The authors of our Writing Guides are Marina Hurley and Liza O’Donnell. Within these documents, we also provide links to additional writing resources. If you are interested in seeing a topic covered, please email for further information.

Handwriting notes and to-do lists is still a good idea

Writing to-do lists on paper might seem a waste of time if you already prepare to-do lists with software. Project management software such as Asana and Trello are effective and powerful tools and I am not suggesting we stop using them and go back to paper. My concern is that relying on software might cause a lack of spontaneity when doing research and in capturing ideas when working on other tasks. Well-designed paper lists and organised note-taking can still play an important role in project management and be used in conjunction with software. 

There are important benefits to hand-written note-taking that we might overlook if we decide to only write electronically:

1.  It’s quick and easy to jot down short tasks and simple ideas on paper

When we are in the middle of a task and come up with a good idea or something we need to remember, it may be easier and less distracting to just jot these thoughts down on paper. Having to open up software, allocate an idea or task to a project description, describe the task, decide who is responsible for a task and when it should be completed is time-consuming.

2. Not everything we write needs to be kept

 Not everything we write down will be worthy of further consideration. Occasionally, ideas or tasks will become inconsequential or lose attraction if they are left for a period of time. If paper lists are reviewed every 1-2 days, items or ideas that are no longer relevant can simply be crossed off or ignored. While improved technology may allow us to collect more information, it can contribute to information overload. Using electronic tools to capture everything we have to do or every idea we come up with might mean we end up with huge lists of items that will all need to be reviewed at some point.

3. A paper list is easy to refer to and doesn’t need batteries

Using paper lists to record tasks and ideas is easy to refer to. Even with multiple computer screens it is difficult to keep more than 2 or 3 pages of anything open at the same time. You can also take a quick snap of your paper list with your smartphone if you need a quick backup.

4. Handwriting can force you to summarise effectively

Note-taking helps to focus attention on more important items and reviewing notes is also beneficial for recall (Kiewra 1985, Kiewra et al. 1991). While note-taking by typing or vocal recording is effective and easy with software, what you record still requires effective classification for easy retrieval. If you tend to take too many notes indiscriminately, it may be difficult to later decide what is important. As the act of handwriting is usually slower than typing, we are forced to highlight what is most important. Therefore, compiling paper lists may help you to summarise important information quickly. Ideas and tasks that remain after reviewing paper lists can then be transferred to software.

What are the features of a well-designed to-do list?

Ultimately what works best for you will depend upon how you work and organise your time. I have developed the Daily Task & Ideas Workbook for my own use and am offering it here free of charge. This workbook is designed to be printed out and used to capture ideas and tasks on paper, while simultaneously allocating the priority and stage of completion of different tasks. This workbook can also be used to help you identifying new tasks and projects. The workbook has two pages (Page 1 - Daily Task List and Page 2 - Ideas & Brain Dump) with the following sections:

Page 1 – Daily Task List.

ROCKS (Must do today); PEBBLES (Must do soon); SAND (Short, discrete tasks)

The three sections in the first column are used to record tasks of different priorities. I use the ROCKS/PEBBLES/SAND analogy where the difference in sizes between ROCKS, PEBBLES and SAND mostly relates to the priority of the task. The general idea is that you can only fit in a certain number of large ROCKS in a container but the container is not yet full as you can still fit in smaller PEBBLES. After you have placed in all the pebbles that will fit into the container, you can still pour in SAND.  I have adapted this idea so that ROCKS are the tasks that must be completed today, PEBBLES are tasks that must be completed soon while SAND tasks are the short, important tasks that can be completed in between other tasks or when you lack energy or time to complete larger tasks.  When your list is reviewed, invariably, PEBBLES and SAND will become ROCKS if they are left incomplete and grow increasingly important.

The three sections in the second column are used to record tasks that are COMPLETED; STARTED/ONGOING; and OVERDUE/SCRUB TICKS.  Personally, I like to highlight tasks that have been COMPLETED during the day as this gives me a visual reminder of what I have achieved and helps me to feel productive.

Page 2 – Ideas & Brain Dump

This page is designed to capture brand new ideas and to identify new projects, sub-projects and tasks. It also includes a section to record topics that need research and projects that need updating.

My recommendation is to use the Daily Task & Ideas Workbook it for 1-2 days then review the content. Items that haven’t been crossed out or completed can be either moved to a fresh workbook or to project management software. The workbook can be downloaded here: version 1 or version 2. You can also download an example workbook that includes hypothetical tasks and ideas. 


