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 info@writingclearscience.com.au for further information.


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 exploring an unfamiliar topic or haven’t had a lot of writing experience. Irrespective of experience, there are two types of writing behaviour that will greatly reduce productivity and confidence.

1. Writing without having a clear understanding of your core topic

Your core topic includes your document aims and objectives and the key problems you are aiming to solve, together with an explanation of how your topic fits within your discipline. Starting to write without a clear idea about the depth and breadth of your 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 away from your 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 excessive and seemingly, 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. This is also known as polishing your writing. Polishing in early drafts is an easy trap to fall into when writing on-screen: each time you open a file, it is tempting to first read, review and then 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.

Polishing in the early stages of writing can be a form of procrastination where you allow yourself to get distracted from the important thinking time and problem-solving needed to design your document.

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. Labouring over a single sentence while thinking you still have 1000 more to write is daunting.

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.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2019 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au 

Find out more about our new online course..

How to be an Efficient Writer

Do you struggle with the amount of time it takes to write? When writing about science it is easy to drift off from your key topic when researching, planning and writing. 
Dr Marina Hurley shows you how to stay on track and be more efficient at each stage of the writing process. Irrespective of your topic, background, level of writing experience or document type, you can implement these steps to work on your first draft or rework a current draft.  Learn more...

Next course opens 30th January 2020


SUBSCRIBE to the Writing Clear Science Newsletter

to keep informed about our latest blogs, webinars and writing courses.


Are you only writing for the conscientious reader?


When you write, do you consider how your readers will read your document? Do you expect your readers to be conscientious? Will they studiously read every sentence and paragraph from beginning to end? Some readers will read your entire document, while some will quickly look for the main points and then file it away, perhaps hoping to read it properly later on. Some readers might give up after reading the first sentence because it doesn’t interest them.

You cannot assume all of your readers will obediently start at the beginning and diligently read every sentence and absorb every word. To communicate clearly, you need to understand your reader and what they want to know. Not only do you need to define your target audience, you need to understand how they read and what they want.

Not everyone reads the same way

A reader’s behaviour is primarily influenced by their level of interest in your topic and how much time they have to read. Many other factors also affect their decision to start reading and to keep reading until the end. As a writer, you have control over some of these factors and being aware of how your reader reads will improve your ability to attract your reader and keep them engaged.  

I consider there are generally two types of readers of scientific documents. The avid reader who will read every single word in your document (even if it is poorly written) and the lukewarm reader who may not thoroughly read your document (even if it is well written).

An avid reader is someone who will read your entire document because…

  • they believe they will immediately gain a direct benefit
  • they respect you
  • they are familiar with your writing and expect that your document will be informative and easy to read
  • your information is not found anywhere else
  • they have commissioned your project
  • they are very interested in your topic and will thoroughly read everything they can find on it
  • they are your peers, colleagues or competitors with a vested interest in your work

A lukewarm reader is someone who has started reading your document, but…

  • is busy, little time to read and is rapidly searching for the take-home message
  • is easily distracted
  • is trying to do three things at once
  • is poorly organised
  • unsure about what they need to read
  • doesn’t feel like reading
  • will decide very quickly whether to keep on reading
  • will be easily convinced to stop reading

Assume most of your readers are lukewarm

If you assume all of your readers are avid readers, you might not try hard enough to write well.

Assume all of your readers are lukewarm: that they have little time to read, have a short attention span, are easily distracted or would prefer to be doing something else.

Expect that your reader has many other documents in a large and overly-optimistic ‘must-read’ pile and will only spend 2-5 minutes skimming over your document before deciding to delve in. Write for them. While some of your readers will remain lukewarm, no matter what or how you write, make sure that even the most disinterested reader can easily find a concise, informative summary or take-home message.

Key considerations to attract and engage your reader

Your reader needs to be immediately convinced that your document will be useful.

The title

  • Will it immediately attract your reader?
  • Is it hard to read?
  • Is it too specific or too long or does it rely on too much background knowledge?
  • Does it refer to a relevant or interesting scientific topic?

