by Griffith University

And remember…

*   Be aware of, and employ, sound project management skills including risk management protocols to identify alternative actions in unforeseen circumstances.

*   Keep records and extra copies of everything: for example, data, thesis drafts, email, meeting agendas, fieldwork notes. Ensure you have excellent electronic version control of your documents and extra backups of all your data and work.

*   Ensure you develop and maintain a support network of friends and colleagues who may give important advice and help you deal with any obstacles.

*   Get plenty of exercise, rest and sleep.

© Marina Hurley 2017

Further reading:

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6 steps to drafting a grant application

Applying for grants is a time-consuming process. Deadlines can loom suddenly, leading to stress and long days. Success rates can be low, meaning that effort is often not rewarded.

At the outset, you need to form a realistic timeline to work on the grant application. In addition to identifying your funding source, researching the specific requirements of the grant application and formulating your project budget, you will need to start planning your written proposal. Careful planning and early feedback from your colleagues will maximise your chances of a successful outcome. Following these 6 steps will help you develop the core content of your application.

1. Identify your audience
Will the grant be reviewed by specialists in your field or by a panel of non-specialists or lay people? In reality, you may have two types of audience:

– Non-specialist or non-scientific  reviewers who will require background information to judge whether your project is worthwhile.
– Specialist reviewers within your discipline that will be more familiar with your research.

In most cases it is reasonable to assume that your reviewers may not be familiar with the terminology, the current research problems or instantly understand why your project is so important. It is imperative to make sure your proposal is clear and understandable.

2. Summarise the key research problems overarching your project
Before you can think about convincing people how good your project is, you need to build a picture about the current problems facing your research community.

Successful grant applications clearly define the area of need and how it is relevant to your potential funding source. This will help you build your case as to why your project is so important. Describe how these problems might affect society and the environment. For example, if you are researching a disease, highlight the burden associated with that disease. Outline how many people it affects, the costs to society and what needs to be done to solve this problem.

3. Summarise the key problem your project will solve
This is where you focus on what problem(s) this project will try to solve. Clearly articulate the problem that will be tackled by your project. It is important that you don’t promise to solve too many problems. Describe how this problem is connected to the broader scope of the problems outlined in Step 2.

Try not to be vague or describe a problem that is too big to solve with your study. It must be achievable given the scope of your project. Once you have outlined your research problem, then you can clearly state what you aim to achieve (step 4).

4. Articulate the hypotheses, aims and outcomes
Your overall aim will be to solve the problem outlined in step 3. Identify what you specifically aim to achieve, your hypotheses and what outcomes you can expect from your completed project. The outcome of the project funded by the grant might be to provide new information that can be used to identify specific therapies .

Once the overall aim is stated, the project should be broken down into sub-aims, each with a defined outcome. This helps you to define timelines, keeps the grant focussed and productive and improves the likelihood that the grant will be successful.

5. Summarise how you will do the work (methods)
A major factor in grant success is being able to convince the reviewers that the project is feasible and that the work is likely to be completed. Clearly outline what methods you will use and what experience you have in this area. If you need to develop new methods, clearly explain what is required and provide evidence of your ability to develop other methods in the past. Outline the scope of the project. How long it will take to complete each component? Is the size of your project feasible within the set time frame? Do you have access to suitable equipment and operational facilities?  Promote yourself. Provide evidence (such as previous publications or unpublished data) to demonstrate that you are capable of successfully completing the project.

6. Seek feedback from colleagues
Give your draft proposal to your colleagues for feedback. They may provide valuable feedback on what is feasible, which aspects are the most interesting and what might be missing.

This early feedback will help you focus on what you want to achieve, why it is important and how likely the project is to succeed. It can be helpful to talk to people who have already received funding from a particular source; what feedback did they receive and what aspects did they think helped them to secure funding? If appropriate, it might also be helpful to seek feedback from colleagues who have recently been unsuccessful in winning a grant from the same funding body.

