Advice on writing assignments and theses

Preparation – Know what you want to say. Sounds trivial, but it isn’t. Before you start writing, explain your main point in 3 min to a friend. If you fail, think about your story again.

Start writing early, ideally starting from the first day – when writing, you will find flaws in your logic that you didn’t see before, and you can correct your direction. “The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say.” (Mark Twain)

Mindset – Make your goal, above all, clarity of thought and expression, and irrefutable logic of your argument. Google and read Woodford, F. (1967) Sounder thinking through clearer writing. Science, 156, 743.

Modesty – Think of your essay or thesis as a piece of craftsmanship. You are an apprentice and you are asked to make a chair. What is expected of you is a simple piece of work that respects the rules you have been taught, and that is, above all, solid. You are not expected to add fancy ornamentation that might be used by an ingenious master craftsmen, and you are not asked to produce a entire set of furniture that would suffice to fit out a house. You would gain admiration and praise if you could manage to achieve one of the latter, but likely you will fail to even produce the very thing you were asked for while trying – a simple, solid chair. Bottomline – stay conventional and modest in what you want to achieve, but ambitious in quality!

Style – Writing is difficult. Good writing is incredibly hard. If you think writing is no problem for you, you probably haven’t even realized the extent of your writing problems. Read

  • My lecture notes on scientific writing (I don’t have then linked here, but I’ll send you a link upon request). The second part is about style. The first part discusses in detail expectations for the different parts (introduction, methods, discussion) or research papers. Respect conventions.
  • This blog post by Brian McGill. The most important point of this post in my opinion: “The battle for good writing is won sentence by sentence! A good sentence is: short, has the subject and verb together, has an active verb, has the points of emphasis at the beginning and end, and moves the reader along from a familiar launch point at the start to the new information at the end.”
  • Writing tips by Mark Twain. Especially this one: “As to the Adjective: when in doubt, strike it out.”
  • Gopen, G. D. & Swan, J. A. (1990) The Science Of Scientific Writing. Am. Sci., 78, 550-558.

Disclaimer – Different people / disciplines have different opinions about writing. You can’t “prove” the correctness of style, so be adviced that my suggestions are no natural laws and can be overruled by you as wells as your supervisor or the editor of whatever journal you submit your work to.


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