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A Short Course on Scientific Writing

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  1. A Short Course on Scientific Writing Prepared by Summer 2006 RET participants Advisor: Dr. Andreas Linninger based on the book entitled: The Craft of Scientific Writing by Michael Alley

  2. Technical Writing: Overview • Motivation • Part I - Structure: (3 topics) • Where to start • Organization of a technical paper • Providing Transition, Depth and Emphasis • Part II – Language (6 topics) • Precision • Clarity • Tone • Familiarity • Being Concise • Being Fluid

  3. Overview Continued • Part III – Illustration (2 topics) • Making the right choices • Creating the best designs • Part IV– Writing (6 topics) • Correspondence • Proposals • Instructions • Preparing presentations • Format • Writing the paper

  4. Motivation: The Importance of Quality Scientific Writing • For learning to occur, it is important to clearly communicate concepts • Poor writing leads to useless and confusing documents • Good writing is necessary to fund projects • Good writing is a marketable and highly valued skill

  5. Chapter 1: Deciding Where to Begin Prepared by Seth Baker RET Summer 2006

  6. Considerations for Scientific Writing As you write you must consider the complexity of the subject as well as the unique language used. • Complexity of Subject • Random (fluid dynamics) • Intricate (DNA structure) • Abstract (electron orbits) • Complexity of Language • Terms (unique vocabulary) • Abbreviations (common)

  7. Establishing Your Constraints • Audience • Who are they? • What is their level of understanding? • Why are they reading the paper? • Inform: The most information in the least amount of reading. • Persuade: Present well organized logical arguments. • Politics • Be honest • Ethical responsibility • Satisfy additional constraints

  8. Establishing Your Constraints Continued • Mechanics • Follow the rules of punctuation and grammar • Keep up with recent change • Format • Typeface, references, length of document • You may not have control over format, just follow it. • Worry about your style, that is what you can control.

  9. Elements of your Writing Style • Language – choice and arrangement of words • Six goals in scientific writing Precise Clear Familiar Forthright Fluid Concise

  10. Elements of your Writing Style • Structure • Organization of details • Transition between details • Depth of details • Emphasis of details • Illustration • Integrate the illustrations with the document • Selective in use of illustrations • Use to clarify written information

  11. Chapter 2 Structure: Organizing Your Scientific Documents Prepared by Seth Baker RET Summer 2006

  12. Sections of your Document • Beginning- Prepare for the middle section • Creating Titles • Writing Summaries • Writing Introductions • Middle- Present and explain the work • Choosing an Appropriate Strategy • Creating Sections and Subsections • End- Analyze the results • Writing Conclusion Sections • Writing the Back Matter • Appendix • Glossary

  13. Beginnings of Documents:Creating Titles • Single most important phrase of the document • A strong title orients in two ways: • Identifies a field of study for the document • Separates the document from the rest in that field Improving Solar Energy • Too General 10MWe Solar Thermal Electric Central Receiver Barstow Power Pilot Transfer Fluid Conversion Study • No “small” words, abbreviations, too many facts Proposal to Use a New Heat Transfer Fluid in the Solar One Power Plant • Good balance of terms and small words, specific topic

  14. Beginnings of Documents: Writing Summaries/Abstracts • Descriptive summaries describe the work done • table of contents in paragraph form • Informative summaries present the results of the work • give major conclusions and recommendations • Some summaries combine descriptive and informative qualities • Choose what type of summary is most beneficial

  15. Beginnings of Documents: Writing Introductions • Gives details that would not fit in summary • Creates a “map” of the paper • Includes any limitations, background information, motivations • By the end of the introduction the audience should have these answered: • What exactly is the work? • Why is the work important? • What is needed to understand the work? • How will the work be presented?

  16. Middles of Documents:Choosing an Appropriate Strategy • Chronological strategy is appropriate in discussion of a time-line or cyclic process ie: Evolution of Hawaiian volcanoes • Spatial strategy follows the physical shape of an object describing it part by part ie: Vascular structure of the human body • Variable flow strategy follows the changes of some variable ie: Wind patterns in arctic regions • Cause-effect and comparison-contrast ie: Evaluation of traditional and alternative treatments for Autism

  17. Middles of Documents: Creating Sections and Subsection • Sections show readers the strategy of the document and allow to jump to what interests • Sections should be of approximately same length and created to properly “pace” the reading • A section title should be • Indicative of the results within that section • In parallel to the other sections • If you create one section there should be a second

  18. Ending of Documents:Writing Conclusion Sections • A conclusion should • analyze as a whole the key results from the document’s middle • give a future prospective on the work: recommendations, future direction or place in the big picture • A conclusion is like an informative summary but goes into more depth

  19. Ending of Documents: Writing the Back Matter • Back matter include appendices and glossary • Appendices can present information for a variety of audiences • Background information to a less technical audience • Detailed information for the experts in the field • A glossary is a special appendix that gives background definitions to secondary audience