What to do next?
– Rework the application so that it is clear, compelling, concise and flows well.
– Finalise your budget and ensure all aspects of your project are justified.
– Seek at least two more rounds of feedback from your peers as you proceed through writing and the submission process. Grants that peer-reviewed grants prior to submission are more likely to be successful.
– Pay close attention to the small details in the submission process. You don’t want to have your grant rejected on a technicality or an unchecked box on a submission form.

© Liza O’Donnell & Marina Hurley 2017

Further reading:

Any suggestions or comments please email .

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8 steps to writing your first draft

1. Outline your core topic 

Start by formulating your core topic: the key problems you seek to solve with your story, the main points you want to cover. Develop a broad framework that you can modify with further detail in later drafts as you develop your content. Identify the key problems that need solving. Write the overview of what, who, how, where, when, and why?

2. Identify your audience

Clearly identify your target audience. What you write and how much detail you provide depends upon who you are writing to. What is their background? Why are they reading your document?

3. Plan with pre-writing

Pre-writing is the thinking, note-taking, outlining, mind-mapping, brainstorming and question-asking needed to plan and develop your core topic. Pre-writing is where you focus on the big picture while writing your first draft and can include hand-writing and drawing diagrams on whiteboards or on large pieces of paper. Try recording yourself talking about your project or use voice-recognition software to get your thoughts down.

4. Make a mess and clean it up in later 

The first draft should be messy, rough and amenable to change; remould your structure as you go. Write bullet points, sentence fragments, and temporary paragraph headings. Avoid trying to writing perfect sentences (polishing). Don’t worry about being repetitive. Avoid making your writing eloquent, stylistic or succinct in the first draft: this should be worked on after you have chosen the key points you will cover.

5. Summarise: Leave out the details until later drafts

There is no point adding too much detail in the first draft as you may change your mind about what you want to say. Allow yourself to write things that you may change your mind about later. Aim to produce a first draft that reflects your main ideas without explaining them in minute detail.

6. Start writing without engaging your inner critic

Don’t worry about the reader in a first draft. Don’t worry if your first draft doesn’t make complete sense. Allow yourself to easily to chop up, delete or dramatically change what you have just written.

7. Don’t stop to do more research

Don’t worry if you are unsure about something. Avoid the desire to stop and research a sub-topic: keep writing. When you have finished your first draft you can review what you have written and identify topics that need further research.

8. Seek appropriate feedback

Ensure that you receive the feedback that is appropriate for each stage of writing. Seek feedback on your key ideas and broad content and not on commas or grammar. Ask colleagues to ignore punctuation, grammar, sentence structure or nuances in meaning that can be tackled in later drafts.


© Dr Marina Hurley 2017

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Two ways to be an inefficient writer

Science is often complicated and writing about a scientific topic can be like trying to untangle spaghetti. Writing efficiently can also be a struggle if you are writing about a new topic or haven’t had a lot of writing experience. Irrespective of experience, there are two types of writing behaviour that greatly reduce productivity and confidence.

1. Writing without knowing your core topic

Your core topic is the main thrust of your story, the central theme and the key points. Starting without a clear idea about the depth and breadth of a core topic can be time-consuming. Every scientific topic may be linked to dozens of other sub-topics that at first consideration appear just as important as your original topic. It is often tempting to try and include them and look for a way to link them all together. Without clear focus, it is easy to drift off the topic and you may not realise that you are actually writing about five topics instead of one.

It can be easy to get distracted from your main story by adding shiny, interesting details. Avoid the desire to update the reader with every twist and turn, every exception to the rule, and every related, but not-so-important, detail.

2. Polishing: trying to write perfectly in a first draft

Inefficient writers often start by writing a burst of fresh thoughts and then immediately spend considerable effort rewriting, editing, and proofreading this material before writing a fresh block of text. Trying to write perfect sentences in a first draft can waste precious time as lot of this early writing may need to be discarded. This is also known as polishing your writing. Polishing can be a form of procrastination when you allow yourself to be distracted from the important thinking time and problem-solving needed to nut out your story. Polishing your sentences is necessary in later drafts when fine-tuning your ideas and improving your message for the reader. Inefficient writers polish early, while efficient writers polish after they have worked out what they want to say.

