Writing in Science Notes

Here're my notes for coursera Writing in Science. The lecture provides detailed information on the whole process of academic writing.

Section 1: general ideas

  1. verbs drive sentences whereas nouns slow them down.(selection -> select)
  2. principles of effective writing
    1. cut unnecessary words and phrases
    2. use active voice (instead of passive voice)
    3. write with verbs: use strong verbs
  3. “it is well known" -> delete and replace by citation
  4. cut unnecessary things:
    1. dead weight words: it is known,
    2. empty words: important
    3. long phrase -> short
    4. unnecessary acronyms and jargon
    5. repetitive words: successful solutions
    6. adverbt: very, quite
    7. eliminate negative: dont like a-> like (una)
    8. eliminate there is/are :
    9. omit needless prepositions介词:

Section 2: general ideas(2)

  1. advantage of active voice:
    1. emphasize author responsibility
    2. improve readability
    3. reduce ambiguity
  2. use passive voice for when..
    1. what was done is more important than who did it (method section)
  3. we can use I and we:
  4. write with verb
    1. use strong verb: verbs make sentences live.
      1. e.g., report approximately -> estimate
      2. substitute to be verbs with more powerful words
    2. avoid turning verbs into nouns
      1. assessment, estimates, emphasis..
    3. don't bury main verb
      1. keep the subject and main verb close together at the beginning of the sentence

Section 3: how to write a paragraph

  1. write strong paragraph
    1. use punctuation
      1. use colon to provide definition
      2. semicolon
        1. show 并列关系
        2. separate items that contain internal punctuation
      3. dash: add emphasis, insert an abrupt definition/description
  2. rule of three: when the number of examples is arbitrary, three is a good choice.
  3. parallel structure:
    1. a do b and c do d. Keep consistent with same sentence structure
  4. paragraph level:
    1. a paragraph = 1 idea(not more)
    2. use short paragraph: 3,4,5 sentences in one para: more focused, provide white space
    3. give punchline first/early and details later
    4. logical flow of ideas:
      1. sequential in time,
      2. general -> specific(take home message first)
      3. logiacl argument: if a, then b; a therefore b
  5. how to edit a paragraph:
    1. take a big view: what the author want to say
    2. keep the key points and remove the clutter
  6. repetition
    1. ask whether we need the second expression or we can delete
    2. use reprted word is ok: repeat key words
  7. acronyms: only use standard acronyms like RNA
    1. define the acronyms IN EACH SECTION

Section 4: three steps for writing

  1. step in writing process
    1. prewriting
      1. collect,synthesizemorganize information
      2. brainstorm take-home information
      3. work out ideas away from laptop
      4. develop a outline/road map
    2. write the first draft
      1. put the facts and ideas together in organized prose
    3. revision
      1. read ouit loud
      2. get rid of clutter
      3. verb check
      4. get feedback from others
  2. pre-writing
    1. gather and organize the information before writing
      1. when reading, extract the useful things(statistics, details, idea, expression..) that I may use in draft into a single document, and then move the material around the document to organize it
        1. also, place all original sources in folder in case I need to find again
    2. develop a road-map
      1. whats going in each section/paragraph, arrange the key facts/citations into that road-map
    3. brainstorm away from the computer
      1. write on the go: while exercising, driving alone, waiting in line..
    4. tips about organization:
      1. similar ideas should be grouped (into one paragraph).
  3. writing first draft:
    1. dont be perfectionist
    2. focus on logical organization, take-home message, high level idea instead of sentence-level details
    3. write the first draft quickly and efficiently
  4. revise
    1. read writing loud
    2. verb check: strong verb, active, verb bury with noun
    3. cut the clutter word
    4. do an organizational review
      1. in the margin of paper, TAG each paragraph with a phrase/sentence of its main point
      2. move paras to improve logical flows, group similar paras tpgether
  5. checklist for revision
    1. check for consistency: of fact
    2. check for numerical consistency:
    3. check your references

