Category Archives: Science

Never label yourself a BAD writer

Both inexperienced and experienced writers attend my writing workshops and courses to learn how to improve their writing skills. Some display a distinct lack of confidence in their writing ability and describe themselves as poor writers with statements such as, “I am not a very good writer” or “Writing is something I have never been very good at”. Not only does this lack of confidence stem from a lack of experience, but is exacerbated by professional pressure to write well.

Being aware that your writing needs improvement is necessary in order to improve, but a lack of confidence might indicate that you regularly have negative thoughts about your level of skill. These negative thoughts may hinder your ability to improve the quality of your writing.

How low self-confidence can reduce the quality of your writing

Writing for an audience is a type of performance, similar to getting onstage to sing or act or to give a talk at a conference. Performance anxiety is common for artists and performers and is based on the fear of appearing incompetent. Similarly, many writers that lack confidence may suffer from a form of performance anxiety and worry about appearing incompetent or inexperienced. Writers who regularly suffer from low-self confidence could also suffer from “imposters syndrome” which is defined as, “…a false and sometimes crippling belief that one's successes are the product of luck or fraud rather than skill”.

Not only can low self-confidence make it difficult to improve your writing, it can hamper efforts to improve your professional development and advance your career.

Examples of how low-confidence can adversely affect writers:

- Not applying for the ideal job. Having well-developed written communication skills is a key selection criteria for most science-based professions.

- Spending too much time editing and rewriting in an effort to be absolutely sure that each and every sentence is perfect. This habit of inefficient writing leaves less time for other tasks.

- Overusing the passive voice when presenting your conclusions or the implications of the findings of your study. While the overuse of active voice is also problematic (for other reasons), passive voice can obscure the identity of who is making certain conclusions and it may mask any unique contribution you’ve made to your work. For example, stating “It was thought that X+K = B” leaves the reader unsure whether, (a) it was the author that thought this, (b) it was another uncited author that thought this, or (c) that this statement was simply common knowledge.

- Not submitting a paper to a high-impact journal for fear of rejection or not re-submitting a paper to another journal if first rejected by the initial journal.

- Reducing the impact of your research by using overly cautious language when presenting your findings, even when you have strong supporting data.  For example, writing “This study’s findings may prove to be important when considering the impact of diet on gut microflora.” instead of “Our findings are important when considering the impact of diet on gut microflora”. Writers often overuse cautious language when they fear criticism.

- Reducing the impact of your research by using overly cautious or apologetic language when describing the limitations of your study. While it is wise to always mention any factors that limit how widely your findings can be interpreted, it is important not to appear apologetic or lacking in confidence. While it is important to mention factors that might reduce the robustness of your data, it is important to be confident when discussing the design and execution of your study. If you are not confident in the design and execution of your study, then get extra feedback from your supervisor or colleagues about whether to rewrite your limitations.

Avoid labelling yourself as a poor writer

Applying labels to summarise behaviour is problematic if you want the behaviour to change. Continuing to label your skill as being ‘poor’ or ‘bad’ may reinforce negative thoughts about your writing and may it difficult for you to improve and view yourself as a ‘good writer’. Similarly, allowing your colleagues to hear you describe yourself as a poor writer, may reinforce any negative views they may have about your writing skill. Instead:

  • Acknowledge the parts of your writing that are good and gain confidence from this.
  • Identify the parts that need improving and work at improving these skills.
  • Monitor your progress in improvement in those skills you are working to improve.

Generally-speaking, self-confidence in your writing ability will build as your writing improves but allowing yourself to feel self-conscious about the quality of your writing may make it hard for your writing to improve. Rather than worrying about your current skill level, commit to continual self-improvement and aim to feel satisfied with what you have achieved so far.

In the next blogpost I discuss how to build and maintain your confidence as a writer.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2020 www.writingclearscience.com.au

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Eleven common mistakes when writing an abstract


An abstract is typically the summary or overview of a scientific paper, thesis or report. The purpose of the abstract is to give your reader a complete summary of your entire project. As there is a never-ending supply of papers and reports to read, you only have two chances to engage your reader and to convince them to keep reading. The first is the title (and the keywords) and the second is the abstract.

A well-written abstract will maximise the chances of your document being read, understood and even enjoyed. If writing a research paper, a well-written abstract will maximise your publication success. Not only will reviewers appreciate a good abstract, it may be the only part of the paper they are sent when invited to review a paper.

This focus of this article is to highlight what is commonly wrong with abstracts. Please note: The relevancy of some issues raised here might depend upon your discipline or document type. For example, some academic journals do not require abstracts at all or only require a very brief project overview.


These common mistakes are not listed in any particular order and some overlap:

1. Not writing a summary

The abstract should be a complete, succinct summary of your entire project. Summarising is being able to identify and highlight key points using as few words as possible.

