Do you want to improve your science writing skills? In science (& most fields), one of the most important skills involves communication. Writing succinctly, and clearly, is key to having a conversation with your audience. The better they understand your ideas, the easier it will be for you to “sell” your work. Whether it’s an essay, a manuscript, or a scholarship application, organizing your thoughts beforehand will help you stay on track.
- Why are you writing?
Are you writing for a journal? Or are you applying for a fellowship application? Having a clear answer to why you’re writing will be the fuel that motivates you throughout the entire process. This first point might be the most important one. Your reader will be evaluating your work for a specific reason. If you can tap into why they’re reading it, you’ll be more successful at communicating. For example, let’s say you’re applying for a fellowship application. Your reader will be reading your application to see if you’re a good fit for their fellowship. Why would you be the best person for their fellowship? By looking at that organization’s mission, you can pinpoint specific things they’re looking for in an applicant. Then, you can write about why you embody their mission, and why you’re the best candidate, and why you should get funded with the fellowship. Understanding why you’re writing will also help you choose the type of language use. You wouldn’t use slang in a formal letter, and vice versa.
- Who are you writing for?
A bit of advice that was recently told to me was that I don’t have to be perfect, I just have to be better than other people I’m competing against. Granted, I personally believe that you should always strive to be the best that you can be, and to constantly be a work in progress. But the truth is, that is not how life always works. You have to understand who you’re writing for, and who else is writing for the same purpose. For example, are you writing an essay for your teacher? Are they strict on grammar, but lax on content? Or maybe they care about you expressing your ideas coherently, and don’t mind if you misspell a word or mis-cite a reference. Is this a competition, where you should try to have a stronger draft than your peers? Understanding who your reader is will help you focus.
- What are you writing about?
Are you writing a general 1-page mini-review on a topic? Or are you writing a detailed review on the history of your field? If you are writing a detailed literature review, are you going to write about every fact you can find? Or will you have subcategories that flow into one another? Writing an outline of your flow will help you organize your thoughts, and also help you manage your time. For example, maybe your review will have 5 major categories, but each category has at least 3 subcategories. Instead of tackling on 1 huge category, you can break up each sub-category into weeks. That way, you will slowly finish your review piece-by-piece, but it will be thorough.
- Where are you submitting this?
Are you turning this in a hardcopy format? If so, you have to make sure that everything is legible, and is appealing to the eye on paper. Are you submitting it through an online system? Some applications require you to be a member of a certain society, or to pay for publication. Understanding where you’re submitting this work is a good way to format your document. Let’s say that I wanted to write a children’s book on science. I would be sure to include a lot of cartoons, colorful designs, and not a lot of jargon. I would not include cartoons and colorful designs for a professional publication, because I know that’s not what they’re looking for.
- When is it due?
Procrastination gets the best of us. I know that firsthand. I love planners (I’m thinking of buying this one for 2017–have you tried it out?) and I am always on my Google Calendar looking at my schedule. I suggest writing in all of your due dates, and to make personal mini-due dates for your document. Maybe this document is due in December, but you can’t wait until November to start writing it. You should start now, with an outline ready. Maybe you can have the draft of 1 paragraph due by the end of the week. Then you can edit it, and work on the 2nd paragraph. Little by little, you might be done with your final draft by October. You can ask others to read and edit it as well, and submit your work early or right on time. I remember missing a lot of due dates for graduate school applications because I didn’t double-check to see when the full application was due. Being timely is not valued as much in science (in my opinion), because everyone waits until the last minute to submit something. But I’m telling you, it is so so so important if you want to treat your work like a business.
- How will you get it done?
Will you stay at home to write this? Will you dedicate a few hours in the morning to reading and preparing for your writing? Knowing how you work best will help you write the best version of your document. Will you write ideas out on paper? Or are you digitally-savvy and work best at the computer? Personally, I’m a creative. I love colors and putting pen to paper. I have to write my ideas out first, make flow-charts, and sort my sentence structure out. I suggest you find what works for you, and to stick to it. Not everyone will be happy about your work flow, trust me. Maybe your co-workers will want to see you working right next to them, and maybe your roommate will not like you getting up at 4AM to write. But you have to get it done, and you will.
I love writing because I love editing. I love the process of going back and re-wording a sentence, or switching around a paragraph. Beware that not everyone will love your work, and maybe they won’t like how you write. That does not mean that your writing is bad, or that you aren’t doing a good job. It just means that it doesn’t resonate with them, and that’s fine. Ultimately, who you are has to shine through your work. Pretending to be someone else will never help you be successful. Instead, working on your own writing and how you best communicate will genuinely push you towards your goal.