General Guidelines for Scientific Writing

The objective of your writing assignments is to illustrate that you are doing or have done, and that you understand how your specific project fits within broader fields of physics. We want to see that you understand why your research is important, and that you can explain it to a fellow physics major.

Scientific writing is not easy; you must work at it. We have provided some guidelines and advice that should help you in your efforts.

(1) The hardest thing about scientific writing is to explain complicated concepts in a way that someone else can understand. This is no easy task; be prepared to revise your writing many times to achieve clarity.

(2) “A picture is worth a thousand words.” It is very difficult to construct good self-explanatory figures and captions, but they are worth the effort. There are many possibilities in constructing a figure. (i) Put more than one curve, each clearly labelled on a plot. (ii) Use an inset in the figure to show a geometry, a blow-up of a curve, or an experimental setup. (iii) Put two figures on top of or next to each other in order to gain enhanced understanding from the fact that the eye can directly compare them.

(3) The figure caption is an integral part of the figure. The editorial style of the caption is as follows: The first “sentence'” of a caption is not a sentence but a label (i.e. no verb). All subsequent sentences must be sentences (i.e. subject, verb, and object). The figure with its caption must be able to stand on its own. Don’t say important things can be found in the text.

(4) The fundamental unit of writing is a sentence.  “Use the active voice; it has more impact.”‘ If you doubt this, contrast the sentence above (actually two sentences joined by a semicolon) with its passive voice alternate: “the active voice is to be preferred for its greater impact.” Every sentence must be understandable on its own terms. If you find yourself saying  “A second sentence will make this first one clear,'” go back and rewrite the first until it is clear on its own.

(5) A paragraph consists of sentences assembled to make a single point. If you discover two (or more!) points in one paragraph, break it up. There is no minimum number of sentences in a paragraph.

(6) Paragraphs can be constructed in several ways. (i) The most conventional and easiest pattern for a scientific writer is to start with a sentence that gives the point to be made. Subsequent sentences develop the argument so that by the end of the paragraph the point is made. (ii) Alternately the paragraph has a smooth introduction from the last paragraph and then goes into an argument whose concluding sentence is the point of the paragraph. Use this less often than (i). (iii) Really brilliant writers can place the point of a paragraph in the middle and still be clear. Neither you nor I are that good. If you find the main point in the middle of a paragraph, rewrite!

(7) Tricks of the trade. To help the reader find things in the paper, consider using: (i) an italicized (or underlined) phrase at the beginning of the paragraph to alert the reader to the subject matter (as we did here), (ii) numbered subpoints so the reader can easily find them (as we have done several times), (iii) display equations (as opposed to inline equations) to define the most important symbols, and (iv) detailed labels on figures to identify curves.

(8) The most common style errors are: (1) Using different symbols or phrases for the same concept. Once you carefully pick a symbol or phrase stick to it; do not redefine your notation; (2) Omitting the hyphens from unit modifiers. (Definition: a unit modifier is two or more adjectives or nouns which as a whole serve as a single adjective. Put hyphens between parts of a unit modifier.) Example: spin-polarized neutrons.

(9) The proposal must be thorough, but the writing should be concise, succinct. Do not underestimate the power of the simple declarative sentence. Shun flowery language, technical jargon, and unexplained terms or acronyms. Do not assume your reader will automatically understand abbreviations such as XAFS or WIMPS’s; define these terms precisely— x-ray absorption fine structure (XAFS), weakly interacting massive particles (WIMP).

(10) Include only necessary equations! There is a terrible tendency to include lots of equations. The best research proposals include no equations at all, and your final paper should include only equations that are necessary to understand results you are presenting. If you feel you need a bunch of equations, try making a figure or a table that indicates the procedure. Self-explanatory figures demonstrate that you know what you are doing. (We recognize that it is difficult to construct good figures and nearly impossible to construct good tables.)

Acknowledgments The advice given in this handout is based on advice distributed by Prof. J. Wilkins of the Ohio State University Physics Department and by the Research Corporation. It has been collated and assembled by J. Freericks and A. Liu, with minor modifications by J. S. Urbach.

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