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Writing Guide For Engineers and Scientists


Quiz Questions

1.In conveying your message or what you are trying to say, as a general rule, it’s best to focus on no more than 3 key points that you want to make because people rarely take in more than that. Write each one down in a sentence so that you have the ‘essence’ of the points to refer to later. If you find it difficult, try writing a paragraph for each point and then cutting it down until it’s a sentence.
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2. After we have worked out what we are trying to say it is also important to target who we are trying to say it to.
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3.Using short sentences – once you’ve made a draft of your article, go through and see if you can cut any long sentences into two or three shorter ones.
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4.Using every day and short words – even if a word is everyday, if there’s a shorter one that will do the job, use it.
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5.Using everyday analogies and examples and relating your science to something that people encounter in day-to-day life.
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6.Using active language – it is usual for a scientific paper to be written in a passive voice, but you’ll notice that articles in newspapers and magazines tend to use more active language. Active language sounds more familiar, friendly and engaging (‘we wrote the paper in an active voice’ rather than ‘the paper was written in a passive voice’). Outside a scientific paper, passive language.
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7.Using direct quotes from people involved with the research – provided they are interesting and understandable, quotes can really add life and personal interest to an article.
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8.Showing some personality and/or emotion – this only works if it’s authentic, but showing that you (or the scientist doing the research in question) are human is good.
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9.Using rhetorical devices – while it might have earned a bad name for itself, rhetoric is designed to capture and hold people’s attention, so can be very useful. In speeches in particular, it provides punctuation marks to make the words comprehensible. Examples include repetition (I didn’t want to do research for the money; I didn’t want to do research for the prestige; I wanted to do research for the excitement); antithesis (That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind); alliteration (with alliteration you can communicate clearly).
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10.Tell a story – we learn to understand information in the form of stories or narratives, which describe a sequence of events, from a very early age. Could taking readers through things in this sequential manner help you structure your writing and communicate more clearly? For example, rather than presenting an argument why it’s important for your department to peer-review its evidence, you could tell the story of how five years ago some policy was made on evidence that later was shown to be questionable. As a result, the department introduced a peer-review programme to ensure that all evidence is good evidence and since that time fewer mistakes have been made. Which is why today, colleagues always peer-review any work they commission.
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11.Things to avoid: Using jargon i.e. words that mean something to experts but nothing to non-technical audiences (‘meridional overturning circulation’, ‘hysteresis’, ‘perturbation’) or an everyday word that has a different meaning to scientists (amplify, translate, tissue, significant).
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12.Civil Service Speak, for instance: ‘accordingly’ instead of ‘so’; ‘commence’ instead of ‘start’ ‘in the event of ‘ instead of ‘if ‘ ‘persons’ instead of ‘people’ ‘prior to’ instead of ‘before’ ‘terminate’ instead of ‘end’ ‘utilise’ instead of ‘use’.
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13.Explaining science with science – comparing a molecular system to the engine of a car is useful if you’re talking to car mechanics but probably not if you’re talking to a local school.
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14.Trendy vicar syndrome: Getting the tone right is important for any audience, but particularly so when writing for younger readers. While it’s always important to use words and examples that the audience can relate to, try to avoid using a ‘voice’ or tone that is too far away from yours naturally – young people can spot a lack of authenticity from a mile, and as well as patronizing them it doesn’t help your credibility. Unless you really are a teenager, avoid colloquialisms such as ‘cool’ or ‘groovy’.
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15.Patronizing your readers: just because you’re writing for non-experts doesn’t mean you’re writing for idiots. Just as you’d be insulted if someone started explaining Greek history to you in a tone appropriate for ‘an interested 14-year-old’ so will your audience if you use that tone to talk about science and engineering. Assume that your audience is capable of understanding your subject provided you are capable of explaining it clearly. Things that make readers feel really patronized include expressions such as "of course everyone knows that the…", "…that is too complicated to go into here" or "but you don’t need to know about that"
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16.Once you’ve written your article, the job’s not done yet! The next task is editing and re-writing – everyone hates it, even the most experienced writers go through several drafts, but it’s the difference between a poor and an excellent article. Redrafting gives you the chance to check the length of the article and is an opportunity to think about the precise way that you’ve expressed yourself, so look out for jargon and long sentences, as we’ve mentioned above.
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