  20. Chapter 3Structure: Providing Transition, Depth, and Emphasis Prepared by Brian Sweetman UIC, Chicago, 1/25/2006 Instructor: Prof. Andreas A. Linninger

  21. Motivation: Structure • Organization of details within a document • Transition • The depth of information presented • Depth • The communication of important details • Emphasis

  22. Transition • Introduce the sections of the paper in a list just before they occur • As part of the body of text in sentence form. • Prepares reader • Create logical divisions that are appropriate for the audience • Form of sections should have consistency • Parallel ideas • Reader can anticipate what is coming next • Adhere to list • Appropriate Beginning

  23. Transition • Three Beginnings to Avoid • “Empty” beginning • Ionizing radiation has adverse affects on health. • “in media res” beginning – too specific • Low linear energy transfer (LET) radiation, ionize sparsely. • “Genesis” beginning – too general • Ionizing radiation has existed since the beginning of time.

  24. Transition • Use the following techniques • Introduce the subject of the section • Explain an unfamiliar term in the section heading • Important Repetition

  25. Depth • Document format • Is there a word count restriction? • Maintain consistency • Keep the same level of depth throughout • Audience interest level • Satisfy the reader’s interest by providing proper amount of detail • Anticipate the reader’s questions • Know your Audience • Technical level

  26. Depth • Document purpose • Informational • Details are limited • Emphasis on the how instead of the why – e.g. Set of Instructions • Persuasive • Include rebuttal arguments to support your position • Discuss advantages your position has over alternatives

  27. Emphasis • Repetition • Repeat what you want the reader to remember • People only remember 10-20% of what they read • Repetition is not redundant • Wording • Use dependent clauses (DC) and infinitive phrases (IP) • DC’s begin with “because,” “since,” “as,” “although,” and “when” • IP’s are action phrases and begin with the word “to” • Don’t overuse prepositional phrases • Sentences using the words “of”, “on,” “from,” “over,” etc.

  28. Emphasis Eliminate Ambiguity • Avoid: • “One of the panels on the north side of the solar receiver will be repainted with Solarcept during the February plant outage.” • Use: • “Because the February plant outage gave us time to repair the north side of the solar receiver, we repainted the panels with Solarcept, a new paint developed to increase absorptivity.”

  29. Emphasis Illustrations/Figures • Should enhance text • Scientific readers do not read every sentence • Do not overload figures • Large numbers of figures dilute significance of any one figure

  30. Emphasis Placement of Details • Bordered by white space • Titles and Headings • Beginnings and endings of sections • At the beginning or end of a paragraph • White space due to tab (indent) and space at the end of paragraph’s last line • Short following long (sentence/paragraph) • Places emphasis on short sentence. • Places emphasis on idea in short paragraph

  31. Summary Good Writing is Structured and contains these three important elements Transition Depth Emphasis

  32. Chapter 4Language: Being Precise Prepared by Vidya Rao UIC, Chicago, 2/1/2006 Instructor: Prof. Andreas A. Linninger

  33. Language: Being Precise • Precision • Most important goal of language • If your writing does not communicate exactly what you did then you have changed the work. “When a writer conceives an idea he conceives it in a form of words. That form of words constitutes his style, and it is absolutely governed by the idea. The idea can only exist in words, and it can only exist in one form of words. You cannot say exactly the same thing in two different ways. Slightly alter the expression, and you slightly alter the idea.” -Arnold Bennett • Keep in mind the audience.

  34. Choosing the Right Word • Word Meaning • Be sure to chose the word with the correct meaning. • Common mistakes can be made such as choosing affect when what is meant is effect, weight when you mean mass. • Word Grouping • Common errors occur while combining words such as stating centered around instead of centered on or revolves around, regardless of instead of irregardless of • Synonyms • Can often confuse the reader • Minimize use of a thesaurus/ meanings are often inexact • Example of words from a thesaurus: perfect-pure-unvarnished-unfinished-rough-imperfect; perfect and imperfect are antonyms • Most writers do not worry about repeating the same word if it is the right word

  35. Chose the Right Level of Detail • Achieve balance between statements • General statements (establishes the direction of thought) Example: The DOE wrote, “Our last progress report (March 1985) discussed the damage to ten solar mirrors during a February thunderstorm...” • Specific details (gives evidence to support that direction and gives the audience something concrete to remember-generalities are soon forgotten) Example: The DOE continued with, “Now, after finding high winds had caused the cracks, we have been showing all solar mirrors in a horizontal, as opposed to vertical, position during storms.”

  36. Chose the Right Level of Detail • How many details should be reported? Discern what is important. Sometimes specific details confuse the reader because they give too much information giving rise to unintentional and unwanted side issues. • Being precise does not mean compiling details; it means choose details that inform the reader. • Take a lesson from good fiction writing; specific details are what readers remember but too many make for tiresome reading.