How and where you present key information 

  • Provide context at the very beginning. This means that you start your introduction with a succinct overview of the problem your document will be solving and how your project or topic fits within your discipline. 
  • Are your sentences and paragraphs well-structured so that important points or details are not hidden within unnecessary or irrelevant detail?
  • Are your key messages and conclusions abundantly clear?
  • Do you have a document summary where the reader can absorb the key findings and take-home message at a glance? If your document doesn’t normally include a summary, can you break the rules and write one? If not, ensure your key findings are short and concise.

Ease of reading and comprehension

Your reader will want your document to be clear and easy to read, so write clearly and concisely.

A document that is easy to read has a greater chance of being read even if the reader’s interest is low and they haven’t much time. Anything off-the-topic, confusing, or to too specific might easily cause your reader to not only stop reading but permanently decide that your document is of no interest to them. If your document is hard to read then only the determined or avid reader will finish what they have started.

Your reader’s background knowledge and expertise

How much background knowledge do you assume your reader has before they start reading? Unless you are specifically writing for experts, don’t assume your reader is an expert on your topic. However, don’t assume your reader needs to be told every detail surrounding your topic. Decide what your main points are and stick to them.

Document design and layout

Is your document well-laid out, with appropriate visuals, fonts and headings?

Finally…

How do you read?

To help you engage your readers, analyse your own reading behaviour. How do you react when you are reading something unfamiliar or not immediately interesting? How often do you read a document all the way through? What causes you to lose track and stop reading?

Pretend someone else wrote your document

When reading through a late draft of your work, try pretending that you didn’t write it. Look hard for anything that could be confusing, vague or have any unintentional double meanings. This might help you understand how someone else reads your writing.

Ask for feedback

If feasible ask someone from your target audience for feedback. In particular, tell them to let you know if anything is unclear or confusing or if any details appear missing.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2019 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au 

Find out more about our new online course..

How to be an Efficient Writer

Do you struggle with the amount of time it takes to write? When writing about science it is easy to drift off from your key topic when researching, planning and writing. 
Dr Marina Hurley shows you how to stay on track and be more efficient at each stage of the writing process. Irrespective of your topic, background, level of writing experience or document type, you can implement these steps to work on your first draft or rework a current draft.  Learn more...

Next course opens 30th January 2020


SUBSCRIBE to the Writing Clear Science Newsletter

to keep informed about our latest blogs, webinars and writing courses.


Should we use active or passive voice?


The traditional criticism of active voice

Traditionally, science and academic writers were strongly advised to use passive voice in order to maintain objectivity. However, this view is based on the criticism of using the first person (‘I’ or ‘my’) in that an individual’s view or perspective was considered biased. For example, the proponents of the passive voice in science writing claim that the active construction “I observed the behaviour.” presents a subjective view, while the passive construction “The behaviour was observed.” presents a more objective perspective. Some also argue that the use of personal pronouns in science and academic writing gives the impression of stating an opinion. However, active voice is not governed by the use of personal pronouns. You can write in passive voice while using a personal pronoun. For example: “I was photographed by my friend”. 

What is meant by ‘voice’?

In simple terms, ‘voice’ refers to the relationship between the subject and the verb.

How to identify active voice

Active voice is when the grammatical subject performs the action specified by the verb. 

For example:

Active voice: “I produced ten surveys.” The subject is the person “I” who performs the action “produced”. 

How to identify passive voice

Passive voice is when the grammatical subject of the sentence is receiving the action specified by the verb. Passive voice always has the verb form ‘to be’ followed be a past participle. ‘To be’ verbs include: ‘is’, ‘are’, ‘am’, ‘was’, ‘were’, ‘has been’, ‘have been’, ‘will be’, ‘will have been’ and ‘being’. They are also known as linking verbs. A past participle is a past tense verb that often (but not always) ends in ‘ed’.


For example:

Passive voice: “Ten surveys were produced”. The subject is the “surveys” that receives the action “were produced”. In this sentence, the reader does not know who or what produced the surveys.

Passive voice with an object: “Ten surveys were produced by me”. In this example, the object of the sentence specifies who (or what) performs the action (me).

