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Textbook of Scientific and Technical Communication Writing for Engineers and Professionals
Writing is communicating: revising basic assumptions. Thinking about aim and audience. Starting to write: a practical approach. Organization and layout of information. The use of headings and numbering. Algorithms for complex possibilities and procedures. Style for readability. Writing with a computer.
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Informative summaries. Choosing and using tables, illustrations and graphic presentation techniques. Writing instructions. Writing descriptions and explanations. Writing letters and memoranda. Writing minutes and reports of proceedings. Writing in examinations. In Stock. The Media and Communications in Australia 4th edition, Unfreedom of the Press. The Editor's Companion 2ed. Stress the single underlying theme of the paper.
Do not bother with a preliminary version; you should have begun writing the paper with a preliminary draft of the Introduction. Unless the paper is very short, abstracts of fewer than words ignore detail which readers are capable of absorbing; more than words causes saturation. Verify this for yourself in a library. Write the abstract holding these numbers in the back of your mind. Once you have finished, you should reread the abstract and expand those points which are over-condensed and contract any which are over-extended. Only very rarely is the result too short; if it is only a little longer than words, boil it down on a word processor incomparable for this purpose ; if it is more than about one-and-two-thirds as long, write it again from scratch.
For use of past, present and future tenses of verbs in the abstract, please see the paragraph on tenses in the notes on the Introduction, just below. The Table of Contents This comes after the abstract because it is only after reading the abstract that browsers will know if they want to continue.
A table of contents should include all section headings, sub-section headings making clear on sight their subordinate status , and Appendices with their titles. Apart from hastening readers to any items they wish to peruse out of running order, the headings constitute useful information about the structure of the paper, and it is helpful in all but the shortest papers to list these in one place — even if the target journal does not do so. Many people, including the referee, will read the preprint.
It follows that the headings of sections and sub-sections should be usefully informative. The Introduction The Introduction is the start of the paper proper; together with the end, it therefore plays the most important part in communicating your message. It introduces the reader to the concerns you have. Unlike the Abstract it is not self-contained: it leads the reader into the main working. The Introduction is the place to set out the logical structure of the work and, additionally, to explain the overall purpose of the work and the motivation for it; the why of it.
Without this it will make no sense to the reader no matter how well written. Raise the questions that made you curious, and why you were led to do the work. Explain what was the fate of those questions: to be answered, and what those answers are; to be circumvented or transcended; or to reveal fresh questions, whose fate must in turn be discussed.
The Introduction makes the logical structure explicit, by providing a map of the paper.
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By giving readers this map in advance, you allow them to hold the whole in their heads as they navigate through the separate components — which they must do in order to learn successfully. In parallel you must set out the corresponding hierarchy of purposes, by explaining how each section advances the argument toward the goal of the entire paper. The first step in constructing a map is to define its borders and set the context of the paper, by making explicit what knowledge will be assumed of the reader, and what will be demonstrated.
In doing this you will need to refer to other works; refer to as many as you need but not more — a research paper is not a literature survey. In setting context it is helpful to quote review papers, or books. A little history is often an effective way of telling your story.
There used to be too much of this; today there is too little. If your work follows on from other published papers, quote them, but also outline what you need from them in order to make your paper readable by itself. The Introduction should make clear what was the position before your paper, and how your work changes it. Be clear about what existing material is re-interpreted or explained in your own words to assist your purpose, and what is genuinely original in your work.
Having set your context, fill in the map according to the logical structure of the material. Confirm that it satisfies the less tangible criteria of making clear the issues you address, the problems you tackle, the facts you communicate, the ideas you develop or challenge, and their positions within the discipline. Interwoven with these should be your motivations, the overall result making plain the scope of the work.
In all but the shortest papers, the Introduction also states what is done in each separate headed section of the main working. Write in such a way as to make it clear why you segmented the material as you did. Since the Introduction is the start of the paper proper, that is where you should begin your writing. Having written the paper, you then tailor the Introduction more closely to what emerged. Think of this tailoring as the last stage in writing the first draft, not the first stage in revising it. Facts are true: use the present tense to denote unchanging truths.
When telling what the authors or other researchers did, use the past tense. These rules apply from the Introduction to the Conclusion; the Abstract is a self-contained condensation of the paper to which they apply separately. The Main Working It is at this point that the individuality of the material asserts itself. Each section has a distinct structure, subordinate to the overall structure of the paper, and each sub-section has a structure which is part of the overall structure of that section, and is distinct from the structures of the other sub-sections.
