Editing your writing

Editing is an essential part of creating a clear and concise piece of writing. The editing process involves more than just correcting spelling errors or punctuation, it is an opportunity to rearrange sentences, improve the links between paragraphs, and increase the overall readability for your audience.

For all writing tasks, you should AT LEAST perform the following two checks:

Some of the examples in this section refer to fictional research involving zombie sheep and pug flatulence. Although we have had some fun with the examples, we are serious about improving writing skills.

We don’t joke about writing skills.

For more information on the fictional study, view the videos in the SAQ module and the examples in the poster module.

1. Check the structure

Have you included all the necessary sections for the genre? I.e. Introduction, methods, results, etc. Ensure you have used the correct headings and, if appropriate, used subheadings to divide sections into logical segments.

Your lecturer should provide you with details of what is expected for your assessment items. The information should include details on the type of writing task, the topic, what to include, and a word limit.

2. Check your paragraphs

Your paragraphs should create a logical flow of information or arguments. To check your assignment, write down the main point or topic of each paragraph and assess whether the topics create a coherent story. If any paragraphs jump from one topic to a completely unrelated topic, you may need to rearrange the order of your paragraphs or include extra paragraphs to improve readability. You should double-check that each paragraph is relevant to the heading or subheading (i.e. results should be in the results section).

You should have a logical flow within your paragraphs. In a similar way that paragraphs flow from one topic to the next, the paragraph sentences should guide your audience through your argument, explanation, or description.

Structuring your paragraphs

Basic paragraph

A paragraph is simply a collection of sentences that address a single topic. The basic paragraph structure includes a topic sentence or main point (often placed at the beginning) followed by supporting evidence, an explanation, more information or an analysis. This basic paragraph structure is known as the M.E.A.L format.

Not all paragraphs will fit the M.E.A.L format but it is a good foundation for the majority of paragraphs in introductions, discussions, and conclusion sections of scientific writings.

Structure of a basic paragraph

M: Main topic / claimE: EvidenceA: AnalysisL: Link to the next paragraph / conclusion
The first sentence indicates to the reader what the whole paragraph will be about. This main topic or claim can be something that you wish to explain or analyse, or a specific statement that you need to support with evidence.
Evidence is anything you use to explain or support the main topic or claim. Evidence comes in many forms and in science it often includes examples, and/or reference to your own or other people’s study results, and/or reference to published ideas or information.

The analysis section of a paragraph links the claim and the evidence. This section is your opportunity to explain to your audience why the evidence that you have provided supports the claim, or perhaps highlight the specific limitations of your evidence.

For example, why is the evidence you provided relevant to your main topic or claim? What are the limitations of the evidence you provided? What aspects of the evidence you provided do not apply in all situations? You do not need to present all of these analyses. The ones you use will depend on what your topic or claim is for that paragraph.

The final part of the paragraph can be used to provide a conclusion and/or a link to the next paragraph. This allows you to guide your reader from one claim or idea to the next and will help you to create a logical flow of information.

Argument paragraph

In scientific papers, the paragraph topic will often be stated as a claim or an argument. This is followed by sentences that include evidence from your own experiments or from another source. The evidence you provide needs to support the claim you have made in the topic sentence and ideally it should be accompanied by an analysis to highlight why the evidence supports your argument. The analysis section of your paragraph is the connection to your audience and the section where you can demonstrate your ability to use evidence to support an argument. The final sentence will often produce a link to the argument in the next paragraph.

The topic sentence of an argument paragraph is a doubted conclusion that is reinforced with evidence.

View biomedicine example
View ecology example

Explanation paragraph

A paragraph that is explaining a concept or a process usually begins with a topic sentence that is an accepted conclusion or a known fact. The sentences following the topic sentence connect a series of other accepted facts to illustrate the cause of something or explain how something works.

View biomedicine example
View ecology example

Extended argument paragraph

A paragraph in a scientific paper may not perfectly adhere to the M.E.A.L format. Some paragraphs may introduce a topic and provide evidence without an analysis or linking sentence. This can be useful when introducing a topic and leading your reader to your main arguments.

