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.


The essentials of science writing: What is science writing?

What is science writing?

At its simplest definition, science writing is writing about science. What is central to all types of science writing is that the topic under discussion is a scientific topic; that is, information that has been gathered using accepted scientific methods.

Science writing takes different forms, depending upon the purpose of the author and who the document is designed for. Science writing can create a thesis, a research paper, a report, a blog, magazine article, fact sheet or video script. A scientist publishing a research paper will write for their peers, a journalist writing for a popular science magazine will write for people who are fascinated by science and technology while a technician writing a report may write for other technicians who need to know about a new methodology. The type of terminology used by science writers will depend upon the level of knowledge, education and expertise of the target audience. Scientific terms are only considered jargon if they are used for the wrong audience. Therefore, it is essential that science writers correctly identify their target audience when designing their document.

If it’s not written, peer-reviewed and published, it’s not science

Writing is the foundation of science. Ideas start with a thought, but we can’t walk on Mars or cure Alzheimer’s without writing about it first. All scientists should write and publish their work, otherwise their work will not be considered science; If it’s not written, peer-reviewed and published, it’s not science. New facts, phenomena, dilemmas, hypotheses, theories or ideas all must be written, peer-reviewed and published before they can be considered part of the scientific literature. Anyone can do science and get it published, as long as the methods, analysis and scientific interpretations are validated by peer-review.

Good scientists need to write well and often. For a project to become science knowledge, not only does it need to be written and published (hopefully, in an interesting way), science writing must be read, understood, acknowledged and acted upon.

Who can write about science?

Anyone can write about science, irrespective of background or qualifications, as long the concepts developed and discussed are backed up with solid science and cited accordingly (peer-reviewed, published evidence).

Not all research produces solid science and not all published science is perfect. If the science used to back up a story is not solid, then the language used must reflect that degree of uncertainty. Cautionary language should be used to describe studies that are preliminary, explorative or produce inconclusive or weak results; these include studies that are short or have few samples, studies that have only been repeated a few times, or studies that are based upon assumptions, vague premises or broad hypotheses. Assertive and positive language should be used when studies have been widely validated and when scientific principles are supported by strong evidence. Too often the conclusions made by one small study are taken up by professional and social media with the cautionary language removed.

Science needs to be written

We write about science to inform. We write about science so that others can learn from our achievements. We write about science so that others can repeat what we’ve done, use our results to inform their own research or take the next step and create something new. We write about science to benefit of our community and our environment. We write about science because it is fascinating, mystifying, mind-boggling, intriguing, surprising and sometimes scary.

Science needs to be written clearly

Science writers often need to convince their audience to change their thinking or behaviour. This requires even greater efforts to write clearly and to write well. If you have a good argument and are unable to write it well, your reader will be lost. If your argument is poorly structured or if your writing style is verbose, you don’t stand a chance to engage your audience. If you have a well-written argument, your reader may not necessarily agree with you, but hopefully they will spend their valuable reading time thinking about your argument, rather than trying to work out what you are trying to say.

© Marina Hurley 2018

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Further reading


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

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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:

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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 www.writingclearscience.com.au

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