Parallel with this hierarchy of sub-structures is a hierarchy of aims. The overall purpose of the work is what we called, in the previous section, the why of it. Below this, each section should have a distinct aim, subordinate to the overall purpose of the paper, and each sub-section should have an aim which is subordinate to the aim of that section, and is distinct from the aims of the other sub-sections. The skeleton of sections and sub-sections proceeds from the hierarchy which the writer sees; it is when the aim changes that a new section or sub-section should be started.
Always state at the start of a section or sub-section what its aim is so as to guide the reader throughout it to its end. At this point advice is of a different type, concerned with expository technique and style, not with the moulding of your material to the standard structure of scientific papers. The crucial unit of writing from the point of view of style is the sentence.
If you change part of a sentence you will usually have to change the rest of it, and usually not have to change adjacent sentences. The list of tips set out before the bibliography is an expansion of these principles. It is most helpfully used by comparing examples of your writing with it and then modifying these accordingly. The Conclusion The paper should end with a summing-up, which in all but the shortest papers should be a separate section.
The title of this section varies throughout the literature; commonly you will find Conclusion, Conclusions, Concluding Remarks, Summary, Summary-and-Discussion. Whatever it is called, this last section is a summing up of the material, emphasising the unity of its structure and theme, and putting it in its wider context so as to give the reader an accurate perspective on it after the close-up view. Nothing should be stated which has not already been covered in the paper itself, but it can be stated in language which presumes that the reader is familiar with the contents of the paper.
Emphasise the main points of the paper and how they alter the picture from before the paper was written. Do they alter the wider field in which the material is located; do they propose a new hypothesis or modify an accepted hypothesis; do they verify or disprove a hypothesis, or imply large changes in its plausibility? Explain to what extent the questions raised in the Introduction have been answered.
You may also state what points need following up, what lines now look promising or unpromising, and you may speculate concisely as to what lies along them. Explain if it is not obvious why your paper stopped where it did. Acknowledgements Thank your sources of funds if it is a condition of the funding, or if you feel it appropriate. Thank by name those people without whose personal intellectual influence the paper would have been significantly different. Do not hide from the responsibility of being personal at the one point where it is mandatory.
It is a matter of professionalism and courtesy to offer your thanks, and to do it gracefully. Appendices The purpose of an appendix is to accept subsidiary material, so that the reader maintains a continuous train of thought through the main development. Large amounts of data should obviously be placed in appendices. You may also need at some point in the paper to use a result which is not obvious or well-known, and which is not set out at all, or satisfactorily in the literature.
In that case you should do what you would if it were in the literature: refer to it, but set it out yourself and place it separately, in an appendix. An appendix is for material of intermediate length: if the working is short, it should be integrated into the text; if long, it should be published separately. Always give an appendix an informative title which explains its purpose to someone who has reached the point of referral to it in the main text; for example Appendix C: Data on Dialysis Rates.
References In the text, you should refer to papers which make specific points you need, and influential works which establish the context of your work. Whenever you refer to a work, make a note of it on paper or computer file and, at the end of the first draft, compile full details of every reference: authors in order and their initials, journal names in full, article titles in full, volumes, first and last page numbers journals and themed collections of papers , year of publication, publisher and place of publication and perhaps ISBN number for books, editors of themed collections such as conference proceedings.
Always conform to the style of the journal you choose. Footnotes and Endnotes Do not defer subsidiary points to footnotes at the bottom of pages.
Effective writing: improving scientific, technical and business communication
Integrate the material into the text or appendices to minimise disruption perhaps in shortened form , or drop it. The same applies to endnotes, which are deferred footnotes or ultrashort appendices. This advice is specific to science writing. We now run through the structures of other types of science writing, treating all except books as deviations from the structure set out above for a research paper. Extended review papers share the standard structure, and might include, after the Introduction, a glossary of the symbols used.
Overview papers have the standard structure. Summaries to workers outside the specialist area, and to non-scientists, often appear with no sections, having at most some one- or two-word guides to what is coming next interposed in bold between paragraphs; write these guides yourself or the journal editor will make an inferior job of it.
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Write the early part of the paper as an introduction and the end as a summing-up. After the title there is often a word outline before the article proper begins. In summary papers you are often allowed the use of boxes to make subsidiary points; our remarks about appendices apply to these. A paper written for non-scientists seldom includes citations in the text, but often gives a further reading list. Research letters, like summary papers, may have no introductory or concluding section; this is justified when they are really short, but ensure that they have introductory and concluding paragraphs.
The unit of a book is the chapter. Because a chapter in a book is typically much longer than a section of a paper, it should be subdivided; as ever, construct the skeleton according to your hierarchy of aims. Chapters should open and close with brief overviews and with material linking to the previous and following chapters.
