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So now I’m climbing down from my soapbox (which Wikipedia pleasingly remarks is exemplified in the modern day by a blog) and treating you to my top tips for good science writing.
I’d like to thank my students at LKCMedicine, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, for their patience, enthusiasm, and insight.
Highlighter Paper has the lower writing area highlighted in yellow or blue indicating where the letters should be placed.
There are a lot of books out there on the subject (the one I used most was Mimi Zeiger’s, and for general advice on style, Strunk and White is unbeatable as well as entertaining), but one definitely needs a guide to navigate them; one of the most common pieces of advice about writing is to emphasise what’s important, but ironically, it’s hard to get a feel for that by reading a big textbook about writing style.
I hope that my two days of haranguing my long-suffering students gave them some helpful tips (more of that below), but teaching is a two-way street, and the course has certainly given me some food for thought, principally about the role of formal written English.
Intellectually though, it’s a decent rule to live by, as getting stuck in a comfortable rut is a really bad idea (especially as an academic, as I discovered to my cost).
So, when I was invited to teach a course on how to write and publish scientific papers, I said yes, even though it wasn’t something I’d ever done formally, it was way outside my comfort zone, and I had a feeling that my luminous insights might possibly be more akin to irrational rants about things that really irritated me in other people’s writing.I suspect it might be slightly easier to read, if you have to read a lot of pages, simply because the contrast (white/blue) is slightly less intense than white/black. “Always do what scares you” has been my mantra for most of my adult life, although to be honest I do have some exemption clauses relating to not wanting to break bones, die, or go anywhere near a snake.If English isn’t your first language, get a native speaker to check your text. Non-agreement between the singular and plural are the most common writing mistake (did you see what I did there? Amalgamate or dump – you just sound like you’re waffling. Find a critical reader and pay attention to them, however unpleasant it is.And never give them a rough draft unless you want to really annoy them. Never forget you have an audience, and shape your work according to who they are.Or to rewrite sentences in some standard form which then completely changes their meaning (and even more parenthetically, why can’t I write “which” when I feel like it without the blasted grammar checker underlining it, as it just did? Should the rules of English be allowed to flex a little? As long as it’s crystal clear what you mean, you should be free to say it how you like.My definition of “crystal clear” of course means that using words common only to your country, or age group (eg 15 year old girls; wow, they have some really weird words), or era, is out.And if you’re writing a personal letter (sigh — which almost no one does any more…) it’s a way to distinguish it from something that’s mass-mailed.Although advertisers have caught on to this, I’ve noticed, and are starting to use a mid-blue color for some mass-advertising junk mail stuff with addresses in italic, to make it look more like a personal letter to the casual viewer. Red ink also exists, but of course is used primarily in accounting, for noting numbers that are “in the red” (or negative…) There are other colors, too, but they don’t stand out as clearly against the white, cream or ivory papers that are our standard background to write on.I don’t think there’s a single answer as to why blue or black, back in the mists of time.