The criticism of passive voice

The insistence that writers should always avoid the personal pronouns (or the first person) has lessened and the use of active voice is increasingly encouraged. Key criticisms of passive voice are that the reader does not know who or what was responsible for the action described in the sentence and that passive sentence constructions are often wordy and vague.

Both types of voice are necessary for good, clear writing

Whether you use active or passive depends upon what you are writing and what you need to focus on.

1. If it is necessary to specify who or what performed the action

Without adding an object identifying the performer of the action, passive construction can make it difficult to know who did what.

For example:

The effectiveness of stem cell treatment was investigated.”  With this statement the reader might be unsure who did the investigation. They might assume that the authors are referring to another study. Whereas, “We investigated the effectiveness of stem cell treatment.” clearly lets the reader know that the authors did the investigation.

If a sentence is to remain passive, a citation might be necessary to let the reader know who did the investigation.

2. If it is necessary to focus on the action itself

The following example is from the methods section of a recent research paper, which uses both passive and active voice. Here the focus is on what was measured, determined, distinguished and compared. Continual reference to who did the measuring is not necessary.

 “The abundance, sex ratio, and age structure of GT and NGT trees were determined by designating 47 plots (50 m × 50 m) in the six sites in the main GIAHS area (Fig. 1a). Morphological difference of GT and NGT trees was distinguished by identifying the graft scar just above ground. In each plot, we measured the location, basal diameter (BD), and sex of each of each torreya tree. The sex ratio of NGT trees was calculated in each plot. The population density (number per ha) of GT and NGT trees was statistically compared with a t-test in R.” p 8. Zang et al. 2019

3. If the person or thing responsible for the action is unknown

For example:

Passive: “The car was stolen.”

Active: “Somebody stole my car.”

4. When explaining cause and effect 

For example:

Passive: "Most malaria cases are caused by the parasite Plasmodium falciparum".

Active: "The parasite Plasmodium falciparum causes most cases of malaria".


5. If it is necessary to deliberately avoid specifying authorship

Some government departments, consultancies and corporations produce documents where acknowledgement of individual authors is deliberately avoided. This might occur when documents are designed to represent the organisation in its entirety or when a variety of different authors design, write and update documents.

For example:

- Passive: “The remediation program was initiated in early 2015”.

- Active: “Land & Water initiated the remediation program in early 2015”.

In these cases, the third person (we) may be used to collectively represent the organisation or institution.

6. If changing voice will make your writing more concise

If you do not need to specify who did what, your writing can be more concise.

For example:

- “We found that an increase in production rate was caused by increasing the length of the probe.” (16 words)

- “An increase in production rate was caused by increasing the length of the probe.” (14 words).

Changing to active voice makes the sentence shorter and more direct.

- “Increasing the length of the probe caused an increase in production rate.” (12 words).

Finally...

As passive voice is commonly in past tense, some confuse past tense with passive voice. Tense explains when something happened while voice explains who or what performs the action. Here are examples of active and passive voice written in the three different tenses.

For example:

Passive voice

Past tense: "The problem was investigated by me".

Present tense: "The problem is being investigated by me".

Future tense: "The problem will be investigated by me".

Active voice

Past tense: "I investigated the problem".

Present tense: "I am investigating the problem".

Future tense: "I will investigate the problem".

© Dr Marina Hurley 2019 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au 

Find out more about our new online course...

How to be an Efficient Writer

Do you struggle with the amount of time it takes to write? When writing about science it is easy to drift off from your key topic when researching, planning and writing. 
Dr Marina Hurley shows you how to stay on track and be more efficient at each stage of the writing process. Irrespective of your topic, background, level of writing experience or document type, you can implement these steps to work on your first draft or rework a current draft.  Learn more...

Next course opens 30th January 2020


SUBSCRIBE to the Writing Clear Science Newsletter

to keep informed about our latest blogs, webinars and writing courses.


Work procrastination: important tasks that keep 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 stop writing and allow yourself to be distracted by other important tasks.

How to avoid work-procrastination?

–        Block off time on your calendar where you are only writing.
–        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 2019 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au

Find out more about our new online course...