  37. A Short Course on Scientific Writing prepared by Meaghan Fitzgerald Instructor: Prof. Andreas A. Linninger based on a book entitled The Craft of Scientific Writing by Michael Alley

  38. Language: Being Clear • What makes writing unclear? • Needless complexity • Ambiguity • Part I – Avoiding Needless Complexity • Needlessly complex words • Needlessly complex phrases • Needlessly complex sentences • Part II – Avoiding Ambiguity • Ambiguities in word choices • Ambiguities in syntax • Ambiguities in pronouns • Ambiguities in punctuation

  39. What makes writing unclear? • Clarity means avoiding things that you don’t mean • Two main sources: • Ambiguity • Needless complexity • In technical writing each sentence builds on the ones around it, so if your language is unclear your reader misses your point.

  40. Chapter 5: Language: Being Unclear Prepared by Meaghan Fitzgerald UIC, Chicago, 2/8/2006 Instructor: Prof. Andreas A. Linninger

  41. Avoiding Needless Complexity • KEEP THINGS SIMPLE • Worst problem in scientific writing • Arises in words, phrases and sentences

  42. Needlessly Complex Words • Words that don’t add precision or clarity • Ask yourself: Are the words precise? Are they clear? • Examples: • Familiarization  familiarity (nouns) • Prioritize  assess (verbs) • Personalized  personal (adjectives) • Heretofore  previous (adverbs) • Collectively, making these substitutions can have a profound effect– BE CONSISTANT • Opting for simpler word choices make your ideas more clear to your readers

  43. Needlessly Complex Words • EXAMPLE • Complex: • The objective of this study is to develop an effective commercialization strategy for solar energy systems by analyzing the factors that are impeding early commercial projects and by prioritizing the potential government and industry actions that can facilitate the viability of the projects. • Revision: • The study will consider why current solar energy systems have not reached the commercial stage and will evaluate the steps that industry and government can take to make these systems commercial.

  44. Needlessly Complex Phrases • One source: stringing modifiers in front of nouns • Nouns are steppingstones in a sentence • With too many modifiers readers don’t know where to step, • They dilute the meaning of the modifiers • And brings imprecision into the sentence • EXAMPLE: • Solar One is a 10 megawatt solar thermal electric central receiver Barstow power pilot plant. • Solar One is a solar-powered pilot plant located near Barstow, California. Solar One produces 10 megawatts of electric power by capturing solar energy in central receiver design. • EXAMPLE: • The decision will be based on economical fluid replenishment cost performance. • We will base the decision on the cost of replacing the thermal oil.

  45. Needlessly Complex Sentences • Average sentence length in technical papers = 30 words • Average sentence length in the average newspaper = 20words • EXAMPLE: • The object of the work was to confirm the nature of the electrical breakdown of nitrogen in uniform fields at relatively high pressures and interelectrode gaps that approach those obtained in engineering practice, prior to the determination of the processes that set the criterion fro breakdown in the above-mentioned gases and mixtures in uniform and non-uniform fields o engineering significance.

  46. Needlessly Complex Sentences • Why is it complex? • 61 words • 2 hyphenated • After “gaps” the sentence wonders from one prepositional phrase to another • 11 prepositional phrases • No momentum or flow through the sentence • Don’t associate shorter sentences as cure for clear writing • It is not LONG sentences that confuses readers- its COMPLEX sentences

  47. Needlessly Complex Sentences • Revision: • At relatively high pressures (760 torr) and typical electrode gap distances (1 mm) the electrical breakdown of nitrogen was studied in uniform fields. • Why its better: • 23 words • 3 prepositional phrases • Complex = too many ideas in one sentence • Ask “does the sentence inform?”

  48. Needlessly Complex Sentences • To “fix” the sentence: • Decide which details are important • Focus on one main idea • Make sure the sentence doesn’t wander • Imagine sitting across from your audience while writing • Writing styles change, but GREAT SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS ARE NOT NECESSARILY GREAT WRITERS • In scientific writing, beauty lies in clarity and simplicity.

  49. Needlessly Complex Sentences • The purpose of scientific writing is to inform, not to impress • EXAMPLE: • In that the “Big Bang” is currently the most credibly theory about how the universe was created, explains only the creation of hydrogen and helium, we are left to theorize as to how all the other elements came into being. Having studied the nuclear reactions that constitute the life and death cycles of stars, many scientists believe therein lies the key. • REVISION: • The “Big Bang” is the most credible theory for the creation of the universe. Nevertheless, the “Big Bang” explains the creation of only helium and hydrogen. What about the other elements? Many scientists believe that they arose from nuclear reactions that occur in the life and death cycles of stars.

  50. Avoiding Ambiguity • Ambiguity is created by the use of a word, phrase or sentence that can be interpreted in more than one way. • EXAMPLE: • The solar collector worked well under passing clouds. • Question: • Does the solar collector work at a height that is well below the passing clouds, or under passing clouds does the solar collector work well?