Getting the science on paper

A new guide helps scientists avoid basic writing mistakes and express their ideas clearly.

Angelika H. Hofmann, Ph.D., conducted a modest study before beginning her book on scientific writing. To gauge the state of the art, Hofmann examined 100 prepublication drafts of scientific papers. She found pervasive problems: unnecessary repetition, over-long sentences, missing information, and faulty verb tenses. Three out of four authors had misplaced or omitted such an essential element of the paper as the purpose of the experiment.

Hofmann’s new book, Scientific Writing and Communication, provides a broad-spectrum remedy for such ills. In 700 pages, she offers step-by-step instructions for producing research papers, review articles, grant proposals, posters, talks, and job applications.

Hofmann, a writer and grant editor at Yale’s Office of Development and an adjunct instructor who teaches Scientific Writing I, begins with such fundamental principles of composition as keeping tenses straight and sentences short. She addresses such topics as using references, avoiding plagiarism, overcoming writer’s block, and choosing between figures and tables to report data. Summary boxes and revision checklists consolidate information. The book includes samples of both good and bad writing, alongside suggested revisions for the clunkers.

Hofmann estimates that about half of scientists writing in English are not native speakers; throughout, she includes notes addressing such writers. Each chapter ends with exercises, and answers appear in the back of the book.

As Hofmann points out, the scientific enterprise requires not only running sound experiments but also disseminating results. Skillful communication, she writes, “is the engine that propels virtually all scientific progress.”

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