Category Archives: Blog

10 writing tips for the struggling ESL science writer


For most people, learning a second language is a struggle, let alone learning how to be a proficient science writer in that language. The following tips and suggestions will help the struggling ESL science writer both identify and tackle common writing obstacles.

1. Don’t aim to learn all the rules of grammar before you start writing

It can take a long time to be proficient in all the English rules of grammar. Even many experienced writers with English as their first language are not proficient at English grammar rules, relying on their innate knowledge of the language when writing. Instead of thinking you need to learn every English grammar rule, concentrate upon the most common grammar errors when learning English as a second language. In a recent study, the most common written grammar errors by ESL tertiary students were found to be Subject – Verb Agreement (SVA) and Verb Tense (Singh et al. 2017).

2. Avoid trying to make your English grammatically-perfect in your early drafts

While the final version of your document should be grammatically correct, don’t worry about having perfect grammar before you start or when preparing early drafts. In your first draft, concentrate upon getting your ideas down and ensure you are addressing a clearly defined aim. You can fix up your grammar as you edit and rework your later drafts.

3. Try writing your first draft in your first language

If writing in English is a significant obstacle to getting your thoughts down, try writing your first draft in your first language to allow you to first concentrate upon writing about your topic clearly. Once you are satisfied with the progress of your document, you can then translate your writing into English and then seek assistance from a science editor to help you correct your grammar.

4. Continue with English conversation classes

Science writers who struggle to improve their written English, are also often not yet proficient in spoken English. Continuing with weekly or monthly English conversation classes will not only improve your written English, but will allow you to pick up commonly-used English vocabulary and terminology.

5. Ask a friend or colleague to regularly give you feedback on your spoken English

Normally, friends or colleagues will not correct your spoken English and unless you are continuing your conversation classes, it may take you a long time to learn where you need to improve. Try asking a friend or colleague to regularly give you feedback on your spoken English.

6. Ask a friend or colleague to give you feedback on late drafts of your document

In addition to any editing and feedback you might receive from co-authors, colleagues or managers, try asking a friend or colleague to give you feedback, specifically on your English grammar. This person need not be an expert in English grammar but be able to point out any obvious anomalies in your writing. Having someone focus on giving you feedback on your English will allow other colleagues to focus on giving you feedback on the scientific aspects of your work. In return, you could also offer to give feedback on your colleagues’ writing. This will also help you to improve your writing as critiquing the work of other writers allows you to notice areas of improvement you might not see in your own work.

7. Use online grammar exercises to improve your grammar

Grammar textbooks are excellent as reference texts to look up individual rules, while online grammar exercises are a good way to learn how to correct grammar using real examples. Online grammar exercises immediately provide both corrections and explanations.

8. Avoid online forums to learn about grammar rules

Grammar queries that are posted in online forums (for example Quora) are invariably answered by both experts and non-experts and some answers can be incorrect. This makes it difficult to decide which is the correct answer to follow. Also, there are some grammar rules that are more difficult to follow than others, especially if there are many exceptions to the rule; for example, the spelling rule ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’. Only refer to reputable grammar websites that are specifically designed for education.

9. Be aware that not everyone agrees about what is correct English grammar

Be aware that not everyone agrees about what is correct English grammar and what is acceptable vocabulary. For example, some experts advise never to use contractions (for example “We’re” instead of “We are”) in scholarly or formal writing, yet contractions do not change the accuracy of the message and are argued to make reading more enjoyable.

Choose 3-5 grammar references that are reputable and written by trained, professional experts and consistently follow their advice. Also aim to follow the standard references and style guides for your discipline and institution.

10. Hire an editor that can explain grammar rules

If appropriate for your circumstances and if you have the resources, hire an editor proficient at explaining grammar and ask them to give you regular feedback on your writing.

© 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.

Next course opens 26th September 2019

SUBSCRIBE to the Writing Clear Science Newsletter to keep informed about our latest blogs and writing workshops.

The zone of silence: reducing distraction in the writing workplace


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 as important as attending a meeting but doesn’t receive the same respect. Writing is expected to fit in around the edges of everything else: emails, queries from colleagues, telephones and computers. 

Trying to stay focused on any task is difficult if there are distractions. 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.