View biomedicine example
View ecology example

Rearranging your sentences

Editing your sentences can be one of the most effective ways to improve your written communication. During the writing process you may be focused on getting your thoughts down rather than paying close attention to sentence structure. This can result in unnecessarily wordy or confusing sentences.

Keep subjects and verbs close together

By placing the subject and verb close together, your audience can understand your sentences much more easily, particularly when you are addressing complex scientific topics.

Blue: subject

Red:verb

Example

Zombie sheep in areas where control measures are insufficient or absent threaten the futures of farming communities.

This sentence takes 9 words before we know what the subjects (the zombie sheep) are actually doing (threatening the futures of farming communities).

To improve the readability of your sentences, you should try to keep the subject/s and the verb as close as possible. This may not be an easy task when the sentence is describing complex scenarios or using multiple scientific terms.

Improved example

Zombie sheep threaten the futures of farming communities in areas where control measures are insufficient or absent.

The sentence could also be reworked to use the passive voice, with a focus on the farming communities:
The futures of farming communities are threatened by zombie sheep in areas where control measures are insufficient or absent.

Place unfamiliar information at the end of sentences

To improve cohesion within a paragraph, you should try to link the end of one sentence with the beginning of the next sentence. You can link sentences by placing familiar information at the beginning of a sentence and unfamiliar information at the end.

If you maintain this “familiar information -> unfamiliar information” structure throughout your paragraphs you will gradually expose your audience to new information or arguments, thus avoiding confusion.

Purple: familiar information
Green: unfamiliar information

Example

Poor cohesion:
The Pug is a small breed of dog that originated in China. Pugs became popular among the European nobility in the 16th century after they were imported from China.

Better cohesion:
The Pug is a small breed of dog that originated in China. Pugs were exported from China to Europe in the 16th century and became popular among the European nobility.

The second option above provides better cohesion between the two sentences because of the familiar -> unfamiliar sentence structure.

Check your sentences and, if necessary, rearrange them to place unfamiliar information at the end of sentences.

Active vs. passive voice

Active voice: when the subject is a person or a thing performing an action.

Passive voice: when the subject is something being affected by an action.

Blue: subject

Red: verb

 SubjectVerbObject 1Object 2
Active voiceBettydroppedthe acidon the floor.
Passive voiceThe acidwas droppedon the floorby Betty.
Pasive voice w/o objectThe acidwas droppedon the floor. 

These three sentences say exactly the same thing but in the passive sentences the focus has shifted from Betty to the acid.

When to use passive voice

Using the active voice is encouraged in scientific writing; however, there are situations where using the passive voice is more appropriate.

1. Changing the focus of a sentence to maintain cohesion.

Active voice: Approximately 67% of the global sheep population are classed as zombies. Each year, governments destroy millions of zombie sheep in an effort to reduce the population.

Initially the focus is on zombie sheep but then shifts to governments in the second sentence.

Passive voice: Approximately 67% of the global sheep population are classed as zombies. Each year, millions of zombie sheep are destroyed by governments in an effort to reduce the population.

In both sentences the focus remains on zombie sheep, resulting in good cohesion.

2. When the subject is unknown or irrelevant.
(I.e. a methods section)

Active voice: We added 1 µl of pug flatulence extract to the neural cell culture.

The ‘we’ in this sentence doesn’t provide anything meaningful to the sentence.

Passive voice: 1µl of pug flatulence extract was added to the neural cell culture.

This sentence removes the superfluous ‘we’ and focuses on the pug flatulence extract.

3. When the subject is too long.

Active voice: The zombie sheep neural cell sample exposed to high doses of hydrogen sulphide showed high rates of mortality.

This sentence uses far too many words before the action word is reached. This can result in an audience getting lost in the sentence before they understand the meaning.

Passive voice: High rates of mortality were shown by the zombie sheep neural cell samples exposed to high doses of hydrogen sulphide.

