Ch. 6 How to Write

6.1 Five Common Writing Mistakes

The following is heavily based on a blog-post of Jacquelyn Gill.

1. The passive voice is being used.
This is an understandable mistake, because not only are we taught to write passively in primary and secondary school science classes, but many of my colleagues still cling to the idea that solid, objective scientific writing must be in the passive voice. However, the passive voice …

  • results in unnecessarily long sentences and
  • makes your prose difficult to follow.

Why is the active voice better? Because science is an active process, done by human beings: “I” and “we” statements are appropriate when describing action. For instance, “We demonstrate the usefulness of our method” is much nicer to read than “The usefulness of the method is demonstrated”. The active voice is more engaging to read by its very nature, which makes otherwise dry methods sections just a bit less tedious. We are a storytelling species – we like a little drama!


2. Extraneous, superfluous or otherwise unnecessary additions.
Example of bad writting: It is entirely likely that your prose is padded with extraneous, superfluous, or otherwise unnecessary additions; furthermore, the utilization of such redundant verbiage is arguably obfuscating your points (thus, in order to improve the clarity of your writing, it is highly recommended that you eschew such stylistic choices, including run-on sentences filled with fluff, padding, and filler).

Perhaps a consequence of assigning papers with word counts, text padding is one of the most common issues with student writing, especially for those writing their first manuscripts. My example sentence above has a few issues:

  1. Double (or triple)-dipping with adjectives when one would do
  2. It crams too much, abusing semi-colons and parentheses for useless purposes
  3. It’s full of “junk” phrases that serve no purpose whatsoever.

Tips:

  • “In order to” is not necessary when “to” will do.
  • “It is entirely likely that” can be replaced with a single word (likely): “Your prose is likely…”
  • Words like “arguably” or “furthermore” or “thus” rarely do any heavy lifting in sentences, and are often implied anyway.
  • “Highly” isn’t needed in front of “likely.”
  • “Utilize” is rarely more appropriate than “use.”

How to avoid unnecessary additions:

  • Relentlessly go over your prose to remove junk.
  • When you’re over your word count on an abstract or conclusion section, look to cut sentence padding first, before you start cutting your cool ideas.
  • Take opportunities to be creative, but not at the expense of clarity.

People often assume the thesaurus will help them sound smarter, but instead leaves your reader thinking, “wow, she/he really loves her/his thesaurus.” Use fun words sparingly, and aim for clarity.


3. Your prose contains redundant parts.
You keep making the same point over and over again. I often find myself reading prose that has the same idea presented in multiple ways – sometimes word for word, from one paragraph to the next! Regardless of how this happens, redundancy highlights the importance of taking a break from your work. Redundancy is also usually a symptom of poor organization; a lack of structure can lead to circular writing, because you don’t know where you’ve come from and you don’t have a clear sense of where you’re going.

How to avoid redundancies:

  • If you’re revising your own work, you should be catching the places of redundant text parts.
  • Reading your writing out loud helps (you’re more likely to catch errors than if you skim the page reading to yourself).
  • Get comfortable with deleting your writing. Cutting words/texts is part of the writing process, and sometimes it’s the most effective way to make your writing better. That doesn’t mean the initial writing was wasted – it’s all part of what got you to cleaner, stronger prose.


4. Unclear antecedents.
When you find yourself writing “this,” check to make sure that “this” is clearly linked to an antecedent. Remember that your readers aren’t in your head, and the connections may not be intuitive. In scientific writing, this problem (haha, see what I did there?) often happens in the beginning of sentences and paragraphs. “This is a problem, because…” What’s the problem?


5. Your paragraph lacks of a topic sentence.
Each paragraph should have a topic sentence anticipating the main message of the paragraph. Topic sentences help your reader to follow your writing. Furthermore, topic sentences are useful to diagnose structural problems in writing. The sequence of your topic sentences should represent the roadmap of your paper. Therefore, a very quick test to see if you’ve got organization issues is to check your topic sentences: the first sentence of your paragraph tells your reader what the paragraph is about, and every sentence should serve that topic sentence in some way.