Kiewra, K. A. (1985). Investigating notetaking and review. A depth of processing alternative. Educational Psychologist, 20, 23-32

Kiewra, K., Mayer, R., Christensen, M., Kim, S., & Risch, N. (1991). Effects of repetition on recall and note-taking: Strategies for learning from lectures. Journal of Educational Psychology., 83(1), 120-123.

Over the next 3 months (until December 2018), I will be giving regular live mini-lectures in our new free facebook group Q&A Sessions, You can join up here and come along and ask questions and view my previous Facebook live videos. If you subscribe to the Writing Clear Science newsletter you will receive information on the date and topic of the next 

© Dr Marina Hurley 2018

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How to build and maintain confidence as a writer

Why is it crucial to develop confidence?

If writing is central to your profession, it is crucial to build and maintain confidence in yourself as a writer. Being confident about your writing is being able to:

  • rely on yourself to regularly produce high-quality material
  • concentrate on creating and developing new ideas and solutions to new and existing problems instead of worrying about whether what you’ve written is good enough
  • consider writing as a tool rather than a chore
  • find writing enjoyable and rewarding

If you are committed to improving your writing, then your self-confidence will build as your writing improves. No matter how you feel about your current level of skill, commit to continual self-improvement and aim to feel satisfied with what you have achieved so far. This is what I do.

Realise that writing consists of separate tasks

Rather than considering writing as one thing that you do, identify the different tasks that writing is comprised of and review how proficient you are at each. Then work on improving the different tasks separately. For example:

  • Getting started
  • Conceiving and developing ideas
  • Word choice: Choosing the right words to say what you mean
  • Phrase construction: Choosing the right group of words to say what you mean
  • Clause and sentence construction: Expressing ideas concisely, logically and coherently
  • Paragraph construction: Linking ideas in a logical order and developing a stand-alone story
  • Developing an argument: Identifying different viewpoints and effectively stating your case
  • Forming unique conclusions: Outlining your contribution to your discipline

Be kind to yourself

It is important to critique your writing and identify what can be improved - but avoid harshly criticizing yourself.

(Everyone knows this but…) Be realistic about the time it takes to write

The time needed to complete a document is always underestimated. You need to allocate sufficient time to write regularly. Be realistic when working out how much time is needed to write. Avoid work procrastination.

Never compare yourself to others

Only compare your current level of skill to your past level of skill. Regularly look back at your past work and identify how your skill has improved. Observe how far your skill has progressed and allow yourself to feel satisfied with any improvement, no matter how small. Identify areas that need further improvement and allow yourself to gain confidence from your ability to identify what needs improving. An important part of skill development is getting better at recognising what needs improvement.

There are many ways to improve your writing

Identify the ways you can learn to improve your writing; for example, resources, books, blogs, writing workshops or one-on-one coaching assistance.

Get regular feedback

Always ask colleagues for feedback. Always. But make sure that you critique the feedback you receive, as not all of it may be useful or correct. Avoid taking any constructive criticism personally and avoid seeking feedback from those who regularly deliver overly-harsh criticism.

Find a mentor or a colleague who can regularly give you constructive feedback. Join a writing group and share drafts with each other for peer-feedback and community support.


Set up a blog. Even if it is on a topic unrelated to science writing. Find a type of writing or topic that you really enjoy. Any type of writing will help improve your science writing skills, especially if you blog regularly.

Break through writer’s block

Use the tools that help break through writer’s block. Regularly having problems getting started may add to a lack of confidence. One quick and easy way of getting your thoughts down for a first draft is to record yourself speaking about your topic. Most smart phones and tablets have voice recognition software that can easily record or transcribe your speech.

Keep a portfolio (or library) of everything you complete

Keep a record of everything you produce. Create hard-copy portfolios of all your documents and include a table of contents with dates and titles. These portfolios can serve as a physical reminder of your productivity. Write one-page summaries of all completed projects in plain English with an eye-catching photo or diagram, and a good title. These one-page project summaries can be used to promote yourself and can also be prepared as a portfolio to show prospective employers.

Build confidence from your ability to learn

Remember that writing is like any other task with obstacles to overcome. Although it takes time for to become proficient at any skill, you can still be confident about your ability to learn.

Keep going

Keep writing, keep putting your work in front of an audience and keep getting feedback.