People often believe that they should be writing perfectly the first time and get frustrated at the seemingly endless amount of time it takes to complete a document. Some people imagine that innumerable drafts and rewrites will be needed and suspect that they will never be happy with the final product. Laboring over a single sentence while thinking you still have 1000 more to write is daunting.

Polishing in early drafts is an easy trap to fall into when writing on-screen: each time a file is opened it is tempting to first read, review and re-edit the existing text before writing fresh material. As the document develops, what is written earlier is continually reconsidered, rewritten and re-edited while what is written later receives far less attention.

Combining both traits can leave a writer lost in the wilderness for days. Polishing in early drafts is especially time-consuming and even wasteful, if you are writing without clear focus. A lot of this perfect writing may still need to be culled in later drafts if it is off-the-topic. You may even be tempted to keep content that is off-the-topic, simply because you spent so much time writing it. Keeping unnecessary content may weaken the impact of your story or mislead the reader.

The solution?

You still need to write to clarify your thoughts, so start with a one paragraph summary that describes the overview of your topic and includes the 3-5 main points that you want to cover; then re-formulate these main ideas while building the overall structure and mapping the scope of your document. Leave out details until later drafts. Allow your writing to be messy and clean it up later.


© Dr Marina Hurley 2017

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Work-procrastination: important stuff that keeps us from writing


There is a lot of angst with people who want to write, yet cannot seem to. This is commonly referred to as writer’s block. Often the cause of writer’s block is procrastination.

There are a lot of blogs about procrastination; lots of advice and many very humourous blogs and skits (remember when Bernard from Black Books (Series 1, Ep. 1) gladly paired his socks and welcomed in the Jehovah’s Witness to avoid having to do his tax?). We could procrastinate by reading about procrastination: It’s very easy to procrastinate by learning how not to procrastinate. It’s also easy to recognise most types of procrastination: playing computer games, snacking, walking the dog, doing the dishes, chatting to your work colleagues and generally allowing yourself to get distracted by anything colourful, shiny, noisy or interesting.

A less obvious type of procrastination is simply keeping busy, also known as busywork: “work that usually appears productive or of intrinsic value but actually only keeps one occupied”. What is even less obvious is what I call work-procrastination; this is when you are working on a task that is very closely related to, but is not actually, writing. For example, sorting computer files; doing that extra bit of background reading on a topic you are already familiar with; editing the reference list of your report; looking up the perfect definition of a concept; proofreading; re-reading; or spending 40 minutes rewriting and polishing a nearly-perfect paragraph when you haven’t yet considered what might be the major points in your first draft.

You tell yourself that working on these related tasks will ultimately help complete the task; you convince yourself that they are important and necessary and that they must be completed before you write. Because we know these related tasks still have to be completed at some point, we procrastinate by doing them instead of writing.

How to realise when you are work-procrastinating?

When you are not writing.

Go! Write!

–        If it’s a first draft, just write. Write messily and incoherently and incompletely. Get your main ideas out first.

–        Don’t stop and worry if you are making sense – leave that for when you tackle the second draft.

–        Don’t stop and re-read and edit what you’ve just written– leave that for when you tackle the second draft.

–        Set up a zone of silence to reduce distractions.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2016


If science was perfect, it wouldn’t be science

Written by Marina Hurley

A common claim espoused across social media is the idea that science must be perfect if we are to believe what is says. For example, when arguments are raised against vaccination, GMO and fluoridation of our water supply, science is criticised for not being perfect and that it should not be trusted. There is a clear assertion that scientists should not make mistakes, and when they do, that science itself is at fault.

What do scientists do?Academic writing

Scientists solve problems, create new things, come up with new ideas, try things that don’t work and work at things that appear insurmountable. Scientists climb mountains to look at lava, swim with sharks to look at coral, dig ditches to uncover fossils, climb trees to study flowers, wear masks when mixing chemicals, stand all day measuring samples, or sit all day crunching numbers or staring at a computer screen. Scientists write, think, teach, create, destroy, argue, worry, mope and get excited. Scientists make new knowledge and dig through old knowledge for new answers or when working out new ways to do things. Scientists disagree with each other and criticise themselves and others and they try to do things better the next time around. They work with ideas, hypotheses and theories, and come to conclusions and make predictions. They are not always right nor do they expect to be.