Avoid distractions when trying to write

Set up a Zone of Silence

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.

The rules of the zone of silence:

  • The area is used only for writing
  • Turn off your phone
  • Disconnect from the internet and wifi
  • Only brings notes and material connected with your current project
  • No talking
  • Avoid leaving to complete a different task
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.

© 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.

Next course opens 26th September 2019

SUBSCRIBE to the Writing Clear Science Newsletter to keep informed about our latest blogs and writing workshops.

Find out more about our writing workshops here.

How to write when you don’t feel like it


There are many obstacles that can prevent us from being productive and efficient writers, especially procrastination. Even if there is a looming deadline and we are well aware of what needs to be written, sometimes we simply don’t feel like writing. And if we don’t feel like writing, procrastination can creep in, and we might put off writing until the last minute and then produce something that is substandard or incomplete.

Here are four ways to set you on the path of writing, even when you don’t feel like it.

1. Write intensively for short blocks of time

Set a timer and commit to writing for only 30 minutes. Thirty minutes of writing might seem achievable when you don’t feel like writing. Tell yourself that after the 30 minutes is up, as a reward, you will allow yourself to do whatever you want for one hour. Commit to only write for 30 minutes and make sure that you don’t do anything else during that period: no re-reading what you wrote previously, no stopping to google something, no telephone, no talking. Just write. If you find this too hard, start with ten minutes.

If you are normally a productive writer, 30 minutes might not seem like a long time, yet 30 minutes writing is much better than not writing at all. We can write a lot within short time periods if we don’t allow ourselves to get distracted, especially with other work tasks.

Avoid setting the timer for too long a period. Avoid setting unrealistic goals for yourself as you will feel unproductive and unsatisfied if you don’t meet them.

When you set a timer, try placing it out of reach so you have to get up from your computer to turn it off. After 30 minutes, stand up and walk around, print out what you have written so you have physical evidence of your productivity. You may find that you want to reset the timer for another 30 minutes and keep going. Ultimately, you may find that setting these writing blocks allows you to break through the barrier of just getting started.

2. Don’t switch between writing tasks during a designated writing session

During your writing sessions, only compete one type of writing. If you are getting your thoughts down, just write freely and don’t switch to editing or proofreading halfway through. If you are rewriting a section of your document, don’t switch to writing new material on a related topic. 

3. Take a break from the computer: print your document out and use a pen

We spend a large proportion of our time in front of a computer for all sorts of work activities, especially writing.  Periodically take a break from writing on a computer, even if it is for a short time. Try printing out the latest draft of your document and take it to a café or a lounge chair with a pen and a notebook. Edit your draft by hand and use a notebook to write fresh material. You might find that the change in environment allows you to relax yet you can still work on your document.

I always print my document out whenever I complete a draft so that I can see how my writing looks on paper and then plan what writing I will do for the next draft. With a paper printout, I can see my whole document at a glance, without having to scroll through a digital version on a computer screen. Moving to a lounge or a comfortable environment, gives me a break from staring at a computer screen and sitting on an office chair.

4. Find a friend to write with

Writing is usually a solitary activity but you might it more enjoyable if you organise writing sessions with a friend or colleague. Try taking your laptops to a park or a café and set up 30-minute writing sessions followed by 30 minutes social chat. You could also read and give feedback on each other’s work.

And remember…

Avoid creating unrealistic expectations that create stress and reduce our work satisfaction. It is unrealistic to expect that we can be super-productive writing machines that can write anything, anywhere and at any time. Aim to write in intensive pre-organised, short blocks of time in an environment that is as comfortable and distraction-free as possible.

© 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.

Next course opens 26th September 2019

SUBSCRIBE to the Writing Clear Science Newsletter to keep informed about our latest blogs and writing workshops.

How to maintain high-quality images for publication


How to ensure your photos, graphs and illustrations are of suitable quality for publication

Digital images are stored in different formats, depending upon the software. Common examples include TIFF, JPEG and EPS. Before preparing figures for the web or for print, it is vital to ensure that the appropriate resolution is used.

