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There is a narrow line between speculation and evidence-based conclusions.
Scientist-authors and editors debate the importance and meaning of creativity and offer tips on how to write a top paper.
Keep your message clear Angel Borja, marine scientist at AZTI-Tecnalia, a producer of sustainable business services and goods, Pasaia, Spain; journal editor; author of a series on preparing a manuscript.
Clarity is the sole obligation of the science writer, yet I find constantly that the ‘What’s new’ element is buried. There is a German concept known as the ‘red thread’, which is the straight line that the audience follows from the introduction to the conclusion. The result is turgid or obfuscatory writing that sounds defensive, with too many caveats and long lists — as if the authors are writing to fend off criticism that hasn’t been made yet.
When they write for a journal gatekeeper rather than for a human being, the result is muddy prose.
Create a logical framework Brett Mensh, scientific adviser, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Janelia Research Campus, Ashburn, Virginia; consultant, science communications. If you don’t get the structure right, you have no hope. For the whole paper, the introduction sets the context, the results present the content and the discussion brings home the conclusion.
It’s crucial to focus your paper on a single key message, which you communicate in the title.
When the discussion is all speculation, it’s no good because it is not rooted in the author’s experience. It is one of the most highly tweeted papers so far.
In the conclusion, include a one- or two-sentence statement on the research you plan to do in the future and on what else needs to be explored. In each paragraph, the first sentence defines the context, the body contains the new idea and the final sentence offers a conclusion.
Always think of your busy, tired reader when you write your paper — and try to deliver a paper that you would enjoy reading yourself. Author Helen Sword coined the phrase ‘zombie nouns’ to describe terms such as ‘implementation’ or ‘application’ that suck the lifeblood out of active verbs. Once the paper has a clear message, I suggest that writers try some vivid language to help to tell the story.
Why does scientific writing have to be stodgy, dry and abstract? If we don’t engage that aspect of ourselves, it’s hard to absorb the meaning of what we’re reading. We should engage readers’ emotions and avoid formal, impersonal language. For example, I got some pushback on the title of one of my recent papers: ‘Eight habitats, 38 threats, and 55 experts: Assessing ecological risk in a multi-use marine region’. There’s probably less resistance out there than people might think.