Scientists are not always certain

What we know about science comes from new research and from old research that is looked at again and again. There are things that we are certain are true; there are things that we are reasonably confident are true; then there are things we expect are likely to be true, while understanding there may be important exceptions. Then there are things that we think may, or may not, be true, depending upon the circumstances. Then there are things we are not really sure of at all but have a vague hunch that something about them might be true. Then there are things where very little is known. We don’t know everything and never will. A great many scientific ideas and opinions may be unsubstantiated or simply wrong. Hypotheses either grow up to be theories or discarded and melt into the background of productive thought. Theories are tougher, last longer and are much harder to break, but still do.

 Science is not perfect

Science is a process of lowisdom-92901_1280oking for answers and working on the best way to find these answers. It is not perfect; it couldn’t possibly be as it is done by humans in an imperfect world. Science doesn’t always find the answers and is often inconclusive and indecisive. When looking at their results, scientists regularly find that their answers are inconsistent or contradict currently-held viewpoints. What we know to be true today may be completely wrong at some point in the future, but this is what science is about. Scientific knowledge will always be incomplete. As soon as we find answers to one problem, up springs 10 more questions that demand attention. The search for answers will always bring new questions and new ways of looking at the world. Science is self-improving and never-ending; science is a work in progress.

Scientists make mistakes

Scientists try things that sometimes don’t work, but the idea is to learn why something didn’t work and to improve the method next time. This is a normal part of science. What is rare is when a scientist deliberately makes stuff up to make themselves and their study look good, in order to preserve or improve their career. The Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research “…advocates and describes best practice for both institutions and researchers…” and “…provides a valuable framework for handling breaches of the Code and research misconduct.”

Scientists can be afraid of making mistakes as the culture of science currently favours short, brand-new studies with exciting results over long-tquestions-1328347_1280erm, repetitive and boring studies that are still scientifically-important. The reports that say “we didn’t find anything” often don’t even get written, let alone published, allowing others to repeat the same ‘mistakes’ when trying to solve a problem. Similarly, I have met more than a few PhD students who spend a very long time worrying about their project ‘not working’ because it is common for studies not to produce the results you expect. It is difficult to do statistics on lots of zeros. Nevertheless the science behind why you didn’t find anything is as important as why you did find something.

The checks and balances of science

There are checks and balances that maintain and improve the quality of research but science itself is inherently rigorous; it has its own inherent checks and balances. The scientific record is research that is written and published so others can check that it was done properly, ideally other scientists then repeat or build upon the original study and try to do it better. The peer-review process means that other scientists get to verify that a study was done correctly. The published journal paper in bone-fide journals means that the science community gets to read and further judge whether a study is valid. If they don’t think a published study is good enough, they can write another paper to critique it. Those papers that make a big impact or make it into the higher quality journals get cited more often, meaning these papers are popular with other scientists and become more influential in their field.

Yet none of these checks and balances work perfectly. There are major criticisms of the peer-review system with many suggestions on how to improve the process. There are some papers that get rejected for publishing that shouldn’t have been, while there are papers that get accepted that shouldn’t and some of these get retracted, which means they are withdrawn from publication and are deleted from the journal (The top ten paper retractions for 2015 are listed here).

Scientists disagree with each other

statue-873818_1920There is a lot of trust in science. We trust that most studies produce accurate and reliable results but some studies are based on little evidence or were conducted with incomplete or even incorrect methodology. We hope that these studies will fail the peer-review stage, but they don’t always. Of those that do get published, if the scientific data is no
t strong, there can be differing opinions on the importance of that study’s conclusions. Nevertheless, below-standard published papers still create important and necessary debate. For example, the paper Neurobehavioral effects of developmental toxicity (Lancet Neurol. 2014; 13: 330–338) that looks at harm caused by fluoridation is critiqued by a paper published in response to this study Neurodevelopmental toxicity: still more questions than answers  (Lancet Neurol. 2014; 13: 647 – 648).

