Student-to-student writing guide part 1: the structure and style of a science story

For the last few years of my PhD, I worked with a talented undergraduate student whose experiments gave some interesting results that we wanted to communicate to the world. We decided to write a manuscript, but both of us were graduating and leaving the lab, and we were short on time. I assured my student that writing a scientific paper is not a creative writing project; rather, it can be a fairly formulaic process. To help her draft the manuscript, I wrote a document with some of the writing advice that I’d internalized from my mentors and peers in science.

People who are good at writing are often hesitant to give writing advice. A common excuse is that writing is complicated, and the only way you can learn how to do it well is to do it. I find it ironic when good science writers use this excuse. The experiments that we conduct are also complicated, and it also takes time to build a comprehensive story. Somehow, we still do our best to summarize what we’ve learned for an audience of our peers. Why not try to do the same with the lessons that we’ve learned about communicating our results in manuscript form?

I’m not necessarily a good writer, but I stand close to good writers when they are around, because they often let slip some golden nugget of writing advice. The tidbits I’ve collected over the years comprise a ragged writing guide that has served me surprisingly well. I consult it when I have trouble getting started with a writing project or when I need to overcome a bout of writer’s block. I’ve compiled some advice on writing scientific papers here, with the disclaimer that most of these ideas aren’t mine; rather, they represent a writing guide that I’ve cobbled together by keeping track of the disjointed writing advice I’ve received.

For the first part of this writing guide, I provide advice on outlining the “story” or “narrative” of a manuscript and include a note on writing style. The second post will offer advice on how to write each section of a scientific manuscript.

Reconstructing a scientific narrative from experimental results

I like to read detective novels, such as the kind written by Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle. These stories are formulaic. The first part of the story, the rising action, is long and circuitous. A crime is committed and the detective runs around collecting clues, trying to discern the motive and identity of the criminal. Doing experiments as a cell biologist can feel kind of like this part of a detective story. It is very difficult to solve the mystery during this part of the book. The second part of the story, the resolution, is short and easy to follow. The detective lays out the clues that have been collected, and the criminal is revealed. Reading a scientific manuscript should feel like reading the last part of a detective story. It is very difficult not to solve the mystery during this part of the book.

Evidence is easier to digest when it is presented in a logical order with appropriate context. The clues discovered in the rising action, when the details of the crime are still obscure, are the same as the clues laid out in the resolution when it’s easy to understand what happened. The difference is that during the rising action, information is revealed in the order that it is discovered, without useful context to help you understand how each piece of evidence contributes to the bigger picture. It takes considerable thought for the reader to reorder the clues and see the story that the evidence tells. In the resolution, the clues are recited in a sensical order and are explicitly interpreted as they are presented to help build a narrative. Your goal when you are writing a manuscript is to lay out your results in a logical order to build a cohesive narrative, sparing the reader the difficult job of seeing how the pieces fit together.

Learn from history, don’t repeat it

Most people are far too historical when writing up a scientific project. It’s easy to see why: data were collected and interpreted in a particular order, so it’s easy to recount the project by presenting the data in the same order. This is usually a mistake. Think about how hard you had to work to discern the story from the data as you collected them—this is some of the hardest work a scientist does. Don’t make your reader repeat the intellectual leaps and bounds that were so difficult for you to make.

Consider whether there is an order in which you could present your data that would walk your reader effortlessly through the biological insights that you uncovered, starting with ones that are easy to grasp and building to more specific revelations. Some experiments that were useful at the beginning of a project may still be best near the end of a manuscript. For example, I have found structure-function studies to be great experiments to do at the beginning of a project; they help me get a foothold as an investigator. However, descriptions of the results of these kinds of experiments (“we found that residue number X is responsible for the activity of our favorite protein in our favorite process”) should usually be presented near the end of a manuscript, only after you’ve piqued the reader’s interest into how your favorite protein might function in the process you’re studying. A natural way to tell a scientific story is to interpret one piece of data in a way that raises a question, motivating presentation of the next piece of data. A well-crafted narrative will stick more easily in your reader’s mind. Even after they forget the details of your experiments, they will remember the general story arc, and they’ll be able to hop back into your paper to find details more easily.

Outline early and outline often

Once you have figured out in which order to present your data, sketch out the entire story. There are many right ways to do this and many right times. Writing an abstract, laying out figures, and outlining paper sections/paragraphs are three different approaches to outlining. Any one of these will make it easier to write sentences that describe your data and connect the dots of your narrative, but combining multiple approaches would never hurt. Some people like to draft an abstract as soon as they start a project to help them direct their experimental efforts. I typically need at least half of the results in hand before I can start to think in that way. The point of the exercise is to expedite the writing process by creating a narrative framework that you can fill in with your results.

A bonus of outlining a story well before all the data are collected is that it lays bare any preconceived notions that you may be carrying into the project. Once you’ve written down an expected conclusion, you will start thinking much harder about what kinds of data you would need to support it, and if you can’t get those data, you will quickly realize that your expected conclusion is wrong. However, these kinds of setbacks need not sting too badly, because discarded conclusions are easily replaced with ones more in line with the data collected.

Writing style for science

The first installment of this writing guide has been focused mainly on crafting a narrative because your manuscript will be well organized if you establish this structure before you write and keep it in mind throughout the writing process. Another guideline is to keep your writing as simple as possible. The experiments, results, and ideas communicated in scientific papers are complicated on their own. They are even more difficult to understand if they are described with complex writing. Keep sentences as short as possible, keep paragraphs to one-half page or less, avoid abbreviations when possible, and limit them to one per sentence when they cannot be avoided. Even the best science writers break these rules sometimes, but striving to keep things simple will keep your writing on the right track. Various style guides provide excellent advice on eliminating confusing sentence structures; I have used Style, The Basics of Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams and Gregory Colomb, and The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White, is also a classic reference.

When I’m writing or editing a manuscript, most of my mental energy is spent grappling with the aspects of writing discussed here—figuring out how to best structure the story and figuring out how to write the story clearly and concisely. The structure of the manuscript itself consumes considerably fewer of my mental cycles because scientific manuscripts adhere to a fairly rigid structure. The second part of this writing guide will explore the purpose of each section of a typical science paper and describe how I structure my writing to achieve those purposes.

About the Author:

Ross Pedersen (Twitter: @RossTAPedersen) Is a postdoctoral fellow in Yixian Zheng’s lab in the Department of Embryology at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Baltimore, Maryland, where his research aims to elucidate the pathway governing nuclear lamin assembly following mitosis.