Writing is essential... to all Ph.D. scientists and most others. 

Here, we have collected some advice--sometimes in rather odd form--from the LSU Macromolecular Faculty and other assorted resources.  


Contribution 1: Grammar Checker and other snide suggestions (excerpted and adapted from a letter written by a know-it-all to a young faculty member; some changes were made using blue italics to protect the identity of the writer and recipient, or to clarify what is left of this long harangue).


I popped open the Word file you sent just to see what spell checker and grammar checker had to say. Spell-checker found many small, easily corrected problems (among others, characterization not characterisation on this side of the Atlantic). It is grammar checker that I find essential. Most scientists ignore it, on the theory that science writing differs from normal prose. It does not! Good writing is just good writing. I always use the formal writing style option, not technical. I leave almost all of the options checked. I insist on two spaces after every period (showing my age!). Very rarely do I ignore advice from grammar checker. 

(The Grammar Checker settings are found in Word under the Tools : Options  menu. )

So how did grammar checker find your document? To my amazement, grammar checker got by your first sentence (I thought it long and/or run-on). I tried several alternatives, but failed to produce anything much better. So, keep it! ...(text of letter removed to protect the innocent)..... GC did find many other little glitches (missing commas, passive voice, etc.) It sometimes finds problems but gives the wrong hint. I was able to fix some errors by adding articles. 

How important is grammar checker? Soon after I arrived (in academics), a senior professor (Prof. AAAA, now at University ZZZZ) was waxing poetic about the grammar-checking program he had bought. The well-funded Prof. AAAA  had authored many papers; I thought it odd he would rely on such a gimmick. As a writing legend in my own mind, until very rudely dissuaded of this notion by one Prof. BBBB,  I ignored grammar checking until Word made it so darn easy and powerful. Now I get to return AAAA's  favor: turn GC on!  It always helps. 

Other hints (and I didn't even check that you need this advice...so what follows is good advice for everyone): always use the simpler word ("many", not "numerous", "used" not "utilized"). Never use the same word twice in the same sentence, and avoid using it twice in consecutive sentences. Vary sentence length. No prepositions at the end of a sentence, despite Churchill's famous zinger on how silly this can get: "That is the sort of English up with which I will not put." Kill all the "however's", "therefore's", "neverthelesses", " furthermore's" and "indeed's". Just kill 'em dead and see what happens. "However" is the very worst, because you will probably tell the reader how ever whatever you were about to describe happened. If you absolutely cannot resist, place "however" and its ilk only behind a semicolon. However, if you choose to ignore all this advice, you will nevertheless find that, indeed, grammar checker allows you to screw up. (At least 4 errors in that sentence!) In keeping with the continued dilution of English as a powerful, versatile language, grammar checker may also forgive opening sentences with "because", "and" or "but". It allows a multitude of sins! As Reagan said in another context, "Trust, but verify." 

You definitely did not mean to write, "The following research program is based on work I did ......" 1) "is-based-on" equals 3 weak words; 2) passive voice problem; 3) writing in first person; and,

Alas, that is all we can use from this letter...the rest is too revealing. 

Contribution 2: Kill the adverbs! 

This contribution is credited to an English professor at Berkeley, who was speaking on NPR one evening about things people can do to improve their writing. He said the most perfect sentence in the English language is, "Jesus wept."  (not bitterly, just wept).  Try killing adverbs and see.  You can't kill 'em all, but you can question whether they are necessary.  In the sentence, "Currently, we are investigating healing powers of inhibitors,"  what purpose does "Currently" serve?  Does not "are" already imply that the action is current?  For fun, see which of your favorite literary authors use lots of adverbs. Mark Twain does not. J. K. Rowling does (and it hurts her otherwise amazing story-telling abilities).

Contribution 3:  How to Avoid Plagiarism

We were going to just copy the whole site, but decided this link would be better:  http://www.indiana.edu/~wts/pamphlets/plagiarism.shtml#plagiarized

Contribution 4:  How to hyphenate (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyphen)

Hyphenate compound modifiers when it improves readability, such as: John gave Sally an apple-red scarf for Christmas.

Hyphenate adverb-adjective compound adjectives that appear before the verb, but only if the adverb does not contain -ly: 

    Example 1: It is a well-known fact that....

    Example 2: It is a hardly known fact that...

Do not hyphenate adverb-adjective combinations appearing after the verb:  It is well known that... (guideline: if you can swap the adjective and adverb without changing the meaning, then no hyphen is required; in this case, we could write "It is known well that...." without changing the meaning. 

