Quick (and easy) ideas to improve your writing

Recently, an investigator came to me frustrated with the quality of scientific writing that was being produced by his laboratory members. At least a few times a year, I hear the same comment: “My team members are wonderful scientists but terrible writers.”

Most investigators think that they have to put up with the terrible writing, but I don’t think so. After a brief conversation, the investigator and I identified a few easy ways that he could help his team (and himself) improve the scientific writing produced by their laboratory.

  1. Provide feedback to lab members on what should and shouldn’t be done in scientific writing. More explicitly, don’t just edit their work with no explanation as to why you changed it.
  2. Use an editing checklist. Checklists are best used right before the document is finished or submitted. See this post with a few suggestions.
  3. Find examples of good and bad writing and discuss. Take time at a weekly lab meeting or journal club to review 2 to 3 examples of good scientific writing and 1 to 2 examples of poor scientific writing. Some of the examples can be from your field of expertise, but it would be good to have at least 1 or 2 that are on a different subject. Ask your lab members what their experience was as a reader in each circumstance.
  4. Read a book on scientific writing. Or an article. Or watch a presentation. I’ve compiled a list of resources here.
  5. Train to be a better scientific writer. Enroll in a course on scientific writing (through a university or professional organization). For example, Stanford offers an on-demand course “Writing in the Sciences.”

You don’t have to remain stuck in a writing rut or feel frustrated with your lab’s output.
Pick one of these ideas and try it out for the next paper you’re writing.
Let me know how it goes.