Webinar Review: Don’t Write Like a Scientist

Over the course of the semester, our trainees are reviewing webinars in their given fields and preparing abstracts to help colleagues outside their discipline make an informed choice about watching them. As our program bridges diverse disciplines, these abstracts are beneficial for our own group in helping one another gain key knowledge in each other’s fields. We are happy to share these here for anyone else who may find them helpful.

Don’t Write Like a Scientist

Dr. Kristin Sainani, Stanford University, Professor & Freelance Writer

Jan 27, 2022

ECI Younger Chemists Committee

Watch the Webinar

Sara BellAnalysis by Sara Bell:

In this webinar, Dr. Kristin Sainani gives a compelling overview of how to let go of the cumbersome style that many scientists use within their publications. She utilizes her experience in reviewing articles, working with student writers, and writing for the public to provide an in-depth review of the common pitfalls in scientific writing. Typical scientific writing is difficult to understand. Many scientists use jargon along with wordy descriptions that leave readers more confused than informed. Many of us have run into papers where the aims and conclusions sound like they’re written in another language. Dr. Sainani points out that readability scores for scientific articles have declined over time. Still, we often blame ourselves for not being familiar with the material; however, Dr. Sainani has an important mantra for us all. It’s not me, it’s the author! Our responsibility as authors is to inform with our writing. I believe this seminar did a wonderful job teaching scientists how to reach that goal.

Towards that goal, Dr. Sainani steps the audience through the two “Principles of Effective Writing” that scientists ignore most. First, cut the clutter! Scientists tend to be redundant and use long phrases that could be simplified. She does a great job of giving examples of commonly used clutter and provides multiple solutions for each. The same could be said for her explanation of Principle #2: write with strong verbs. Traditionally, the passive voice is favored in academic literature, but many journals now ask authors to use the active voice. Dr. Sainani’s examples and suggestions provide a great starting point for us to implement active, strong verbs in our writing. Habits many of us developed in school of padding writing to reach word goals are no longer helpful in scientific writing. In fact, these habits end up hurting the readability of our papers. So, we should all evaluate where we can grow in our writing styles. Writing is a skill after all!

Clear writing makes science more accessible while cluttered papers stagnate scientific progress. Not only is it important for your peers to understand your work, but it’s important for science to be accessible to the public so we can foster trust in science. Knowing who your audience is will help gauge the level of complexity of your writing. However, if your audience is varied or undefined, it’s better to err on the side of simplicity. If you’re interested in improving your writing skills, Dr. Sainani provides an online course that you can audit for free here.