Scientific disputes are normal and a necessary part of science. Providing the disagreement is between peers, disputes strengthen science. Disagreement forces researchers to look harder at their own ideas, beliefs and methodology.

There are many ways science can improve: for example, the peer-review process, the amount and extent of scientist training and mentorship, and the amount of funding for training and research. We also need to make is easier for scientists to do their work. The predominance of the publish or perish culture leaves little time for scientists to communicate widely or to do the boring but important work that might not get published in high-quality journals. The lack of funding, tenure and job vacancies means that many months of the year are devoted to preparing job and grant applications of which only a small fraction are successful.

Effective communication is essential

We need science to make decisions about all sorts of things and we usually do not have the time or money to study something 100 times for 100 years. Decisions often need to be made with limited information. Science is not a neat, perfect road map where the direction to home is clearly marked. It is more like the game of snakes and ladders, when sometimes you think you are making satisfactory progress, but something changes or goes wrong and the next step takes you straight back to the beginning.

Yet given the overwhelming advances in science, the drive to do it bigger and better continues. Scientists need the support and understanding of the community and the community needs reliable and digestible information about the impacts of science and technology.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2016

Further reading: (external links)

Science at multiple levels Understanding Science. University of California Museum of Palaeontology.
What’s the difference between a scientific law and theory? – Matt Anticole [TED-Ed Video].

Any suggestions or comments please email

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The zone of silence: reducing distraction in the writing workplace

Written by Dr Marina Hurley

A meeting is a sacred workplace activity where people are given a quiet space to sit and a table to write on, and are shielded from interruptions or disturbances. You wouldn’t expect someone to randomly walk into a meeting without warning, cup of coffee in hand, and strike up a conversation about how bad the traffic was that morning. Yet these types of disturbances naturally happen when trying to write at your desk. Writing is every bit as important as the meeting but doesn’t receive the same respect. It is expected to fit in around the edges of everything else: emails, queries from colleagues, telephones and computers.

Trying to stay focused on anyrussia-95311_1920 task is difficult if there are distractions. Distractions are not your friend. Distractions let the procrastination monster walk right in the front door and kick you out of your chair. Yet many people work in an open office: a shared workspace with no doors and often no walls. If you don’t have a door to close, it’s easier to get interrupted, easier to hear your neighbour‘s conversation and easier to hear incidental noises. Common ways of avoiding distraction are to put headphones on and listen to music (or pretend to), take your work home, or start early or leave late.

A straightforward and inexpensive tactic is to create The Zone of Silence in your workplace. The Zone of Silence is simply an empty desk close to a powerpoint with a booking sheet stuck to the wall so everyone can see who is using it.

rest-413103_1920The rules of The Zone of Silence are:

  1. The area is used only for writing.
  2. No phone or internet can be used, including email or google.
  3. The writer only brings notes and material connected with their current project.
  4. No talking.
  5. No noise.

Active use of The Zone of Silence may raise the profile of writing as an activity that requires dedicated space and adequate periods of time if it is to be completed effectively. If The Zone of Silence is taken seriously, there is an excellent chance that writing productivity can be improved.

© Marina Hurley 2016

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How to create tables using data

What is a table?

Tables present the results of data or information collected from a study. The purpose of a table is to present data summaries to help the reader to understand what was found. Not all data needs to go into a table: some results are simply presented as written text in the results section; data that shows a trend or a pattern in between variables is presented in figures, while additional data not necessary to explain the study should go into the appendix.

Tables should convey data or information clearly and concisely and allow the key message to be interpreted at a glance. Tables often include detailed data in rows and columns, while sub-columns are often nested within larger columns.

