Having excellent writing and communication skills is vital, even, or perhaps especially, in a scientific field like biology. If you are studying to become a biologist, or to pursue a career associated with the sciences, you will need to be able to write, and write well. Yale Instructor of Scientific Writing Angelika H. Hofmann provides a compelling explanation for the importance of written communication in her chosen field:
Communication plays a fundamental role in the sciences—and beyond. It is the engine that propels virtually all progress. Without good communication skills, those in science stand little chance of publishing their work, obtaining funds, attracting a wide audience when giving a talk, or getting a new job. (xvii)
Although your goals may or may not include pursuing an academic career via graduate studies in the sciences, to work in almost any related job you’ll still need to be able to demonstrate that you can write within the guidelines of the field. In this column, I’ll distill some useful tips from this handy guide, Writing in the Biological Sciences: A Comprehensive Resource for Scientific Communication.
In this column, I will go over basic scientific writing guidelines. According to Hofmann, there are a few steps you can take to better yourself as a scientific writer:
1. Understand the scientific method
2. Understand how readers go about reading
3. Distinguish between expository and technical writing
4. Learn how to write in science
5. Practice writing
6. Acquire the necessary technical skills (7)
If you are majoring in biology, the scientific method should already be ingrained, so no need to elaborate there! Next, you need to understand your audience. Who are you writing for? Are you writing for high school students? Your professor? An academic journal? Once you have decided on your audience, then consider how the readers will respond to your work. Be conscious of the structure and function of your writing on the micro and macro levels, ie., within the sentences, paragraphs, and sections (4-5). For scientific writing, you have to be clear and concise.
Next, distinguish between expository and technical writing. Expository writing is a style of writing where “facts are organized in a logical order, supported by details, and presented in a formal way.” This type of writing is “fact-based and objective.” Comprising subcategories of expository writing, scientific and technical writing also follow these guidelines, but present information to a specific audience regarding a certain topic. Generally, the audience of both technical and scientific writing is smaller, and the purpose of communicating with this readership is to convey findings and present information, not to persuade (5).
Next, in order to successfully communicate in the scientific field, you will have to take some time to “learn” what is expected in scientific writing, including the type of information to incorporate and where it needs to be. While you are learning the ins and outs of scientific writing, practice! Get in the mindset of this type of writing by finding examples and reading other works. Pay attention to the details, take notes, and then practice on your own (5-6). Of course, besides approaching your professors about practice strategies, one of your very best options will be coming to the Writing Center for help and advice.
The last step to understanding the scientific writing process is learning the necessary technical skills. Be familiar with Word, PowerPoint, and Excel (or similar programs), and also know how to use statistical programs such Minitab or SigmaPlot. Take a class or watch online tutorials if you need more knowledge about these types of programs (6).
I hope I’ve provided some specific know-how to help you begin or continue learning the fundamentals of writing in a scientific field. In my next installments, I will go into the nitty gritty details of science writing, including general structure, citing and avoiding plagiarism, and using tables and graphs.
Hofmann, Angelika. Writing in the Biological Sciences: A Comprehensive Resource for Scientific Communication. New York: Oxford UP, 2016. Print.