Section 5: How to write a academic manuscript

  1. break your writing task into small and realistic goals: e.g., write 400 words today
  2. recommending orders for writing:
    1. table and figure: each table n figure should have a clear point. And together they should tell the story of your manuscript. -> figure out the story that ur table and figure tell
    2. result: follow the story of table and figure. Give a HIGH LEVEL SUMMARY of each table and figure
    3. method
    4. introduction
    5. discussion: most writing, most complex,
    6. abstract
  3. Table and figure
    1. reviewers may first look at table and figures -> Figures and tables should stand alone and tell a COMPLETE story.
      1. Acronyms have to be defined.
      2. experimental details need to be defined.
      3. each table/figure should say a clear point and u should know whats that and stick to that.
    2. use the FEWEST figures/tables needed to tell the story -> concise
    3. dont present same data in both a table n a figure
    4. use figure to highlight the most important result -> visually appealing
    5. table format:
      1. be consistent, and repeat key terms
      2. follow the requirement/other paper for the conference
    6. if the figure is too complex, try to transfer it into table
  4. result
    1. summarize what the data show:
      1. simple relationship,
      2. describe big-picture trend
      3. only cite the number that is important
    2. if long results, subsections and with heading
    3. give precise values not available in figure
    4. complement the information in table
    5. results section is about what data 'show'(the basic finding); discussion section is about what data 'mean'(interpretation of finding)
    6. verb tense:
      1. past tense for completed action(experiment, find..
      2. present tense: assertions that continue to be true(the table show/believe/suggest..)
      3. use active voice
  5. method
    1. give a clear overview of what was done
    2. give enough information to replicate the study
      1. break into subsection
      2. cite commonly used method
      3. display in a flow diagram or table
    3. who, what, when, where, how, why of the paper
      1. who maintain the records?(data)
      2. what method was used
      3. when was it done
      4. where were the records kept
    4. material part: data that recreation will need
    5. be creative
    6. verb tense:
      1. report methods in past tense:  we measured
      2. present tense to describe how data are presented
  6. introduction
    1. three paragraphs long(recommend range: 2~5)
    2. should shpae the whole introduction around the specific research question/hypothesis
    3. cone structure of introduction
      1. background, known knoledge
      2. knowledge gap, unknown information: what's the flaws of present methods
      3. hypothesis, question, purpose statement:
      4. approach, proposed solution: how it fills the gap
    4. keep each paragraph short
    5. write for a GENERAL audience: clear, concise, non-technical
    6. step by step: known -> unknown -> our hypothesis (reviewers will scan the introduction to find the hypothesis)
    7. in introduction, give only high level of previous research, broadly with their problems
  7. discussion
    1. give you the most freedom, most challenging to write
    2. structure: invert the cone:
      1. answer the question asked in the end of introduction
      2. support your conclusion with your data and others' data(how your results fit into context of the literature)
      3. defend your conclusion(anticipate criticism and against them)
      4. give the big-picture take-home message: impart what your results mean and why people should care(implication)
    3. a detailed template:
      1. key finding: we found that .., then explain what data mean, state if the findings are novel
      2. key secondary findings: similar pattern
      3. context:give possible mechanism, compare with others result, discuss how my finding support/challenge paradigm,
      4. strength and limitation: anticipate readers question-> explain why results are robust
      5. whats next: (future study) recommended confirmatory studies('need to be confirmed'), point out unanswered question
      6. "so what", implication,speculate, recommend: give big picture implications of biasic science finding, why people should care
      7. (strong conclusion: give a final take-home message)
    4. discuss based on your data, dont travel too far away from your data
    5. a good weakness is a mark of good paper: acknowledge the critical limitation
    6. make take-home message clear and consistent(with the data)
    7. verb tense:
      1. past: study details, results, analyses, backgorund research
      2. present: data suggest
  8. abstract:
    1. overview of the main story
    2. give highlight from each section of paper
    3. limited length(100~300 words typically)
    4. stand on its own
    5. structure:
      1. background: one sentence. give context
      2. question/aim/hypothesis: we hypothesis/ask.. (restate the introduction question)
      3. experiment: quick summary of key materials and method
      4. results: key results found, minimal raw data(prefer summary)
      5. conclusion: the answer to the question asked/take-home message
      6. implication, recommendation

Section 6: ethical issues

  1. plagiarism
    1. you must understand the material well to put it in your own words
    2. work from your memory, never start with someone else's text
    3. mimic the original author's sentence structure or re-arrange the words is still plagiarism
    4. use google to detect plagiarism
    5. self-plgairism: recycle own writing in different paper as new result
  2. authorship:
    1. think about authorship before you write
    2. take the responsibility of its content
  3. acknowledgement: funding source, contributors who didnot get authorship
  4. submission process
    1. identify a journal for submission(before writing)
    2. follow the online instruction for authors for writing and format
    3. submit manuscript online
    4. get results
    5. resubmit: resubmit with cover letter addresses the critiques point by point
  5. peer review:


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