It’s worth thinking about the structure before you start writing. Otherwise, you end up taking more of a random walk than a straight line to your point, and it definitely shows. Think about organization early and often – your topic sentences can help you with it.

As with any rule, you can be a little creative here, but checking your topic sentences are a great way to check for structural issues in your writing.


6.2 Gregory Mankiw: How to Write Well

The following list of writing guidelines is taken from Gregory Mankiw’s Blog:

  • Stay focused. Remember the take-away points you want the reader to remember. If some material is irrelevant to these points, it should probably be cut.
  • Keep sentences short. Short words are better than long words. Monosyllabic words are best.
  • The passive voice is avoided by good writers.
  • Positive statements are more persuasive than normative statements.
  • Use adverbs sparingly.
  • Avoid jargon. Any word you don’t read regularly in a newspaper is suspect.
  • Never make up your own acronyms.
  • Avoid unnecessary words. For instance, in most cases, change
    • “in order to” to “to”
    • “whether or not” to “whether”
    • “is equal to” to “equals”
  • Avoid “of course,”clearly," and “obviously.” Clearly, if something is obvious, that fact will, of course, be obvious to the reader.
  • The word “very” is very often very unnecessary.
  • Keep your writing self-contained. Frequent references to things that have come before or will come later, can be distracting.
  • Put details and digressions in footnotes. Then delete the footnotes.
  • Buy a copy of Strunk and White’s (Elements of Style)[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Elements_of_Style]. Also, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. Read them again and again and again.
    • Zinsser’s theory is that: “writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it.”
  • Keep it simple.

6.3 Rob J Hyndman: Avoid Annoying a Referee

The following list on “How to avoid annoying a referee” is taken from Rob J Hyndman’s Blog:

It’s not a good idea to annoy the referees of your paper. They make recommendations to the editor about your work and it is best to keep them happy.

  • Explain what you’ve done clearly, avoiding unnecessary jargon.
  • Don’t claim your paper contributes more than it actually does.
  • Ensure all figures have clear (and well sized) captions and labels.
  • Include citations to the referee’s own work. Obviously you don’t know who is going to referee your paper, but you should aim to cite the main work in the area. It places your work in context, and keeps the referees happy if they are the authors.
  • Make sure the cited papers say what you think they say. Sight what you cite!
  • Include proper citations for all software packages. If you are unsure how to cite an R package, try the command citation("packagename").
  • Never plagiarize from other papers – not even sentence fragments. Use your own words. I’ve refereed a thesis which had slabs taken from my own lecture notes including the typos.
  • Don’t plagiarize from your own papers. Either reference your earlier work, or provide a summary in new words.
  • Provide enough detail so your work can be replicated. Where possible, provide the data and code. Make sure the code works.
  • When responding to referee reports, make sure you answer everything asked of you. (See my earlier post “Always listen to reviewers”)
  • If you’ve revised the paper based on referees’ comments, then thank them in the acknowledgements section.

6.4 LaTeX

Use LaTeX for scientific writing - particularly, if some math is involved! The probably easiest way to start with LaTeX is the online editor of overleaf.

  • Overleaf allows you to start writing with LaTeX without installing software.
  • Overleaf even allows for collaborative writing.


Alternatively, you can also install a LaTeX-distribtion on your computer. The following brief instructions on how to set up a LaTeX system on different operating systems is taken from Rob J Hyndman’s Blog:

MS-Windows:

  • Download and run the setup program for MikTeX. Choose the “basic” system.
  • Download and run the installer program for TeXstudio.
  • Then run TeXstudio and start typing.

Mac OS:

  • Download and install MacTeX.
  • Then run TeXshop and start typing.

Ubuntu:

  • Install TexLive and TeXstudio through the software centre.
  • Then run Texstudio and start typing.

To make sure everything is working ok, open sample.tex in TeXstudio (or TeXshop or TeXworks) to see an example of a LaTeX file. (You will also need sample.bib stored in the same folder.) Click on “Quick build” (or hit F1) and the file should be processed and appear in a separate window. Study the difference between the original file and the final product to learn some basic LaTeX commands.

For help with learning LaTeX, check out Rob J Hyndman’s “Useful LaTeX links”.