Designing your table

Once you have decided what data to present, jot down a rough draft of the table headings on paper to determwriting tables reports papersine how many columns and rows you need. Choose categories with accurate labels that match your  methodology and analysis. Before you spend too much time designing the layout of your table, check that you are following the format expected within your discipline or organisation as table formatting requirements often vary considerably; if you are preparing a science report, refer to the relevant In-House Style Guide(s) or if you are preparing a journal article, meticulously follow the journal’s Instruction to Authors.

Title or Legend

Consider the objective and key message of each table. The table title is typically placed at the top of the table. It should stand alone: it needs to be clearly understood by your target audience without them needing to go back to the results or methods sections. The title should be concise and describe what was measured, e.g. ‘Reproductive hormone levels during contraceptive administration in men’. Frame the title so that it conveys the key results, e.g. ‘Reproductive hormones are suppressed during contraceptive administration in men’.


Take care to ensure the sub-headings are meaningful and accurate. The row and column headings clearly explain the treatment or data type, and include units. In the sample table below, the experimental details are given in the row headings (time points during the administration of a contraceptive), and the data measured (hormones) are given in the column headings.

Example table
reports papers tables

Explanatory notes

Explanatory notes and footnotes are placed at the end of the table. Make sure that all abbreviations are defined and that the values are explained. For example, if the values are a percentage, mean ± SEM, n per group.

Drawing and formatting the table

Tables for publication are usually created in Word, using the Insert Table function. For instructions see: Office Support: Insert or create a table. Tables can also be created from existing datasets in Excel, and then cut and pasted into Word, or exported into Word as an image.

–        Use a separate cell for each piece of information; avoid having to insert tabs or spaces which may cause the text to be unintentionally moved when the formatting is adjusted. Add your headings and data to each cell.
–        The table then needs to be formatted to improve readability and clarity. Select the entire table or individual rows or columns and right click. Options will appear where you can modify the table size, cell height and width, and format the borders.
–        Word tables will have borders on each side of the cell by default. Formatting the borders by selecting columns, rows or individual cells will help the table to take shape and improve visual clarity. In the sample table above, horizontal borders have been used sparingly to improve clarity.Borders and shading tables reports papers

Formatting borders helps a table to take shape and improve clarity. Select and de-select the horizontal and vertical lines you want to use as borders

–        Cells can be merged to create headings above sub-headings (see example below). Select the cells you want to merge then select the Merge Cells option.merge cells example writing tables papers reports–        Text within the table can be formatted by selecting the text, then formatting it as normal.
–        Make sure that the columns and rows are well separated and that the table is not cluttered and is easy to read. Imagine the reader looking at your table: do they have access to all of the information they need and can they easily understand the results?

Citing the table

Always cite the table at the relevant point in your text. Avoid repeating the details that are presented in the table, and use the text to direct the reader to the main message, e.g. ‘Contraceptive administration at 14 and 20 weeks significantly suppressed FSH, LH and testosterone levels in men (Table 1)’. Tables should be numbered consecutively throughout the document.

© Liza O’Donnell & Marina Hurley 2015.


Further reading: (external links)

* Creating tables in scientific papers: basic formatting and titles
* How to create and customize tables in Microsoft Word
* Tips on effective use of tables and figures in research papers
* Almost Everything You Wanted to Know About Making Tables and Figures
* Office Support: Insert or create a table

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The difference between a writing rule and a good idea

Written by Dr Marina Hurley

Why do we have writing rules?

There is a lot of advice about how to improve writing. Some of it is not very helpful or may even make writing more difficult, especially if the advice is delivered as a rule.

How do writing rules evolve?

Sarah struggled with writing long paragraphs and found it helpful if she forced herself not to write more than seven sentences for each paragraph. Sarah said to Peter, “You should restrict your paragraphs to no more than seven sentences.” Peter tried this and it worked for him. He also found that it helped him if he also made sure his paragraphs were not too short. Later, he told his friend Sia that “It’s a good idea if paragraphs are no more than seven sentences and no less than three”. Sia told her friends in her tutorial group, “I’ve heard that paragraphs should be no more than seven sentences and no less than three”. If a suggestion is communicated with absolutes, such as, ‘should’, then it is more easily passed off as a rule. Problems then occur as many do not question something, if they believe it is a rule.

