Category Archives: Writing Guides

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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8 steps to writing your first draft

Many writers find it hard to start writing, and once they do start, after writing a few sentences, they stop and immediately rewrite these sentences until they are perfect. This is a type of procrastination but because it involves writing, it's a hard habit to recognise and then break. Following these 8 steps will help you complete a content-rich imperfect first draft and avoid the trap of getting side-tracked by perfectionism. 


1. Outline your core topic


If you are writing a paper or report, start by outlining the key problems you seek to solve with your project. Briefly outline how they will be (or were) solved, then list the main findings. Develop a broad framework that you can modify and add further detail in later drafts. Write a summary of the what, who, how, where, when, and why?

Don’t try and write perfectly: stick to just writing notes, headings and bullet points that help you understand what direction you are going with your writing. 

2. Identify your audience

What you write and how much detail you provide depends upon who you are writing to, so clearly identify your target audience.
  • What is their background? 
  • Why are they reading your document?
  • What do they already know?
  • What do they need to know?
  • Do you have more than one target audience?
3. Plan with pre-writing

Pre-writing is the thinking, note-taking, outlining, summarising, 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 a whiteboard or large piece of paper.

Try recording yourself talking about your project or use voice-recognition software to capture additional thoughts and ideas.
4. Make a mess and clean it up in later

The first draft should be messy, rough and amenable to change, allowing you to remould your structure with successive drafts. Write bullet points, sentence fragments, and temporary paragraph headings. Avoid trying to write perfect sentences and paragraphs (polishing). Don’t worry about being repetitive or boring. Avoid making your writing eloquent, stylistic or succinct in the first draft: you can revise and improve your writing as your rework later drafts.

5. Avoid adding minute details

Adding minute details to a specific sub-topic in a first draft can be a form of procrastination from writing about your key points. Aim to produce a first draft that reflects your main ideas without explaining them in minute detail. There is no point adding too much detail in the first draft as you may change your mind about what you want to say. Allowing yourself to change your mind about what you write is another important reason why you should avoid writing perfect sentences in your early drafts.

6. Start writing without engaging your inner critic


Don’t worry if your first draft doesn’t make complete sense. Don’t worry about the reader in a first draft. Don't worry if you're not completely sure about what you want to say or what your final conclusions will be. Give yourself time to develop and improve your thinking as you work through successive drafts. By not writing perfectly in your first draft you are allowing yourself to easily to chop up, delete or dramatically change what you have written. 

7. Don’t stop to do more research

While writing, don’t stop if you are unsure about a particular fact or if you realise your need to look something up. Instead try writing reminder notes to yourself directly in your draft in hard brackets and make time to follow this up later. For example, [I remember that there was a recent report that looked into topic X - look this up] or [ask Luke about those review papers he mentioned during his talk]. Try to do your research before and after each draft. When you allocate time for writing, just write. 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


When you finish your imperfect draft, seek feedback that is appropriate for what you aimed to achieve. Seek feedback on your key ideas and summary points that outline your core topic. If you follow the protocol of not writing perfect first drafts, ask your colleagues to ignore punctuation, grammar, sentence structure and any lack of details or thorough explanations that can be tackled in later drafts.

and remember...

  • If you give your draft to more than one person for feedback, give the same version to each person and get them to give their feedback separately. Not only is it confusing to read multiple comments and editing on the one document when there is more than one reviewer, some reviewers' opinions may be unduly influenced by someone else's comments.
  • Before you make changes to your first draft, print it out, take it to a cafe and edit it with a pen or pencil. Editing a paper copy of your document can give you a fresh view of what you have written and also break the cycle of making continuous small changes when writing or editing  on screen. It's also easier to view a document as a whole when printed out.
  • Keep both digital and printed copies of each draft so you can quickly retrieve writing that has been previously culled.


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

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

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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


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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

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