Sometimes chapters are themselves grouped in named and numbered parts of the book, introducing another level of purpose. A book begins with the preface, in which you state your overall purpose and explain why the book is needed. It is effective to recount a little of the history of the subject. You may also outline how the book came to be written, and you should thank your helpers. A good preface will also outline the purpose of each chapter, how it fits into the overall scheme, and what previous chapters it directly depends on to assist browsing.
The importance of the preface is enormous: together with the sleeve notes, it is what browsers and potential purchasers will read to see what the book is about. It is also what readers will carry into the text. If you can persuade a well-known worker in the area to write a foreword praising the book, so much the better. Do not settle for a little-known name, which is worse than none. The foreword is placed before the preface. It is useful to summarise in a few pages the basic concepts with which the reader is assumed to be familiar.
This prologue is designed for reference and is not a tutorial; it should indicate sources from which the knowledge can be learned. Thereafter you are into the first chapter. This may be introductory or, if you consider the preface already to have introduced the material, it begins the main working.
Some books set out a separate list of references for each chapter, either at the end of chapters, or collected together, chapter by chapter, at the end of the book. This prevents browsing of the complete set of references, makes the references harder to find, and causes the same item to be detailed more than once when it is referred to in different chapters.
However, the end of each chapter is a good place to comment on significant papers to which that chapter has referred.
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At the end of the book is an index, whose function is to tell the reader where in the book a subject is mentioned. The index is best made by going through the text, after this has been completed and paginated, and tagging every significant appearance of a word or phrase which you wish to include. These are then compiled in alphabetical order. The process can be done electronically or manually.
Do not tag every technical word, or every trivial appearance of a word; this will not assist anyone. Include acronyms, and give their expanded versions. Where two entries are closely related, give cross-references. Where appropriate, arrange topics in sub-entries. You may have a separate index for names, or you may combine this with the subject index. All appearances of names of persons should be logged. An advanced textbook might do so, at the end of each chapter; an elementary textbook must have them, and should integrate them with the text.
Do not relegate anything but the most routine of results to questions: readers might fail to acquire skills by ignoring the questions, but they should not lose any significant information. Finally, do not use boxes to segregate information in books. Integrate all technical information into the text or put it in appendices; defer biographical information about scientists, or comments about notable papers, to ends of chapters.
The requirement that the author simulate the reader is most demanding here, for this is where the gap between the two is widest. It is very hard for an expert continually to maintain the lay point of view; yet only the expert knows the facts. This is the most demanding form of science writing: fail even briefly to hold both viewpoints, and you will lose the reader — for good. Experts become accustomed to technicalities and fail to see them as such; or they may dismiss an ambiguity using expert information unknown to non-scientists; or egotism in keeping it complicated may creep in.
It is therefore vital to get feedback on preliminary versions of the paper from non-experts. Raise it at the start by reassuring the reader that the article is designed for non-experts, and keep it high.
For example, if in doubt about whether to make a point you consider obvious, do so: some readers will need it, and the rest will have their confidence boosted by being told something they already know. Use as few technical terms as you can, and define them explicitly where they first appear; context is not enough.
Be selective: some truths are more important than others. It is not necessary to sacrifice accuracy, only to avoid arguments off the main stem. Prune continually the tree of arguments, while ensuring that its parts remain connected; articles often read well superficially but are found to contain logical jumps on closer reading. Do, however, indicate how to reach obviously related topics which interested non-scientists may have heard of. Accept that you can only go so far: the correct response to a non-scientist requesting more than a certain depth of detail is an invitation to take a formal course.
Use figures to illustrate points where you can. Use plenty of analogies; effective ones are always imagistic and made with things familiar to non-scientists. Make plain the limits of your analogies, or your readers will export them too far. In popular books, avoid the temptation to abuse your position as an expert on one subject in order to hold forth on others in which you are no better qualified than your readers.
The urge to metaphysics and ethics is notorious. Even if writing of this sort sells books, it demeans the scientific content of your exposition. Imagery is part of both private thinking of which writing is a part and public expository writing. It is vital in revealing structure. Some classic examples from science are molecular structure diagrams in organic chemistry, and Feynman diagrams in physics. If you have a picture in mind, use words — nouns, verbs, adjectives — that conjure up pictures.
Many scientific terms began as analogies with everyday usage, and these are particularly helpful. Analogy engages the imagination. Many diagrams — maps, for example — present large amounts of information to the reader in a form the eye and brain has evolved to understand very rapidly. Illustration is effective because imagery is part of thought. An illustration is a pictorial representation of information, often a very compact one. Illustrations catch the eye; they are often looked at first, and so they should have self-explanatory captions and be placed as soon as is possible after that part of the text which refers to them.
