Tag Archives: Productivity

What citation style should you use?

What is citation?

When writing, if you are referring to information that is directly attributable to another source it is often expected that you identify where this information came from. For example, if I wrote, “Francis Scott developed a new form of measuring temperature.”, I should acknowledge where I got this information from by making some type of notation directly after the statement. This is known as citation or in-text citation. In-text citation is usually written immediately after the citable text by inserting the author(s) surname(s) and publication date in brackets. This is known as the Author-Date System. Another common form is the Number System where a superscript number is written directly after the citable text. In both types, the full details of the source of the citation is compiled as a list of references at the end of the document. The number system is commonly used in all Wikipedia articles where hyperlinking is also commonly used to refer to sources.

Should everyone use citation?

No. Whether you cite the source of your information depends on the type of document you are writing and what discipline you are writing for. In-text citations are expected in academic and peer-reviewed research publications and in many scientific reports and other technical publications. If you are writing an industry, client, government or commercially-sensitive report, first check whether you are expected to cite. For scientific blogposts and other online documents, hyperlinking your sources may be sufficient but be mindful that these links should be regularly checked to ensure they are still working.

What citation style should I use?

There are a wide variety of referencing styles stipulating how to record an in-text citation and how to compile a bibliography or list of references. The most common types for the sciences are either Harvard or APA (American Psychological Association) which are both an Author-Date system. What style you choose may depend upon your document type, publisher, discipline or organisation. If working within a research institution or university, check with your library, department or supervisor about what style you should use. However, depending upon the circumstances there is often individual choice.

Further reading:

Monash University: Citing and referencing: Recommended styles

Australian National University: Referencing

University of the Sunshine Coast: Referencing Style Guides

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

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

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What is science writing?

What is science writing?

Although this question appears straightforward, there are common misconceptions about what constitutes science writing. Some students attending my writing workshops initially assume that science writing is restricted to academic writing to produce theses or research papers. Some assume science writing is communicating scientific concepts in plain English to a wide audience, while others assume that their consultancy report is not science writing. I teach that the term is not restrictive. At its simplest and broadest definition, science writing is writing about science.

There are different types of science writing

Science writing takes different forms, according to the topic, the purpose of the author and who the document is designed for. Science writing can create a thesis, a research paper, a report, an email, a conference talk, client criteria, project deliverables, a proposal, a funding application, a blogpost, a magazine or news article, a brochure, a fact sheet or a 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 people who need to know about a new process, methodology or technique.

Science writing is writing about science

The key feature of all types of science writing is that the topic under discussion is a scientific topic:  that the information presented has been gathered, analysed and critiqued using accepted scientific methods. This is true whether you are presenting new science (e.g. research papers, theses), reviewing research by others (e.g. literature reviews, desktop reviews), reporting scientific approaches and methods to solve commercial or industry issues (e.g. reports, policy reviews) or writing about the astonishing world of science (e.g. news or magazine article).  

Who can write about science?
You don’t need to be a scientist to write about science. You don’t need a degree to do science writing. Anyone can write about science, irrespective of their background or qualifications. Occasionally some people assume they are not science writers if they are not publishing papers, but if the work they write about describes scientific processes, follows scientific procedure or refers to scientific research, then it is science writing.

Science writing includes technical and industry reports
Not all science projects produce empirical date or are investigative. These projects might not be considered ‘research’ as such. Not all research projects are designed to be published by peer-review; some projects are written up and published in-house, online or via government publications, or remain unpublished for confidential reasons. Vast amounts of valid scientific documents are produced in this way.​

Some projects are exploratory, information-sourcing or descriptive and do not produce empirical data or follow a classic approach of the scientific method. Therefore, these projects are not necessarily written following the traditional science report structure of AIMRD: Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion. Science projects that investigate commercial issues are often structured according to topic, industry, client and legal requirements. Separate from the PhD and research paper, there are so many different types of scientific documents that it is not possible to summarise their structure here. However, key sections that are common to both science reports and peer-review papers are a summary (Executive Summary in reports and Abstract in paper), an Introduction and Discussion or Conclusion sections.

What is central to all types of science writing
All science writing must refer to information that is based on evidence. Ideally, to peer-reviewed information and data that is published and accessible. Any assumptions, ideas, predictions or suggestions must not be presented as though they are a scientific fact.

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

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

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Two ways to be an INefficient writer

Science is often complicated and writing about a scientific topic can be like trying to untangle spaghetti. Writing efficiently can also be a struggle if you are exploring an unfamiliar topic or haven’t had a lot of writing experience. Irrespective of experience, there are two types of writing behaviour that will greatly reduce productivity and confidence.

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

Your core topic includes your document aims and objectives and the key problems you are aiming to solve, together with an explanation of how your topic fits within your discipline. Starting to write without a clear idea about the depth and breadth of your topic can be time-consuming. Every scientific topic may be linked to dozens of other sub-topics that at first consideration appear just as important as your original topic. It is often tempting to try and include them and look for a way to link them all together. Without clear focus, it is easy to drift away from your topic and you may not realise that you are actually writing about five topics instead of one.

It can be easy to get distracted from your main story by adding excessive and seemingly, interesting details. Avoid the desire to update the reader with every twist and turn, every exception to the rule, and every related, but not-so-important, detail.

2. Polishing: trying to write perfectly in a first draft

Inefficient writers often start by writing a burst of fresh thoughts and then immediately spend considerable effort rewriting, editing, and proofreading this material before writing a fresh block of text. This is also known as polishing your writing. Polishing in early drafts is an easy trap to fall into when writing on-screen: each time you open a file, it is tempting to first read, review and then re-edit the existing text before writing fresh material. As the document develops, what is written earlier is continually reconsidered, rewritten and re-edited while what is written later receives far less attention.

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

People often believe that they should be writing perfectly the first time and get frustrated at the seemingly endless amount of time it takes to complete a document. Some people imagine that innumerable drafts and rewrites will be needed and suspect that they will never be happy with the final product. Labouring over a single sentence while thinking you still have 1000 more to write is daunting.

Polishing your sentences is necessary in later drafts when fine-tuning your ideas and improving your message for the reader. Inefficient writers polish early, while efficient writers polish after they have worked out what they want to say.

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

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

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Are you only writing for the conscientious reader?

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

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

Not everyone reads the same way

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assume most of your readers are lukewarm

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

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

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

Key considerations to attract and engage your reader

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

The title

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

How and where you present key information 

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

Ease of reading and comprehension

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

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

Your reader’s background knowledge and expertise

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

Document design and layout

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


How do you read?

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

Pretend someone else wrote your document

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

Ask for feedback

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

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

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

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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

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