If you have any comments or questions about being a confident writer, I will be giving a live mini-lecture in our new free Facebook group Q&A Sessions, 7pm Tuesday 4th September. Click here to join the group.

In the next previous blogpost I discussed how low-confidence can reduce the quality of your writing. If you have any comments or questions about being a confident writer, I will be giving a live mini-lecture in our new free facebook group Q&A Sessions, 7pm Tuesday 4th September

© Dr Marina Hurley 2018

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

Both inexperienced and experienced writers attend my writing workshops to learn how to improve their writing skills. Some of these students display a distinct lack of confidence in their writing 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”. Being aware that your writing needs improvement is necessary in order to improve, but lacking in confidence also means that you have negative thoughts about your writing ability. Not only does this lack of confidence stem from a lack of experience, but is exacerbated by professional pressure to write well.

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 fear to appear 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 have made to your research. For example, saying “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) this fact 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 integrity 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 integrity 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 use apologetic language. 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

Categorising your skill level is problematic if you aim to improve that skill. If you label yourself as a poor writer it may be difficult for you or your peers to change how your ability is perceived. Instead,  

  • Acknowledge the parts of your writing that are good and gain confidence from this and
  • Identify the parts that need improving and work at improving these skills.

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. I also have two short video lectures on the topic of confidence in our new free facebook group Q&A Sessions. Click here to join the group.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2018

11 common mistakes when writing an abstract

Audience: Authors preparing research papers for peer-reviewed journals.

An abstract is typically the summary or overview of a scientific paper, thesis or report. The key purpose of the abstract is to provide a reader with the full story so that they can decide whether your paper is relevant to their needs. As there is a never-ending supply of papers 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. Some researchers will only read your abstract and never intend to download the entire paper.

The importance of a well-written abstract cannot be overstated. A well-written abstract will maximise the chances of your paper being read, understood and even enjoyed and will maximise your publication success. Not only will referees appreciate a good abstract, the abstract may be the only part of the paper they are sent when invited to review a paper.

This focus of this article is what is commonly wrong with abstracts. Other common writing problems in other document sections and in science writing in general are covered in my writing workshops and other blogposts; for example, verbosity, lack of continuity of ideas, long sentences and the use of overly-complicated language

Please note: Some of the points raised in this article (e.g. no. 4 and no. 6) may not be relevant to some disciplines or to some journals: i.e. some journals do not require abstracts at all or require a very brief overview. Always read the Instructions to Authors (see no 11.) or email the Journal’s editor.

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

1. Not writing a summary

The abstract is a summary. A summary is the most important parts of your project or topic. Summarising is a skill that is not necessarily straightforward and its importance in scientific writing cannot be underestimated. Summarising is the task of being able to identify and then separate key points from the other information that supports these points. The purpose of the abstract is to provide the reader with a summary of your entire project so that they can gain a solid understanding of your project before they start reading your paper.

2. Not paraphrasing your own work

Summarising includes paraphrasing. Paraphrasing is when you use your own words to convey meaning from another source, even if that other source is your own writing. One common mistake authors make in abstracts is to copy entire sentences from different parts of their paper. This is not summarising and it is not paraphrasing.

3. Not summarising your entire project

The abstract is a summary of your entire project. 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. When authors leave out key information, for example the aim or problem statement or their conclusions, the reader is left in the dark. This might be the authors intention, or even conventional in some journals within some disciplines. Even so, omitting key information easily causes confusion and may cause your reader to think, “I’m not sure what they are trying to do here; I think I’ll just leave this paper for now and maybe read it later”.

4. Including too much (or not enough) background

Occasionally authors include too many details about the background of the project as they do not understand the role of the abstract and treat it as an introduction to the Introduction. This means that when they write the Introduction they either run out of things to say or repeat a lot of details presented in the abstract.

The background of your project builds the picture of why your project problem is important. The background is often left out because the author assumes the reader knows the background thoroughly or that they will read these details when they get to the Introduction. If the background is essential to explain or justify why your problem is worth solving, including a brief summary of this may be crucial. Also, never assume your reader knows your topic or project thoroughly; they might, but if you have summarised effectively and written succinctly these readers will simply skim over this part and keep reading. The rest of your readers will be informed and, hopefully, engaged in your story and want to keep reading. 

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

After including important introductory and conclusion information in the abstract, some authors assume that they then don’t need to include this information in the paper itself because it looks repetitive. There are two problems here: firstly, it is best to write your abstract after you have written your paper (although writing a draft abstract in the early stages of your project is a good idea); secondly, it is only repetitive if you copy entire sentences from your paper across to the abstract. Remember point 1: an abstract is a summary of each section of the paper.

