Getting a PhD: Research writing
If you were to choose the most important section of a Research Paper, what would it be Answers differ, but many tend to say the Results section, as this determines the content of a Paper. Others argue that the Introduction section is the most important since this is where the Paper's aims, objectives and research questions are stated and hence this determines the Paper's content. At any rate, Manchester University’s Phrase Bank offers useful information on each of these sections here.
A few key points I got from a science magazine editor:
- As obvious as this may sound, it's still worth mentioning: writing is aimed at pleasing the reader, so be as understandable as possible. As The Economist’s Style Guide says, clear writing reflects clear thinking.
- While writers tend to prefer impressive-sounding Latin-based words, readers tend to prefer simpler Anglo-Saxon based words. Eg. ‘commence’ vs ‘begin’, ‘terminate’ vs ‘end’, ‘anticipate’ vs ‘expect’. It is speculated-ha!-thought that writers love big sounding words because these make them appear more intellectual, especially since these words have Latin origins which academics of the past used. But it is still possible for academic writing to be formal, precise, objective and authoritative without these big words. (Note that new, unpublished researchers can improve their 'academic voice' or authority by citing references and having an opinion).
- Academic writing should go straight to the point. For example, it is better for academics to write: "There are two types of silent reading- intensive and extensive silent reading. Intensive reading is aimed at practicing reading strategies and involves detailed study of grammar, linguistics and vocabulary, while extensive reading is done to obtain information and understanding about a certain topic either for pleasure or for professional purposes..." Journalists or novel writers on the other hand might write: "Silent reading to improve on one's reading strategy can be done by paying careful attention to grammar, linguistics and vocabulary. Another form of silent reading involves gathering information about a certain topic, either for pleasure or for professional purposes... Therefore, there are two types of silent reading."
- The use of 'I' in academic writing (e.g., 'I considered the effect of temperature on the samples') tends to be discouraged because researchers are supposed to be as distanced from their research as possible. That is to say researchers should make their research and not themselves the focus.
- Short sentences attract more attention. Use them wisely.
- Try to say as much as you can with as few words as possible, that is, be concise (aka high information density). All words must “earn their keep" as the editor said, so try using 'decided' rather than 'arrived at a decision', 'find' rather than 'ascertain the location of', 'observe' versus 'look at', 'identify' versus 'point out', 'agree' instead of 'are of the same opinion'.
- English writers are masters of understatement- less is more. For example, it is preferable to write 'noteworthy findings' rather than 'outstanding findings'.
- Try to use active voice as much as possible rather than passive voice. For eg. “A cat ate my lunch” (active) vs “my lunch was eaten by a cat” (passive). “I love you” (active) vs “you are loved by me” (passive). More examples here. Passive voice is not so good because it takes longer to get to the point, although passive voice is encouraged when writing scientific methodologies.
- Avoid using 'etcetera' or 'and so on' after listing items or ideas because this just assumes that the reader can come up with items/ideas, some of which may not be correct.
- Don’t proofread and edit your work at the same time- focus on each separately. When proofreading, read slowly, read aloud or mouth the words to determine whether what you are writing is making good sense.