Struggling to improve your writing? Here are 7 scientist-approved tips to hone your writing style
Want to get better at writing but not sure where to start? Here are seven pieces of advice for any aspiring writer who wants to improve their style and expand their readership.
1. Be clear on your main message
When you know a topic well, it can be easy to gloss over the main messages and get stuck into the gritty details. But remember, someone coming to your writing fresh will not have the same level of insight and background. Being clear on your main messages, and putting these front and centre of your writing, is the best way to ensure that the reader understands what you’re trying to convey and gets the most out of it.
Before you start writing, plan what your take-home messages are, and emphasise these throughout. Propose the ideas in the introduction, start each paragraph with a sentence summarising its theme, and return to these points in the conclusion.
And make the most of your title and preamble. These are the first things a potential reader will see and will determine if they’ll read your whole piece. Try to include the main topics of your article as high up on the page as possible, especially in the title and preamble, to get people clicking on your article.
2. Adapt to your audience
A key part of writing is to identify who you are writing for. There’s no point in writing a long and detailed review of a niche scientific finding if you want to be published in a general newspaper. Use language your audience will understand and focus on what kind of article they want to read. After all, you’re writing for your audience, not for yourself.
But remember, don’t oversimplify — even if you’re explaining a complicated subject, “dumbing down” your writing will only serve to make your reader feel patronised and disrespected. The art of good writing is helping any reader to understand your work, while also interesting those with a greater knowledge of the area.
Moreover, identifying the right place to publish your article is crucial. If you want it to be read by others in your field, then an academic journal is the way to go. But if you want it to be read by the general public, consider reaching out to newspapers or special interest magazines to target your specific audience. Picking the right outlet for your writing is critical to ensure that the people interested in that topic will actually read it!
3. Emphasise why what you are writing is important
Editors say that one of the biggest reasons for a research article being rejected for publication is its lack of importance. Although you may feel your niche area of research is incredibly significant if you don’t take a step back and consider why a reader would find it important it’s not going to be read.
Working out why what you’re writing about is important is also a great way to make sure that other people outside of your immediate field read what you’ve written. You might want to show the press, the public, or policy-makers why they should care about your work, and focusing on its impact and importance is a great way to grab their attention.
As ever, this tip links back to the audience you’re writing for, as the important part of your article will vary depending on who you want to read it. Keep your target audience in mind as you’re planning and writing to tailor your article to them.
4. Focus on the narrative
Narratives and stories aren’t just a device for fiction writing. Defined by Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (1969) as “a discourse designed to connect a series of happenings”, a narrative a great way to make your non-fiction or scientific writing more captivating.
Were there times when something didn’t work? Is there controversy? Add suspense and intrigue to your writing to keep people engaged and wanting to read on. And if a detail doesn’t add to the story, or overly complicates it for the reader, consider leaving it out.
By weaving a story through your work, you are highlighting the main points, as well as linking ideas and improving the flow of the overall piece. Studies even suggest that having a narrative in an article helps people to read faster and remember more of what they’ve read.
For a great article about the importance of storytelling in scientific writing, check out this article by Nick Enfield published in The Guardian in 2018.
5. Make it personal
Although you may not realise it, so much of what we read is about people rather than things or events. Books, news articles, and histories all have one thing in common — they focus on people. Readers are just more interested in people than they are in the outcome of their actions.
So, try and make your writing more personal, whether that be about you or whoever you’re writing about. If it’s an article explaining a new piece of research, mention the struggles of the lead author, or describe how the findings will benefit patients. If it’s commenting on a controversial government decision or even just a new initiative in your town, focus on the people doing it or who it will affect.
A great way to do this is to include quotes, interviews, or case studies. These will help the reader to relate the issues at hand and reinforce your key messages.
6. Write less (or cut out more)
It may feel like the best writers write complicated, long-form content that uses emotional vocabulary and rambling analogies. But take a closer look and their writing is crisp and tight.
The best piece of writing advice I ever received was to go through each sentence and reduce the word count by 10 to 20% — you’ll be shocked at how many unnecessary words you use! Moreover, try and keep your sentences to less than 30 words in length. This will help readers to stay engaged and not get lost in a complicated train of thought.
Similarly, keep your writing as simple as possible. Using unusual vocabulary may seem clever, but it quickly becomes tiresome and the reader will lose interest. Try and describe concepts using simple language, and if you have to use jargon, explain it thoroughly.
7. Editing is crucial
It may seem obvious, but nothing is more annoying to an editor than copy full of spelling and grammatical errors. They make you look like a sloppy writer who doesn’t care about the quality of your work. So, make sure to thoroughly check your work before submitting or publishing it anywhere.
A top tip is to read your work aloud to spot any obvious errors. But the brain has an amazing ability to skip over errors or missed words when it’s your own work. After all, you know what you meant to write, and it’s great at filling in those gaps. Instead, try listening to your piece. MS Word has a great feature called “Read Aloud”, and other online services also exist, that reads exactly what you’ve written, not what you think you’ve written, helping you to quickly spot errors.
Don’t be afraid to rewrite and restructure if necessary — don’t get too attached to any of your work! While editing, read your piece critically and identify issues or poorly-developed points that an editor or reviewer may pick up. This will help you to see off any future criticisms, as well as helping to improve the coherence of your work.
There are, of course, many great resources to help you improve your writing. Simply reading more of the kind of writing you’d like to produce is a great place to start. But applying these easy tips will greatly focus your writing and make it much more accessible to your target readership.