In this sentence, the audience is cued to think about high rates of mortality before reaching the lengthy section referring to the zombie sheep neural cells. By simply changing the subject, the sentence is easier to understand.

Nominalisations

What is a nominalisation?

Nominalisations are verbs that are modified to create nouns. They are common in scientific writing and are often used to make a sentence sound more scholarly.

Unfortunately, using nominalisations can turn a simple sentence into a wordy or confusing sentence. Therefore, a nominalisation should only be used if it improves a sentence.

When to use a nominalisation

Nominalisations should be used in moderation. While some nominalisations may be field-specific and refer to a familiar concept, you should only use a nominalisation if it will help your audience to understand your message.

1. Maintaining paragraph cohesion (E.g. “The neural cell cultures were incubated at 37 oC for 1 hour. Each incubation was conducted in triplicate.”)

2. Using field-specific terminology (E.g. fragmentation, destabilisation, regulation, fertilisation, incubation).

3. Reducing lengthy sentences (E.g. “The fragmenting of an ecosystem” becomes “ecosystem fragmentation“)

Nominalisation misuse

Blue: subject
Red: verb
Green: nominalisation

We analysed the data…”
using a nominalisation becomes
We performed an analysis on the data…”

We investigated the cause of…”
using a nominalisation becomes
We conducted an investigation into the cause of…”

Examples

The following examples demonstrate how the type of voice and the use of nominalisations can affect the readability of a sentence. For these examples, the sentences using the active voice with no nominalisations are generally clearer and more concise. However, as discussed in the “active vs. passive voice” section, this will not always be the preferred option.

Talking about a scientific study

Active voice: We investigated how egg consumption affects the concentration of hydrogen sulphide in pug flatulence.

Passive voice: How egg consumption affects the concentration of hydrogen sulphide in pug flatulence was investigated.

Active + nominalisation: We performed an investigation on how egg consumption affects the concentration of hydrogen sulphide in pug flatulence.

Passive + nominalisation: An investigation on how egg consumption affects the concentration of hydrogen sulphide in pug flatulence was performed.

Talking about results

Active voice: A high-egg diet increased the concentration of hydrogen sulphide in pug flatulence.

Passive voice: The concentration of hydrogen sulphide in pug flatulence was increased by a high-egg diet.

Active + nominalisation: A high-egg diet caused an increase in concentration of hydrogen sulphide in pug flatulence.

Passive + nominalisation: An increase in concentration of hydrogen sulphide in pug flatulence was caused by a high-egg diet.

Talking about methods

Example 1.

Active voice: The participants consumed a no-egg, low-egg, or high-egg diet.

Passive voice: A no-egg, low-egg, or high-egg diet was consumed by the participants.

Active + nominalisation: The participants were allowed the consumption of a no-egg, low-egg, or high-egg diet.

Passive + nominalisation: The consumption of a no-egg, low-egg, or high-egg diet was allowed for the participants.

 

Example 2.
Active voice: We added 1 µL of pug flatulence extract to the neural cell culture.

Passive voice: 1 µL of pug flatulence extract was added to the neural cell culture.

Active + nominalisation: We performed the addition of 1 µL of pug flatulence extract to the neural cell culture.

Passive + nominalisation: The addition of 1 µL of pug flatulence extract to the neural cell culture was performed.

Useful Links

Websites

Duke University scientific writing resource
View website

Bates College – how to write a paper
View website

Purdue online writing lab
View website

11 steps for writing a paper
View website

MEAL writing method
Watch video 1
Watch video 2

Judy Swan – Scientific Writing: Beyond Tips and Tricks
Watch video

Books

The Norton field guide to writing @ UQ Library OR View website

Scientific writing = thinking in words @ UQ Library

Writing science @ UQ Library

Scientific English a guide for scientists and other professionals @ UQ Library

A short guide to writing about biology @ UQ Library

Science communication: a practical guide for scientists @ UQ Library