How to be an Efficient Writer

Do you struggle with the amount of time it takes to write? When writing about science it is easy to drift off from your key topic when researching, planning and writing. 
Dr Marina Hurley shows you how to stay on track and be more efficient at each stage of the writing process. Irrespective of your topic, background, level of writing experience or document type, you can implement these steps to work on your first draft or rework a current draft.  Learn more...

Next course opens 30th January 2020


SUBSCRIBE to the Writing Clear Science Newsletter

to keep informed about our latest blogs, webinars and writing courses.


What goes into a document’s Appendix?


In a nutshell: Any additional information or data that supports the main document or report.

Appendices (singular; appendix), supporting information, and supplementary data are terms that describe information presented as an attachment to a report, paper, article or thesis. The term used depends on the type of communication being prepared; appendices are usually used in theses and reports, whereas supplementary data or supporting information are often terms used by scientific journals.

Scientific journals place constraints on the length of published papers and actively encourage the use of supporting information to keep papers short and concise. Supporting materials are also peer-reviewed and their inclusion should be scientifically relevant.

In general, supporting information is:

– Relevant to the main report and provides extra information that will expand the reader’s knowledge of the topic.

– Not strictly necessary or essential; the report should include all of the information required to address the research problem and still be understandable to the reader without referring to the supporting information.

– Too cumbersome for the main report.

Examples of supporting information include:

– Extra information about methods used in the research project; for example, details on reagents, specific conditions used, and detailed descriptions of measuring instruments.

– Large and complex datasets, with a summary or subset of the data included in the main report. Large spreadsheets using software such as Excel can often be inserted in supporting information.

– Detailed drawings, maps, diagrams or charts.

– Sample calculations or detailed mathematical derivations.

– Questionnaires or surveys.

– Raw data or analytical data (e.g. data produced from instruments), with a summary of the processed data included in the main report.

– Detailed text, such as transcripts of interviews and excerpts from surveys.

– Summaries of other reports that expand the reader’s knowledge of the topic.

For studies with large datasets, the use of a public data repository could be appropriate. Check the journal you are submitting to as they usually provide information on the types of data repositories that should be considered. Lists of data repositories are also available (see Further Reading).

​Structure guidelines

Divide the information into appropriate sections, with each section on a separate page. Each section should have a title that clearly explains its content.

Label the sections; appendices are usually labelled Appendix 1, 2, 3 (or A, B, C) whereas as supporting information is often labelled according to its type; for example, Supplementary Table 1, Supporting Figure 1, Supplementary Movie 1. As with figures and tables in the main report, supporting information is numbered according to the order it is mentioned in the text of the report.

The page numbering should be continued from the last page of text in the main report.

Always remember to check publisher’s requirements and editorial guidelines. Figures and tables should be carefully formatted as per editorial requirements, ensuring appropriate file formats are used. Also look at different formats presented in documents specific to your field.

​Citation

Insert appendices at the end of the report, after the bibliography. Ensure all supporting information is appropriately cited in the report; it should be easy to find. Also ensure it is listed in the table of contents (if used).

Critically evaluate your supporting information; Is it relevant and does it expand the reader’s understanding?

Further reading

Organising your social sciences research paper: Appendices

Data repositories

- Registry of Research Data Repositories

- List of data repositories

Example Instructions to Authors

- Science: preparing your supplementary materials

- The Veterinary Journal Guide for Authors: Supplementary material

International Journal of Molecular Sciences: Supplementary Materials and Data Deposit 

© Dr Liza O’Donnell and Dr Marina Hurley 2019 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au

Find out more about our new online course..

How to be an Efficient Writer

Do you struggle with the amount of time it takes to write? When writing about science it is easy to drift off from your key topic when researching, planning and writing. 
Dr Marina Hurley shows you how to stay on track and be more efficient at each stage of the writing process. Irrespective of your topic, background, level of writing experience or document type, you can implement these steps to work on your first draft or rework a current draft.  Learn more...

Next course opens 30th January 2020


SUBSCRIBE to the Writing Clear Science Newsletter

to keep informed about our latest blogs, webinars and writing courses.