Resolution describes the number of pixels within an image and image quality increases with resolution. A pixel is the smallest unit of digital information that forms an image. Resolution can be expressed as the number of pixels per dimension (e.g. 1200 pixels wide by 750 pixels high) or as the number of pixels within a specified area (pixels per inch or ppi). An image that has a resolution of 300ppi and is 4 x 2.5 inches in size, will be 1200 pixels wide (4 x 300) = and 750 pixels high (2.5 x 300). In general, the more pixels you have per unit area, the more detailed the image will be and the larger the file size. Some software (such as Photoshop) allows you to change the units to pixels per centimetre; however, the publishing standard is usually ppi.

The resolution of an image for viewing on a monitor is described in ppi, whereas the term dots per inch (dpi)describes the resolution of a printed image, as printers print dots and not pixels. The terms are used interchangeably but for most purposes, ppi and dpi are essentially the same thing to describe resolution. To view an image on the accepted resolution is 72ppi as most LCD monitors display 67-130ppi. When submitting figures for publication, 300 ppi is the generally accepted resolution for print images.

    High quality (300ppi)                                                                      Low quality (50ppi)

If your image needs to be 300ppi, then you need to consider the size of your image in the final printed form and the number of pixels in your total image. A photo that will be 4 x 2.5 inches when printed will need at least 1200 x 750 pixels to achieve the desired print-quality resolution of 300 ppi. If you have fewer pixels, then the quality of the image (i.e. the resolution) will be reduced. You can also quickly check whether the resolution is sufficient by zooming your image to 400% and if it is blurry (pixelated), then the image may not reproduce well when printed. For more information on image resolution, and another way to check if the resolution of your image is appropriate, see https://www.thecanvasprints.co.uk/image-resolution-for-printing. ​

When re-sizing an image, some software programmes automatically change the size of the image without changing the number of pixels. For example, if you re-size a 1200 x 750 pixel image from 4 x 2.5 inches to a 12 x 7.5 inches the number of pixels will remain the same but the resolution will drop from 300ppi to 100ppi . The larger image will look OK on the screen, but the image quality will be poor if it is printed. Whatever image size you require, ensure the final version is at the desired resolution.

Additional terminology

Colour space is the way colour information is stored in a file. Grayscale refers to black and white (and grey!) images which use a single colour channel. RGB is a commonly-used colour space that divides colours into 3 channels: Red, Green and Blue. RGB is used by computers and digital devices and is commonly used by publishers who want to make sure their documents are properly displayed on their reader’s devices. CMYK is a four channel colour space (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) commonly used during the printing process. An RGB image might need to be converted to CMYK if it will be printed. Some publishers will do the conversion themselves, so you need to be aware that the colour of RGB images may look different when converted to CMYK.

Re-sampling changes the number of pixels in an image. Re-sampling is different to re-sizing. Down-sampling removes pixels and creates a smaller image, whereas up-sampling adds pixels using algorithms. Because re-sampling adds or removes pixels, a loss of image quality could result. This could be particularly important if you are presenting images that are taken from a microscope; it is imperative that re-sampling does not change the specific features of the data within the micrograph. As a general rule, create your images at the highest resolution possible to avoid the need to re-sample. However, re-sampling may sometimes be necessary; for example, when converting a very high-resolution image to a small size (2 x 2 inches). Always keep original files and ensure that the re-sampling process only happens towards the end of the figure creation process, so that you can go back to the original image if needed.

​Image compression: Some file types (e.g. JPG) compress the pixels in the image to reduce file size. Be aware that different compression methods can affect image quality. Pay attention to the publisher’s requirements for compression and whether your software compresses by default.

Raster vs vector images: Raster images use raster data that is stored as pixels, for example, digital photographs. Because raster images use pixels, the quality is highly dependent on resolution. Vector images use vector data comprised of lines and curves, for example, line graphs. Because vector images do not use pixels, they can be re-sized to a very large size without becoming pixelated and losing quality. If you are publishing images that are line graphs only, consider using vector format files such as EPS. However, if you are assembling a line graph into a larger figure that includes digital images, the entire figure will become rasterised at some point; meaning that your vector image will become a raster image and need high resolution.

Additional reading on this topic

Introduction to Digital Resolution.
Image resolution and print quality.
How to create publication-quality figures.
The difference between image re-sizing and re-sampling.
Science: preparing your art and figures.

© 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.