2. Not paraphrasing your own work

Paraphrasing is when you use your own words to convey meaning from another source, with the aim of improving clarity. Paraphrasing often includes summarising. One common mistake is to copy entire sentences from different parts of the paper into the abstract. This is not summarising or paraphrasing.

3. Not summarising your entire project

A common mistake is to only include certain parts of the project in the abstract. If your paper is structured into Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion sections, then your abstract includes a summary of each section, often written as a complete paragraph or with headings. If the abstract lacks key information, for example the aim or the conclusions, the reader may not appreciate the strength of importance of your project and not be convinced to keep reading. Don’t assume your reader will search through your document for this information if they can’t find it in the abstract.

4. Using the abstract as a de facto Introduction or Discussion

After writing important introductory and conclusion explanations in the abstract, some authors then don’t include these details in the body of the document, fearing it will look repetitive. This can happen if the abstract is written before designing the rest of the document. Although drafting an abstract in the early stages of writing is a good idea, it is best to finalise your abstract when you have finished the rest of your document.

5. Including too much (or not enough) background

If the abstract is considered a de facto introduction, too much background may be included. Alternatively, a brief summary of the background might be omitted if the author assumes the audience is completely familiar with the project topic and the background. Never assume your reader knows your topic or project as thoroughly as you do; some of you readers might, but they will still need this information to appreciate what your document is about.

6. Including too many (or not enough) methods

A brief summary of the methods or procedure is important as they are a key component of any project. Given the potential complexity and diversity of a scientific study, it is easy to add too much detail about methods; an example is the unnecessary listing of all data collection instruments and their brand names. The following example from a research paper abstract is a concise summary of the methods. “Methods: We systematically reviewed the literature and meta-analyzed risk estimates from longitudinal studies reporting the association of coronary heart disease (CHD) or heart failure (HF) with risk of dementia.” Wolters F.J. et al. (2018)

7. Not explaining what your results mean

As your abstract should include a summary of all parts of your project, this includes a summary of the discussion or conclusion of your study. Some authors omit interpreting their results, expecting the reader to wait until they have read the entire document. They may not.

8. Including citations, abbreviations and detailed measurements

Standard convention is to avoid writing abbreviations, detailed measurements or citations in an abstract. In some cases, and in some disciplines, it may be difficult to avoid using abbreviations if they are used as terms, are not written in any other format, difficult to write in full or impractical to leave out.

9. Including information not presented in the paper

It may be tempting to include extra information that is not in the rest of the document but this is misleading. Stick to your key aim.

10. Not following the Instructions to Authors of your target journal

A journals’ Instructions to Authors are just that: instructions; they are not suggestions or simply good ideas, nor are they meant to replace a science style guide. Depending upon the extent of this omission, not following a journal’s Instructions to Authors can dramatically increase the likelihood your paper will instantly returned for further changes.

11. Not including keywords

Keywords of your study are essential to ensure that your paper is correctly indexed and so your document will be visible in different search engines. Some authors assume this step is not necessary, assuming that all terms will be visible. Keywords “help promote an article’s visibility within the publications iceberg”.


Remember:

  • Don't assume your readers know everything you do.
  • Don't assume all published papers have good abstracts.
  • Seek feedback before finalising your later drafts.


© Dr Marina Hurley 2020 www.writingclearscience.com.au

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

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How to identify your target audience


When we write, we write about something (the topic) in a certain format (the document type) for a reader or group of readers (the audience). Deciding what we are writing about and what type of document to prepare is usually straightforward for most writers. However, deciding who we are writing for is not always thoroughly considered. To a large degree, the audience of a document is determined by the type of document and the subject matter but unless researchers and other science writers have a background in marketing, the concept of identifying and catering to a target audience might not be a high priority.

DOWNLOAD THE INFOGRAPHIC '6 ways to identify and cater to your target audience'

What is your focus?

A document is not simply a receptacle for words, it is a tool of communication that should perform a service for readers. Thinking about who will read our document or what they might want from our document, is something that writers might avoid if they are author-focused or project-focused. Author-focused writers have discoveries, data, knowledge and information that they need to share and primarily concentrate on getting their document published. Project-focused writers key motivation is to satisfy project, organisation, company or client objectives. Audience-focused writers design their document according to the needs of the target audience, while still satisfying their own needs as an author and addressing project and client objectives.
Decide exactly what you want to do for your audience

Unless catering to a target audience is a central objective, your document may lack some of the fundamentals of good document design. Spending the time deciding exactly what you want to do for your audience, rather than simply delivering information, will help you fine-tune the content and the design of your document.