6. Including too many (or not enough) methods

A brief summary of the Methods is important as they are a key component of any study. Depending upon the type of study, this may include study design, subjects, any interventions, measurements or sampling procedure and data treatment and analysis. Given the potential complexity and diversity of a study’s method it is easy to add too much detail; i.e. listing all the data collection instruments and their brand names.

 It is also important here to make a distinction between the methods of a study and the methodology as these terms are often used interchangeably. Methods explain how a study was carried out and can include the research or project design, what was measured and how the data was treated or manipulated and statistically analysed. Methodology is the investigation and discussion of how a study’s methods influenced the nature of the results and is often discussed in the Discussion when interpreting the results. If you need to develop novel methods or to modify standard methods in order to complete your study, then this part of your project is also part of the methodology. Methodology studies are often published as separate papers. If your study included standard methods then a simple one-three sentence summary may be sufficient in the abstract. If your study involved developing a new method or investigated or critiqued a current method, then an overview of this methodology also may be needed.

7. Not explaining what your results mean

This is the summary of the Discussion or Conclusion sections of your paper. Rarely do results require little explanation and usually need to be interpreted in light of the aim and the problem statement. Some authors have suggested that leaving out the answer or the interpretation of the results is intentional in order to create anticipation in the reader. This is a risky tactic that may cause your reader to abandon your paper.

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, 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 paper but it is misleading.

10. Not following the Instructions to Authors provided by your target journal

This seemingly obvious mistake is very common. Instructions to Authors are 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 mistake, not following the Instructions to Authors provided by your target journal can mean that your paper will be returned.

11. Not including keywords

Keywords of your study are essential to ensure that your paper is correctly indexed. Some authors assume this step is not be not necessary as they will provide their keywords when submitting the paper.

The essentials of science writing: identify your target audience

Decide who you are writing for 

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 but deciding who we are writing for is not a step that is always considered, let alone completed or completed carefully. To a certain 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 for a target audience might not be a high priority.

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 aim is to satisfy project, organisation, company or client objectives by documenting the outcomes of a project or series of projects. Audience-focused writers design their document primarily for the reader, while still satisfying their own needs and the needs of project objectives, clients and stake-holders.

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 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. Common writing problems often reflect that a writer has not thoroughly considered who their audience is, for example:

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

- using the wrong language or unfamiliar terminology

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

In my experience, one of the biggest mistakes in science writing is to assume your audience knows your topic nearly as well as you do. Authors of most research papers can safely make this assumption and purposely have a narrow, specialised audience. Yet even then, research writers still regularly leave out important background information and project details that are necessary for the reader to understand what they are doing and why.  

It is easy to fall into the trap of writing to simply deliver 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; your colleagues or supervisors may ensure you write a scientifically-accurate document but they may not realise that what you’ve written is not easy to read as they are so familiar with your topic.

There are 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. For any document there may be three broad types of audience: your target audience, your secondary audience and your peripheral audience (see diagram using an ecology research paper as an example). Your target audience are the group of readers that you want to read your document or you expect will want to read your document. These are the people you are designing your document for. They should understand everything you tell them. Some examples are:  research scientists writing peer-reviewed papers for their peers, students writing assignments for their lecturers, or consultants writing reports for clients. If there are some people you think might read your document but will not be able to understand everything, then they should not be considered part of your target audience. These people are part of your secondary audience.

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 ecology 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. You cannot explain everything for your secondary audience but you can define your key terms and ensure your main aim and findings are abundantly clear. The third group are your peripheral audience who will directly or indirectly benefit and learn about your work but will not read your document themselves; they will find about it through the secondary or target audience of your document. Because your peripheral audience won’t be reading your document, it is crucial for you to ensure your key messages are abundantly clear so they are not misinterpreted.

How to identify your target audience

Decide what group of readers you want to target with your document: your target audience. Consider the following:

  • Who will want to read your document? Who will be interested in your topic and key findings?
  • What is their level of education, expertise and background?
  • Will they be able to understand all parts of your document? If not, include sufficient detail and explanation to ensure that they do.
  • Why will they be interested in reading your document? What reasons do they have for reading your document?
  • What people need to read your document? If they are not already interested, how do you attract them?
  • What task(s) will your document perform for them?
  • How they will find out about your document?
  • How will they access your document?