Tips for making a science paper easy to follow

The editorial team of Nature’s Communication Earth & Environment recommends a few achievable ways of making a science paper easier to follow:

  1. Scientific writing closely follows a formula that has proven successful. Simply answer a few questions in your paper, one after the other: why is your topic of interest? What has been done before? How are you building on that? What have you found? How do your findings change what we thought? What are the possible implications (referring back to the first question)?
  2. Prioritise clarity over elegance, short sentences over long ones, active voice over passive voice, and simple words over complicated expressions (especially where you may not be entirely sure of the meaning).
  3. Carefully check any placeholder words like “this”, “it” and “they”: is it clear, in every single instance, what the placeholder refers to? It is usually best to add a specific noun, or just use the noun right away.
  4. Make a new paragraph for each key point in your argument.
  5. Add a two-sentence take-away summary of the section at the end of each section, so that readers have a thread of your reasoning that they can hang on to if they get lost.
  6. Before you submit, get a colleague, ideally one whose first language is different from yours, to read your manuscript, and ask them to flag any sentence they found less than crystal clear. Then work on those sentences: if they struggled to understand, so will others.

Here are some additional tips that I don’t always follow (probably I should).

  1. Replace vague terms like “feature” or “recent” with specifics. “Recent” may be used for timescales of minutes by meteorologists; to a geologist, “recent” could easily mean thousands of years ago.
  2. Clearly define all the scientific concepts you use—the same words may mean different things to people in different communities.
  3. Start each paragraph with a sentence that makes the main point of the paragraph, and use the rest of the paragraph to elaborate.

I can also recommend my own tip that I learned a long time ago: Imagine that a high school student is sitting next to you and you explain your research to the student as you are writing the paper.

Language matters for impact, not acceptance. Commun Earth Environ 3, 34 (2022).

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