Problems caused by not understanding your target audience

Common writing problems often reflect that a writer has not thoroughly considered who their audience is or what they need. For example:

- providing too much, or not enough, detail or background information

- providing too much detail on unrelated sub-topics or on a well-known topic

- using the wrong language or unfamiliar terminology

- assuming the audience’s level of interest in, or understanding of, the topic

One common mistake in science and academic writing is assuming your audience will know your topic nearly as well as you do. The problem with this assumption is that crucial background information and explanation of fundamental concepts may be omitted. Authors of research papers will often make this assumption deliberately if they are writing about a specialised topic. Yet even in these cases, it is not a good habit to omit important background information and project details that are necessary for the reader to understand the context of the research.

Get feedback

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that writing is simply delivering information if you are a solo writer, if you are inexperienced or if you don’t get regular feedback on your writing. If you do get regular feedback, it might not be enough if you only get feedback from people who know your topic well as you do; your colleagues or supervisors may ensure you write a scientifically-accurate document but anyone overly-familiar with your topic may not realise that what you’ve written is not clearly written or easy to read.

There are three different types of audiences to consider

An audience is a collective group of readers and for most purposes we need to think about our readers as a group and generalise about what qualities they have. I define three types of audience for most documents: the target audience, the secondary audience and the tertiary audience. For an example of this definition, refer to the diagram below that outlines the hypothetical audiences for an ecological research paper.

Your target audience is your intended audience. They are the group of readers that you want to read your document or you expect will read your document. These are the people you are designing your document for. Your target audience should understand everything you write. Some examples are research scientists writing peer-reviewed papers for their peers, students writing assignments for their lecturers or consultants writing reports for clients.

Your secondary audience are those people who still want, or need, to read your document but may have different education backgrounds or work within a different discipline to your target audience. For example, the secondary audience of an ecological research paper might be scientists from other disciplines, or other people interested in your topic or your project outcomes; for example, land managers, farmers, conservationists, journalists, science educators or students. Your secondary audience may not be thoroughly familiar with your topic but still has a strong or vested interest in your projects’ outcomes. However, it is not possible to cater to both your target audience and your secondary audience with the same document. You cannot cater to the secondary audience as you would need to provide too much detail or instruction, making it tiring for the target audience to read, or worse make the target audience feel the document is not designed for them.

You cannot explain everything for your secondary audience but you can help them navigate your document by defining your key terms and ensuring your main aim and findings are abundantly clear.

Your tertiary audience are people who will directly or indirectly benefit or be affected by your work in some way but will not read your document themselves; they will learn about your work either through the secondary or target audience of your document. Because your tertiary audience won’t be reading your document, it is crucial for you to ensure your key messages are abundantly clear so they are not mis-interpreted or mis-represented.

Key ways to identify and cater for your target audience

  • Think about who your readers are and whether they fit into either of the three audience categories, then focus on how to cater for the target audience. Some factors to consider:
  • Who will want or need to read your document? What reasons do they have for reading your document?
  • Who will be interested in your topic and key findings? Why will they be interested in reading your document? If they are not already interested, how do you attract them?
  • What is their occupation, expertise, background or level of education?
  • Will they be able to understand all parts of your document? If not, include sufficient detail and explanation to ensure that they do or assign them to your secondary audience.
  • What people need to read your document
  • What task(s) will your document perform for them?
  • How they will find out about your document?
  • How will they access your document?

           DOWNLOAD THE INFOGRAPHIC: 6 ways to identify and cater for your target audience

Once you have clearly mapped out who you are writing to and how you will cater to them. If appropriate, ask someone from your target audience to give you feedback on a late draft of your document. You might find there are some important aspects you still need to consider.

Remember:

  • Do not assume your readers know everything you do.
  • Understand there are different types of audiences who may read your document.
  • Always define your key terms and explain your key concepts.
  • If appropriate, ask someone from your target audience for feedback on a late draft of you rdocument.


© Dr Marina Hurley 2020 www.writingclearscience.com.au

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

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The essentials of science writing: plan before you write


Writing is a complex activity that needs planning

The planning process prior to science writing is often ad-hoc, limited or non-existent. If you are rushing for a deadline and keen to get started, it might be tempting to cut corners and skip the planning process all together. If your planning is limited to jotting down a title and a few key points before you start, you might find you lack focus when you do start.

As science writing is often a complex activity, it may need complex planning, whether you are writing about your own research or someone else’s. In order to produce a high-quality document, important decisions and specific planning is needed before you start writing, especially in relation to document design and identifying your target audience. Careful planning is also needed to avoid excessive rewrites and extensive editing.

DOWNLOAD THE CHECKLIST: Document Preparation Plan - Checklist

An effective plan needs to be prepared as a separate document

Careful planning involves thorough decision-making which takes time. Written plans are commonly prepared for scientific activities such as completing field work and lab work but the writing of a research report or paper is not usually given the same degree of planning effort. Not only should you plan before you start writing, your plan needs to be written into a coherent, separate document that you and your colleagues can refer to and update as you progress.

