Scientific writing doesn’t come naturally to most of us and is a craft that is honed over a lifetime of practice. One thing that can make the process of writing and getting feedback from your PI less painful (for all parties) is making a writing checklist. This checklist can be used on early drafts to help you catch common mistakes, improve the baseline quality of your writing and help the process seem less arbitrary. While the composition of this list can vary wildly, I’ve assembled one below based on some of the things that come up frequently when I’m editing drafts from my lab.
- Is your background pertinent? Rather than generic background for your research topic, is the background sufficient to help readers understand only the information that will be included in the rest of the text? Cut unrelated background. Add information that a scientist outside your field needs in order to understand the concepts you’ll discuss (be aware of your audience).
- Is your text free of unnecessary jargon? Never use shorthand to discuss experiments, ideas or tools. Do your sentences make sense if you replace all jargon/shorthand with their definitions (i.e. are all parts of speech appropriate)? Minimize and only use standard acronyms.
- Have you used appropriate segues? Don’t jump around from one idea to another without appropriate explanation or transition. Can you lead into an idea by providing rationale and segue to the next by providing interpretation?
- Have you ordered your results appropriately? It’s tempting to write things in the order in which they have been done chronologically. That is not always/rarely the most clear way to present outcomes. Take a look at all the data in aggregate, make a narrative and order accordingly.
- Is what you’ve written factually correct based on the evidence/data/literature? Use language that makes it clear what is a result and what is interpretation/conjecture.
- Is the main point (or main 2-3 points) of your writing exceptionally clear? Can a reader easily summarize the essence of what you’ve written? If the ideas and concepts seem muddled to you, they surely will seem muddled to the reader.
- Attention to detail: have you caught all typos? Have you capitalized, italicized and hyphenated correctly in gene/protein/mutant names? Have you run the text through spell check and a grammar checker (many of these are available online)? These may seem secondary to the science, but sloppiness on this front is impossible to overlook and will completely change how your writing is perceived.
- Have you gotten feedback from peers (including more junior colleagues in your lab who should be able to understand if your writing is clear)? This also means you have to finish a draft in time to get feedback and make changes! Also, after some rounds of revision, set aside and come back to edit yourself with fresh eyes. Some mistakes are impossible to see yourself once you’ve been staring too long at the same text. You can even give this checklist to your peers evaluating your writing as a sort of rubric for them to confirm you have adhered to key principles. This can improve the quality of the feedback you receive.
- Is your draft of sufficient quality to represent you and your thoughts/work? Do a brief thought exercise. Your PI is definitely your safety net and your last line of defense, but assume for a moment that your PI isn’t going to stop you from making big mistakes. What if your draft were to go out into the public with your name on it but without additional input from your PI? Take responsibility for your writing. Many issues can be resolved by just asking if what you’ve written is truly the best you can do. This point is made beautifully here: (h/t @greenescientist for this link).
- Importantly, go through this checklist BEFORE sending what you’ve written to your PI. If you catch errors that anyone can catch, your PI can focus on giving you the help that only they can provide. And if you repeatedly get a few different comments from your PI on many drafts, add additional items to the checklist for future use (i.e. ask yourself the questions you already know your PI is going to ask).
Formalizing some of the editing process can help writing consistency and quality. I hope this can serve as a starting point to stimulate your thinking on what you’d like to include in your own writing checklist.