When teaching I am often asked questions phrased as ‘What is the writing rule for…’. I respond by making a clear distinction between what is a rule and what is simply a good idea. Then there is a third option that requires critical thinking and considered thought, before any advice is followed. This is the “Well it depends…” option.

Perhaps some advice ends up as a rule because it appears easier to teach using a black and white perspective. The problem with writing rules is that there are always exceptions. If there are too many exceptions then the rule becomes ambiguous, difficult to learn and difficult to teach. This is the case for some grammar, spelling and punctuation rules.

Some rules are good

Some rules are more important than others. Many grammar rules are essential. We need verbs in sentences otherwise we wouldn’t know what was going on; we need a subject so that we know who or what was doing the thing that was going on. Some grammar rules are important and some are no longer used or followed. Some rules are termed usage rules. Descriptive grammar is when grammar rules are taught based on current usage of the language while Prescriptive grammar is when grammar rules are taught based on rules that generally don’t change and are seen as absolute.

Whether or not to confidently split your infinitives

Never split your infinitives’ is a rule that dictates one must never place an adverb between ‘to’ and a verb’ (‘You have to quickly speak’ versus ‘You have to speak quickly’). This rule is no longer supported by the Oxford Dictionary yet is still commonly taught. The justification was based on an ancient Latin rule.

Some rules are simply good suggestions

Some rules are just good ideas disguised as rules, for example, the advice that will help your consistency and flow, such as, ‘Always have the same size bullet point indents’. Instead ‘Be consistent with bullet point indents‘ is better: you will not be fined or lose your job if you change the size of your indents halfway through your report.

Some rules are not so good

Then there are rules that are, perhaps at best, only vaguely helpful. A student once claimed that their supervisor strictly enforced the rule to ‘Never write paragraphs shorter than three sentences or longer than seven’. Why? Why not? Who is this rule going to help? Once writing rules are let loose, they are hard to reclaim. Take the mantra we learned at school to supposedly help us with spelling, ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’. This was nicely fielded by Simon Taylor’s tweet ‘Except when you run a feisty heist on a weird beige foreign neighbour’ and is now also a t-shirt. Also, ‘Never start a sentence with, ‘However’, which must have come from the rule that you can’t start a sentence with a conjunction. Personally, I have no problem starting a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’, as long as it makes sense. But down that path lies doom as it goes against writing convention. Then there is the ‘which and that‘ rule which, according to Jonathon Owen, someone simply made up, while the ‘Never end a sentence with a preposition’ rule is one of Grammar Girl’s Top Ten Grammar Myths.

Some writing rules might help some people some of the time, buts it’s the exceptions that leaves others fretting and googling. Some people prefer rules because it appears easier to learn and follow them instead of working through problems.

Some rules are conventional

Then there is convention, which is defined as ‘what people usually do‘ or ‘an agreement between states covering particular matters, especially one less formal than a treaty‘. There are many writing conventions that exist that are also camouflaged as rules. For example, the imperative not to use active voice is very strong in some academic disciplines as it is argued that it is un-objective, which, in science, is bad. The jury is still out and different disciplines have different ideas. There are occasions when active language is necessary; for example, to distinguish your ideas from someone else’s; for example when “It is considered that compound X is not necessary for short assays”, the reader might not know who did the considering; whether this is the author’s conclusion or a general, uncited principle gleaned from general knowledge and understanding of that topic. There are occasions when active language is not necessary; for instance in the Materials and Methods sections of reports, but then this might depend on whether a new method is being developed.

Write first

Yes, we want to avoid writing gobbledegook but let us write for clarity first, and then worry about convention. The top priority when writing about science is not to compromise your meaning. Make sure that what you write is clear and succinct and that your presentation is consistent and easy to navigate. Always get feedback from your friends and colleagues if you want to know if you are making sense. Then you can worry about whether you have followed conventions that will allow your document to get published.

© Marina Hurley 2015

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