An effective plan will help you to get started and stay focused

Getting started is one of the most difficult obstacles to successful writing. A lack of planning can lead to inefficient writing in the early stages; for example, writing too much detail in some sections and not enough in others or spending too much time writing about an idea that will be cut out later. If you begin your writing with an effective plan, not only will it help you to get started, it will help you stay on track. A clear plan will allow yourself sufficient time to think about what you want to write and reduce the risk of producing a document that is difficult to read and understand.

An effective plan will help you collaborate with other writers

When writing with colleagues, planning is often undertaken through face-to-face discussions, emails and phone calls, without sufficient documentation. Preparing a written plan may significantly reduce time spent rewriting and redrafting when working with co-authors or if senior staff need to approve your drafts. There is nothing worse than spending hours writing and perfecting your thinking on a topic, only to have this work cast aside because a senior author has left important decisions on a document’s structure or purpose to the last minute. Once a written plan is agreed to, any changes can be monitored and implemented through regular reviews and updates, if necessary.

Traditionally, document plans focus upon content

Document plans are not new but usually focus upon what should be in the final version (e.g. report templates) and outline what the author should write to satisfy a project’s purpose and objectives. Planning the process of writing is also important.

What should be included in a document plan?

An effective document plan should consider how you might manage each stage of the writing process: pre-writing, drafting of ideas, editing and rewriting, and proofreading. A document plan should cover all design, preparation and production activities needed to successfully complete your document. I refer to this type of plan as a Document Preparation Plan that addresses key aspects of both document production (Part 1) and document design (Part 2). As with any plan, you should not expect it to be perfect. It will not be possible to predict exactly what will be written or exactly what is needed to manage all writing-related tasks. A Document Preparation Plan should be short and succinct and updated when necessary, depending upon the size of the writing project and whether co-authors are involved. It needn’t be written in complete paragraphs; bullet points may be all that is needed.

Part One. Document production

The first part of the planning process involves documenting all tasks that need to be managed in order to successfully complete a high-quality document. It can include how and when these tasks will be completed.

Factors to include:

  1. Outlining your purpose (reasons) for writing.
  2. Identifying your target audience.
  3. Listing all non-writing activities needed to complete the document and setting appropriate deadlines for each.
  4. Listing all resources needed for all writing and non-writing activities,

Part Two. Summary of document content & structure

This is the part of a document plan that most writers complete at the first stage of the writing process, but not always satisfactorily; many writers postpone developing their core message until the final stages of writing. However, it is crucial to decide what key messages you want to cover before you start writing including your aim or problem statement and key findings. Your key messages and overall conclusions may change as your progress through your writing, but completing this first step in the content planning process and gives you a firm framework on which to build your story.

Some factors to consider:

  1. Draft title and subtitle.
  2. The aim and problem statement.
  3. Summary of methods & results.
  4. Implications of the results and general conclusion(s).
  5. Document type (i.e. science report) & length.
  6. Type and number of visual aids (i.e. graphs, tables, diagrams).

To help you design a document preparation plan to suit your topic, I have developed a Document Preparation Plan (checklist) which is available as a download (pdf).

DOWNLOAD THE CHECKLIST: Document Preparation Plan - Checklist

Remember

  • Plans are not meant to be perfect but act as a guide to your thinking and a framework to further develop the project you are working on.
  • Keep all versions of your plans for future reference or to be used as templates for future projects.
  • Ask colleagues for feedback on your plans as well as feedback on drafts of your documents.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2020 www.writingclearscience.com.au

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

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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 relevant, follow the required guidelines and likely to produce a successful outcome. You can gain an edge over the competition by ensuring that your grant application is clear, concise and compelling.

DOWNLOAD THE INFOGRAPHIC 'How to write a compelling grant application'

Step 1: Hook the reader from the beginning

In the first stages of reviewing grant applications, there is often a triage, ranking process where some applications are immediately removed from further consideration. Ensuring that your application is engaging and interesting from the start may encourage the reviewer to read on and seriously consider the application.

Creating 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 project 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.

Step 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, the environment 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 reports or literature or wherever possible.

Step 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.

Structure your story by first outlining 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 they fit 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.

Step 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 previously been successful in developing other skills or techniques.


Step 5: Demonstrate that your project is feasible

The reviewer 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 your project 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 designed for a specific audience) 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.

… and remember…

- Seek feedback from colleagues with experience at winning grants.

- Allow sufficient time to complete the application.

- Do not assume your reviewers are familiar with your project topic or its importance.

© Liza O’Donnell & Marina Hurley 2020

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

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