Five things to avoid in scientific writing

Top tips by professor, editor, and reviewer, Jacquelyn Gill, to improve your writing.

#Recommended Reads #Scicomm

Get active. Cut to the chase. Avoid repetition. Check your structure. These are some of the tips offered by professor, editor, and reviewer, Jacquelyn Gill in a cracking blog post over at The Contemplative Mammoth.

In her article, she breaks down some of the five most common mistakes she sees when reading young scientists’ work. Here’s a quick summary of five of the most common mistakes that Jacquelyn describes.

1. Avoid the passive voice

Far too many scientists write in a passive voice, which for some reason has become a sign of scientific objectivity or seriousness. But it’s not. It is at best boring and at worst, confusing. So, use the active voice as much as possible. Tell your reader “we analysed 60 samples” and not that “60 samples were analysed.” Really? By who? When? That’s not to say that passive phrasing should be avoided entirely. See what I did  there?  It is appropriate when discussing previous interpretations or studies, and then you can switch to an active phrasing when discussing your own study, actions, and conclusions. In this way, using the two types of voice can actually help to distinguish past work from the present study.

2. Utilisation of unnecessarily wordy sections of text that feature padded, flowery, and filler-like prose should be avoided where possible and at all costs…

You get the idea? ‘Highly likely’ and  ‘it is likely that’ are, as Jacquelyn calls them, junk terms. In both cases, ‘likely’ is fine.

‘In order to’? Just use ‘to’.  ‘Utilise’? Come on, ‘use’ is perfectly OK. These filler phrases add no new information and cutting them out will result in a sharper prose, removing a ton of ambiguity in the process.

3. Stop repeating yourself

Are you recycling text from grant proposals or previous papers? Did you outline a clear structure before you started writing? If the answer is yes to the former and no to the latter, then the chances are your prose is full of repetition.

Be strict and delete any instances of repetition. If you find yourself half explaining something in one paragraph and returning to it later on, then try to combine the two in one place.

This is really all about following a good narrative. So outline a structure, the main points you wish to communicate, and the diagrams you need to use before you start. And stick to it. After all, if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably meander around the houses as you go, leaving your reader confused and less likely to stick with you until your big results or conclusions.

4. Avoid using unexplained antecedents

“I went on a jog earlier today, and it was energising.”

“I went on a jog today, then for a beer, and it was tiring.”

In both of the sentences above, I was thinking about the jog, which forms the antecedent to ‘it’ in the next part of the sentence. You can clearly see that ‘it’ in the first sentence refers to the jog. But, in the second I could have been referring to either the jog or the beer. Jacquelyn uses cake to illustrate the point, but beer and jogging work fine too.

Whatever example you use, make sure that you clearly express what ‘it’, ‘this’, ‘them’, ‘they’ and so on, are actually referring to whenever you use an antecedent. The take-home message is that you shouldn’t make the reader jump through mental hoops to understand what you had in mind at the time of writing. Simple solution: just spell it out, whatever it is referring to.

5. Start using ‘topic sentences’

The first sentence in any paragraph or main section should explain where that paragraph is going, writes Jacquelyn. This is almost journalism 101, in that a journalist starts by outlining the take-home messages – the headlines – which are the ultimate destination for the reader, and then works backwards to provide the information needed to reach that destination.

Adopting a similar approach in scientific writing can help maintain a clear narrative throughout sections of text. And make sure to use informative headings and sub-headings, which similarly help to maintain a good structure.

Make a better first impression with editors and reviewers

All of this is not to say that young scientists are particularly bad writers. I see many of these mistakes in a number of manuscripts from scientists of all ages and at all career stages. Being aware of common mistakes is the first step to better writing. And better writing could be the difference between getting your next paper past the journal editor’s desk or on to the next round in the grant application procedure.

Most importantly, good writing means that your science isn’t hidden behind a poorly written manuscript and allows reviewers and colleagues to focus on the substance of your work and not the style.

Jacquelyn’s original post goes into each of the common mistakes in much greater detail. And as the category of my blog post suggests (recommended reads), you really should head over to The Contemplative Mammoth and read Jacquelyn’s original post in full.

Happy reading! And writing!


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Sign up to receive email updates from

A short newsletter delivered when new content appears, including portfolio items and blog posts. Typically once a month. You can opt out at any time by clicking unsubscribe in the newsletter.