Figures illuminate text — they cannot stand alone. Each illustration should make a single point; to make a second point, use a second illustration — even if it looks similar to the first. It has a different purpose. Tables are useful when comparison is to be done; for example, tables of car prices and performance parameters in motoring magazines. These tips are more piecemeal than the previous material. The flow of the paper must be kept even: there is an optimal rate to impart information.
Too slow and the reader is bored rare in papers ; too fast as in many letters journals and the reader becomes dizzy. Too uneven and the reader confuses major and minor points, so allocate the appropriate amount of explanation to every point. Papers are ruined by over-explanation as well as by under-explanation. An example is unwitting tautology — saying the same thing twice, rather than developing it see Barrass, table 10, p If for emphasis you repeat a point, with differing phraseology, make it plain that you are repeating; otherwise the reader will fail to detect any difference but still believe there is one, and become confused.
Make sure a point sticks by locating and anchoring it in its proper place in the logical structure of the paper; anchoring means relating it to what goes before and after it. For non-trivial points, state explicitly how important they are. The book by Kapp in the bibliography below is good on the rate of flow in a paper. At the level of individual sentences, punctuation is a rate-determinant. You can cause it to be generated, by creating the desire to know for example, so that the reader feels satisfaction at the answer. Techniques for doing this include writing as a joint search after truth, or posing and answering questions; questions emphasise mystery and heighten drama.
These techniques are useful at transitions between sections where your purpose changes. The principle that the start and end of a paper are more important generally applies at the smaller scale. Make your writing sequentially comprehensible. Otherwise, it is not understandable in a single pass and the reader must go back and forth; flow and authority are lost.
For the flow of logic, this is done by writing teleologically; for the flow of words it is done by making sure that every sentence is sequentially comprehensible; then every paragraph; and so on. Minimise referrals ahead except in the Introduction and keep track of them; never refer ahead implicitly. Readers parse sentences — resolve them by rules of grammar into their component parts — so make this process easy. Always avoid ambiguity. Ambiguity may be introduced accidentally and never resolved, in which case readers have to resolve it for themselves or remain confused; or it may be resolved soon after often earlier and later in the same sentence , in which case the reader has to jump back, disrupting the flow.
Lurking ambiguity is a common cause if a sentence jars on reading. It is particularly difficult to spot your own ambiguities, since authors tend to see what they mean in their pieces rather than what they say; this is a strong reason why others should read your paper before submission. Words having more than one meaning are usually unambiguous in context; ensure the context is a familiar one to readers. Where you are speculating, use only one speculation-word per sentence.
You should not cover the subjective with a veneer of the objective. In the first it is on the wire, in the second on the current. Spoken style uses words to separate ideas instead of paragraph breaks, and repeats material more often to give the listener, who cannot now jump back if confused, time to grasp the ideas. For emphasis, use italics or bold, or underlining or single inverted commas. Use as much emphasis as you like in the first draft and then prune it heavily. In general, italicise only single words; only very rarely whole phrases.
If something remains unclear, say so clearly; do not lapse into a lofty or mystical style to make the point.
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If you are speculating, say so. Never be deliberately subtle; subtle nuances reflect the way you think on the fine scale, but people differ widely and these nuances will not be picked up by others. Beware of egotistical writing. In particular, prefer understatement to overstatement, which will turn the reader against you. In deciding whether to use the general or the specific, begin with the specific if the general can be grasped only after thought, and begin with the general if that is immediately comprehensible, and then bring out specific consequences [Kapp, chapter 11].
In going from the general to the specific, choose cases that are representative, simple and telling. If possible, use a graded series of examples. Write as concretely as you can. Many books on science writing have useful lists of weak words or phrases, or words that warn something has gone wrong. These lists should not be learned verbatim, but their motivation should be taken to heart. Remember that you are writing for a worldwide audience, not all having English as first language.
Because of its hybrid origins, English often has a wider choice of words for something, differing in overtones. These overtones will not be picked up non-native English speakers, so be as expressive as you need but never more so. Maintain consistent conventions throughout. For example, if you hyphenate a word eg non-linear , do not later run the two halves together nonlinear. Sentence construction is flexible enough to be recognisably personal.
Therefore, like personality, it is beyond full encapsulation in a set of rules, and remains a craft which must be learned by exposure to examples together with guided tuition. The principles below should be seen in that context. They are based on experience and are not systematic.
Necessary for a sentence to read well is that it shall be comprehensible in a single pass, from the beginning to the end with no logical jumps back. In English sentences there is great flexibility in the order of clauses: exploit this. If a sentence is clumsy, try re-ordering it which may alter emphases or repunctuating it, or moving the full stops [periods]: for example, you may split it in two, or merge it with the previous or following sentences.
It is not long sentences which confuse, but ones with complicated structure. Nevertheless, scientists who are not expert in English can best avoid ambiguity or other trouble by keeping sentences short.