Writing better — 10 simple rules
I’m in the middle of editing/proofing quite a few documents from within the research group. Here are a few observations of common issues that I come across.
As with any learned skill, it is important to reflect on examples of good practice (as well as look at bad practice).
The best way to learn how to write is to practice writing. The second best way to learn how to write is read.
When you read documents (papers, other theses, and even blog posts like this) have a think of what stylistic items you enjoyed and what things could be improved, and how they impact your ability to digest the information conveyed, as well as keeping your attention.
1 - Simplify
People are afraid to write something simply using as few words as possible.
2 - Spellcheck
Simple spelling errors, grammar errors, and faults with figures can be distracting. I know that my group get annoyed at my pedantry on a few things here, but it is because I find myself distracted.
Equally, if the meaning is clear enough, then I do not worry about the details. A perfect document remains unfinished.
3 - Reference often
Make sure you reference everything you rely on as a “fact”. This is critical for any knowledge that is (broadly) unknown to someone who has just graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in the subject you are writing about.
4 - Reference properly
Make sure you reference properly. Pick the style you want and use it properly. If you are using numbered references, make sure the reference goes with the clause (and preferably early into the statement you are making).
“Smith et al.  showed how to reference properly, and this is useful to convey the appropriate ownership of ideas and scholarship.”
“The proper form of referencing was discussed, Smith et al.  showed one style to highlight individual contributions, and Xi et al.  demonstrated another…”
“Smith et al. discussed how to reference in scientific papers, and they concluded that there were a variety of methods that enable proper attribution of thoughts and ideas .”
5 - Use punctuation well.
If in doubt, read your sentences aloud. Do the full stops, semi-colons, and other forms of punctuation make your clauses easy to read and understand. Do they provide an appropriate break. If in doubt, break up sentences and keep things simple. Equally add some rhythm from time to time and have a longer sentence when you feel that you want to build up to a bigger conclusion.
6 - Avoid allegory
Metaphor, simile, and allegory can be confusing. Keep things simple.
It is far easier to confuse your reader with an allegory or “lay person explanation”, especially in technical text. When you are confident in explaining material, you can add these flourishes but if you are in doubt, leave it out.
7 - Use pictures
A picture or schematic can make supplement text and enhance understanding. They do not have to be complicated. Make sure you reference them in the text and use good captions.
8 - One paragraph = one idea
Use your paragraphs wisely. Keep them simple. Build your idea. Bring your idea to the start of your paragraphs and use the end of the sentences to build the story together and lead, but try to avoid making the reader guess what your ultimate point is.
They can be one sentence.
9 - Check your capitalisation
Elements are not proper nouns, and so (in English) should not be capitalised unduly. The presence of a capital letter in the middle of a sentence is Jarring.
For section headings, check your own “house style” and keep it consistent. This simplifies your story and makes things easier to read. It also conveys a sense that you have cared about this document and conveys your professional care to the reader.
10 - Keep it logical
Your document is a technical story. It has a narrative which can engage the reader and the ideas should flow from one another. This should be reflected in your text. Try to avoid confusing the reader with blind alleys or unfortunate surprises.
11 - Break the rules
You can break the rules, but do this intentionally. There are times when you want to add emphasis, excitement, detail or panache.
Ultimately, this is your document, make the most of it.
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If your are interested in my research group head to: http://expmicromech.com
You can find a curated list of writing references over at: https://www.expmicromech.com/resources