Next course opens 26th September 2019

SUBSCRIBE to the Writing Clear Science Newsletter to keep informed about our latest blogs and writing workshops.

Find out more about our writing workshops here.

The essentials of the Executive Summary (FAQ)


In my writing workshops, I am often asked how to write or structure an executive summary. In this blogpost I list seven frequently-asked questions and my answers. Please note that I provide general advice here and that the exact nature and structure of any report or report sections, including the executive summary, may depend upon many factors including industry or discipline, report type and purpose and target audience.

What is an executive summary?

An executive summary is the section of a technical, scientific or business report report that summarises key features of the project or proposal.

What is the purpose of the executive summary?

The target audience of a report should be able to fully understand, and be able to act upon, the key findings written within the summary without having to read the rest of the report. Readers that rely on a clear, accurate executive summary are often those people who make funding, personnel, or policy decisions and need to assess information quickly and efficiently.

As the executive summary is often the first part of the report, it also has a role of engaging the reader and immediately informing them of the purpose, procedure and findings of the project. If the executive summary fails to engage the reader, the report could be discarded and left unread.

What are the essential components of an executive summary?

An executive summary should contain the essential outcomes or findings of the report that have direct relevance to the practical, operational, managerial or reporting requirements of its target audience. An executive summary should explain the scope of the study, the problems or issues that need to be addressed, how they were assessed and provide the findings and conclusions and recommendations arising from these conclusions.

How should an executive summary be structured?

The executive summary should stand alone and be independent of the report. Firstly, determine if there are guidelines within your organisation or industry or with your stakeholders that dictate the content and structure of an executive summary.  The structure could mirror the structure of the full report, but whether this is necessary might depend upon the type and purpose of the report.

The executive summary should include a brief summary of every section of the report. Depending upon templates and industry guidelines, and upon the length of the summary, headings and bullet points can be used. Avoid presenting too much information as bullet points as this can unnecessarily increase the length of the executive summary.

Depending upon the type of report, the executive summary might include a summary of the following:

  • Project description: project aims and objectives, issues or problems that need solving, outline of who the report is designed for and the client requirements or deliverables.
  • Background:  factors that lead to the development of the current project. What partners or stakeholders are involved and an outline of their requirements.
  • Process or methods: procedures or actions that were necessary to complete the project. How data was collected and assessed or analysed.
  • Findings and conclusions. How, or if, the problems were addressed or solved.
  • Implications and recommendations of findings and conclusions.
  • Who is responsible to undertake recommendations and how outcomes are to be communicated or acted upon.
  • Implications for future work and development of policies.

How much detail should be included in the executive summary?

As key decisions are often made by only reading the executive summary it is imperative that all relevant information is presented. Ensure that any generalisations do not mask important points. In the process of summarising the key findings, it is essential that crucial caveats, stipulations, qualifications or limitations are not omitted. Nevertheless, the executive summary should be as concise as possible yet still provide the minimum amount of information or evidence needed to support the report’s findings, conclusions and recommendations. All conclusions and recommendations presented in the executive must be fully explained in further details in the body of the report. This is especially important in case your reports and other documentation need to be audited in the future.

What information should not be included in an executive summary?

Do not introduce any new information that is not in your report. Avoid using acronyms, in-house terminology or any other words or phrases that your target audience will not be familiar with. Avoid copying sentences and paragraphs from the report into the executive summary: this is not summarising.

What is the optimum length of an executive summary?

The length of an executive summary depends upon the length and purpose of the report. If the report is short, the length might be less than half a page while executive summaries of large reports could be 5-30 pages in length.

How is an executive summary different to an abstract?

Executive summaries are found in all types of reports, including non-scientific documents, whereas abstracts are summaries of scientific or academic peer-reviewed research papers. Readers of reports may act upon the information presented in an executive summary without reading the rest of the report, whereas the abstract of papers provide an overall summary and readers should read the entire paper before making their own interpretations of the study’s findings. This is especially important when citing information presented in a research paper. One should not cite the findings of a research paper after having only read the paper’s abstract.

© 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.

Next course opens 26th September 2019

SUBSCRIBE to the Writing Clear Science Newsletter to keep informed about our latest blogs and writing workshops.

Find out more about our writing workshops here.