Contribution 5: How to place apostrophes (see the book Eats Shoots and Leaves )

For the purpose of chemistry, this one example will suffice.  The plural of NMR is NMRs and not NMR's.

Contribution 6: For heaven's sake, use pronouns and contractions!

A lot of students write like this: The monomer was added to the solution. The solution was then heated until the NCA monomer dissolved.

Write like this instead:               The monomer was added to the solution, which was heated to hasten dissolution.

Or like this: Heat hastened the dissolution of the monomer.

Contribution 7: Starting sentences with conjunctions (http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/conjunctions.htm )


The haughty writer in Contribution 1 above is wrong about because; one can use it to begin a sentence. It's OK to start a sentence with because, but one has to explain the because in the same clause.

Example: Because overheating of the reaction was a concern, we terminated the reaction by adding a free radical scavenger.

You might wish to avoid because beginnings, though. Because you might offend an older audience. (Ha! The last sentence is an IMPROPER use of starting a sentence with because that just does not work; the explanation of the because is not offered in the same clause.) 

And, But

These are dicier; the advice in the link above is sound: ask whether the sentence can work without the beginning And or But. Then consider whether leaving the clause as part of the previous sentence would be better. If it seems best to begin with And or But after these considerations, go ahead....but be aware some people will think you're a boob.

        Since (one writer's opinion)

                    Beginning a sentence with Since is best reserved when it's important to indicate time elapsed: Since midnight, Jack had waited for Jill to fetch a pail of water.

                    To indicate cause, either because or as might be better.

    Other conjunctions are discussed beautifully here:  http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/conjunctions.htm  One of them forms the basis of the next Contribution.

Contribution 8: Omit "that" when possible. 

It is certain [that] the reaction would explode.  (Actually, this one is not too bad, but it would still be better to leave the that out, or rewrite the sentence towards a more active style, like this: The reaction will certainly explode. "That" often is a symptom of an inactive writing style.

Contribution 9: Getting the tense right.

It is easy to get confused about tense in science writing. Somtimes you are describing results, other times universal truths. Try to be consistent within one paragraph insofar as the results go, but universal truths and permanent implications take the present tense. Example: "The experiments were conducted in the manner described by Snodgrass et al. The operative principle is the first law of thermodynamics."

Contribution 10: Include a table of acronyms and symbols AT THE START


Contribution 11: Avoid one-sentence paragraphs.

A good paragraph opens with a premise, backs that up with rational development, and either comes back full circle to the premise or does that while adding a segue to the next paragraph.

Contribution 12: Avoid split infinitives

The Star Trek mission statement contains the classic example of a split infinitive: "to boldly go". Which begs the questions...exactly where IS boldly, and why would anyplace have such a funny name? The right way would be "to go boldly"--don't let the adverb split the infinitive verb form. English grows increasingly tolerant of split infinitives, but don't do it all the time and avoid it whenever it creates ambiguity.

Contribution 13 (by Kristin Sainani of Stanford University, who wrote this in an ACS Distillate E-mail December 2011).

"When it comes to improving your writing, sometimes small changes can make a big difference. Here are three simple tips to improve clarity, readability, and concision:

1. Eliminate negatives; use a positive construction instead.

Instead of: She did not want to perform the experiment incorrectly.

Use: She wanted to perform the experiment correctly.

Instead of: He was not right.

Use: He was wrong.

Instead of: The drug was not believed to be harmful.

Use: The drug was believed to be safe.


2.  Follow "the rule of threes"; three is the ideal number when making lists or citing examples.

Instead of: They gradually reduced the number of employees: in 1980, the company had 300 employees; in 1995, 150; in 2000, 100; by 2005, when the company was in its final year, only 11.

Use: They gradually reduced the number of employees: in 1980, the company had 300 employees; in 1995, 150; by 2005, when the company was in its final years, only 11.


3.  Eliminate superfluous uses of "there are"/ "there is":


Instead of: There are many chemists who like to write.

Use: Many chemists like to write.


Instead of: There is a mouse in the cage.

Use: The mouse is in the cage.


Instead of: The data confirm that there is an association between vegetables and cancer.

Use: The data confirm an association between vegetables and cancer.   


For more details on usage, see Strunk and White's classic, The Elements of Style. Examples from: Watson & Crick, Joe Klein, Roger Angell, Dickens, Louis Menand.


Kristin Sainani is a clinical assistant professor at Stanford, where she teaches statistics and manuscript writing. She is also a freelance health and science writer.

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