Writing about data in science
Making arguments from observations
I find good scientific prose to be concise, clear, and well structured. Good papers clearly state what the authors think are the important points the reader should glean from their data in a few sentences. Learning to write scientific prose takes practice and no one is exceptional in their first attempt. Learning to write science for scientists takes practice. Below, I share a few experiences that shaped me as a writer and I suspect will help you, too.
- Read broadly and critically.
Look at literature you are interested in and observe how authors highlight their assumptions and the goals of their work. Find their hypotheses as explicitly stated as possible. Observe the tense of the methods section and the detail. What questions do you have for the authors? Why do you have those questions?
- Practice writing using planned structure.
The generic Nature summary paragraph form is excellent structure for abstracts and other short communications of data. It pushes you as a writer to distil the point of the work you want to present into as few words as possible.
- Receive feedback and iterate your prose.
Ask peers to read your work and give them specific questions to guide their feedback (e.g. what is my hypothesis? What assumptions am I making with this argument? Is my tense consistent within sections?) Going back to written work and polishing it is an important task for moving work forward.
- Learn about the craft of writing and reflect on your process.
Take some time to read a few books on writing. I strongly recommend reading The Elements of Style for a broad style guide and some simple rules to remember. Take a look at How to Write a Lot for no-nonsense coaching on academic writing with both references to psychology and research on writing. Finally, if you’re looking for a similar deep-dive with slightly less snark, take a look at The Scientist’s Guide to Writing
- Write often and consistently.
Schedule time to put words on paper without distraction but with a goal in mind and you will be productive and less stressed than you would be otherwise. Revising writing, learning about journal requirements, and critical reading can also fill this time. For me, the first draft of most papers are the most difficult to write, but are the most important for completing projects.
In my own writing, even as I write this post, I often struggle with self-conscious feelings about word choice and repetition. On one hand, variation can be what keeps readers focused on your paper, but on the other, if someone is using it for a reference to gather information repetitive structure and wording can be useful. Learn about the style of communication that is necessary for your data and interpretations and look to the work of others as a guide.
Good luck with writing and don’t hesitate to ask for constructive criticism to hone your craft!