GENERAL WRITING TIPS:
Don't underestimate the likelihood that technology will fail you when you need it most.
Printers break, disks fail, and computers crash. Your best bet is to have a backup copy somewhere else. Professors inwardly (sometimes outwardly) groan at the modern-day “The dog ate my homework” excuse of “The [printer, disk, computer, insert technology here] didn’t work”.
Ultimately, it is your responsibility to submit your work, regardless of technological hurdles.
If you don’t believe the capacity of modern day equipment or distracted minds to erase data, ask me some time about overwriting important files.– Dr. B.
2. Help your reader…
by producing an easy-to-read document:
Use a clear font
Print pages on one side only.
Have an empty line separate paragraphs.
by providing easy-to-read text:
Avoid the use of contractions and slang.
Organize your paper carefully, it should flow in a well-defined manner.
Be consistent in the use of tense throughout a paragraph - do not switch between past and present
Use correct grammar and punctuation.
Say what you mean (check your wording carefully). For example, young scientists often write that "The experiment tried to...", when in fact, the budding scientist designed an experiment to test whether...
Use spell-check, but exercise caution. Many correct words can be misused (too, to, two; their, there, they're; from, form; vary, very; and so on).
Writing should be concise and logically sound. Avoid boring the reader with copious verbiage and excessively formal writing. It is perfectly all right to sound excited about the work if you have worked carefully and have interesting results to report
Seek help from friends. Write a rough draft, print it, edit it, have a friend read it, edit it again, and continue to modify the work
3. Use the appropriate scientific format.
Refer to organisms by their scientific names:
Family names, when written out, should always have a starting capital: “Guppies are livebearing fish from the family Poeciliidae”. Family names can also be referred to colloquially: “I study other poeciliid fishes, including swordtails and mosquitofish”.
Always underline or italicize the genus and specific epithet ("species name") of organisms, for example, Poecilia reticulata. Note that the genus name must start with a capital letter and the specific epithet is not capitalized.
The scientific name is both singular and plural. Therefore, when referring to more than one Poecilia reticulata, do NOT add an "s" to the specific epithet.
Use the full name the first time that you refer to the organism, thereafter, you may abbreviate as follows: S. carolinensis.
As there might be any number of species with the same specific epithet, be sure to clarify the genus name as needed (more than one species may share a specific epithet. For example, S. carolinensis might be a gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), or a white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis).
You may not abbreviate at the beginning of a sentence.
If there is a common name for your organism, you may refer
to the organism by its common name as long as you clarify the scientific name
with its first use: “I tested whether female robins (Turdus
The word "species" is used both in singular and plural forms.
Use the metric system of measurement.
Distinguish facts from possibilities.
Back up what you say (cite appropriate sources).
Be aware that the word "data" is plural ("these data are" not "this data is") while "datum" is singular. This affects the choice of a correct verb.
Although it may make your high school teacher grumble, the active voice is preferred in many scientific journals. Check with your professor to determine whether to use the active voice ("Fish received food..." or "I fed the fish...") or the passive voice ("The fish were fed...").
Avoid unnecessarily complicated figures or tables. Be certain to label all figure axes.
Please check with your instructor to determine the appropriate format for scientific papers.
If you are submitting work to Dr. Benson – the accepted format is usually consistent with Animal Behaviour style (sensu the academic journal: Animal Behaviour).
The best way to improve your writing is practice. There is no shortcut for improvement. Writing becomes easier with experience. Use all of your written assignments as opportunities to improve - edit carefully and consider how your words convey your message. With time, your message will be clearer to your readers, and your grades will reflect the improvement.
Biology and Biomedical Science Majors are expected to purchase and use the following writing companion:
McMillan, V. E. 1997. Writing
Papers in the Biological Sciences. 2nd Ed. Bedford Books.
You are encouraged to seek help from your instructor, the writing center, and the writing center web page.
There are many other guides for science writing, such as:
Marchuk, W. N. 1992. A Life Science Lexicon. Wm. C. Brown
Pechenik, J. A. 1993. A Short Guide to Writing About Biology.
Penrose, A. and S. Katz. 1998. Writing
in the Sciences: Exploring Conventions of Scientific Discourse.
Science writing requires competent use of language in general.
For help with word use and general writing skills, I strongly suggest that you purchase the following:
Strunk, W. and E. B. White. 1979. The Elements of Style. MacMillan Publishing, N.Y.
This inexpensive volume is an invaluable desk reference for general writing skills. Even now, it is kept handy on my desktop with its partners:
Shertzer, M. 1986. The Elements of Grammar MacMillan Publishing, N.Y. and
Plotnik, A. 1982. The Elements of Editing. MacMillan Publishing NY
I would also recommend several other books that are helpful (and sometimes amusing):
O’Connor, P. T. 1996. Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. Riverhead Books. N.Y.
O’Connor, P. T. 2000. Words Fail Me: What Everyone Who Writes Should Know About Writing. Harvest Books N.Y.
Truss, L. 2004. Eats Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.
Be aware, however, that these authors are not scientists and some of their suggestions may not be appropriate for scientific writing.