What is wrong with your scientific writing?

scientific writingThere Is Often Nothing “Wrong” with Your Scientific Writing

…But Most Authors DO Need an Editor


I was recently asked by an author, “What is wrong with my scientific writing?” Many of my authors (including this particular one) are very good writers and many of them have a primary language other than English.

I find that often articles (eg, a, an, the) are missing from sentences, but there may not be many things “wrong” with the writing per se. Because word counts are very important to the publication process, I try to simplify and reduce the word count wherever possible. As I have noted in various revisions of your documents, there are some phrases that can be replaced by one word, but there is nothing really “wrong” with using those phrases. For example, “On the other hand,…” (4 words) can be replaced by “However,…” (1 word); “more straightforward…” (2 words) can be replace by “direct…” (1 word). I often find that word choice can be improved (authors often use general rather than specific terms). I have also observed that many people write very LONG sentences, which are almost always hard to understand and can usually be divided into two simpler sentences.

My goal as an author’s editor is to try to identify and avoid or eliminate “speed bumps” in American English—things that might cause a reviewer to struggle with understanding a scientific document and cause them frustration. There are a number of things that I do to try to ensure the consistency and coherence of a document. My process is usually as follows:

First Pass: Spell check—while doing this I can usually speed read the document and see what sentences might be complex enough to cause a “speed bump.” This allows me to get a basic understanding of the content of the document. For example, I check for omission of articles (a, an, the), and I check for a number of simple errors (e.g., two spaces rather than one, spaces before or after periods, use of hyphen when an “en” dash should be used, etc.).

Second Pass: I reduce the word count if possible and I try to ensure consistency in style and terminology. I try to identify the use of abbreviations and acronyms and ensure that their definitions are present. Often abbreviations simply aren’t needed and I eliminate them. I verify that figures and tables are cited and present; you might be surprised at how often they are not present or are misplaced! I verify that figure and table titles are present and used consistently; I check word usage (e.g., use of “amount” when “number” is meant); I identify and clarify or flag ambiguous sentences. I check consistency of verb tense—to try to maintain overall consistency (e.g., past tense for a Results section).

Third/Fourth Pass: I read the document word-for-word, keeping all of the above in mind. If I identify an error in methods or logic or science, whatever, I change, rewrite, or flag it. Finally, I verify that the reference citations are present and accounted for in the Reference list. I do not verify the accuracy of citations or journal references unless this is requested; that takes too much time. Most academic clients would have students or others who can verify citations and references (which is what I would recommend). However, if a citation is missing from the reference list (or vice versa) I will flag it. If requested, I can format the document to conform to specific journal requirements. This can take a lot of time and would cost more money; if a client has a secretary available, it might be best to pass this task to him/her.

Overall, there are several hundred specific things I check within a document submitted for editing—a typical journal manuscript (<5000 words) takes me about 4 hours to complete. My goal is to reduce the number of things that might cause a reviewer to misunderstand or ignore or become frustrated with reading the science—that is, I try to eliminate the “speed bumps.” If you have specific questions about my suggestions (and my changes and comments are only suggestions) you can certainly ask me about them. I send this note (below) to all first-time clients; if you think it can be improved for better understanding of what I/ScienceDocs offers, please let me know!

I edited your manuscript for spelling, grammar, clarity, consistency, cohesion, and coherence. My “Comments” are questions, suggestions, or alternatives that you might consider. Briefly, copyediting corrects spelling errors, grammar, punctuation, misplaced modifiers, changes in tense, problems in parallelisms, and the use of inappropriate language. In addition, copyediting includes changing passive voice to active voice where appropriate and developing a consistent style and tone. I usually find it necessary to perform substantive editing, which includes all of the features of copyediting with particular attention to the structure, organization, and concepts. This ensures an appropriate pace, uniform tone and clear focus, eliminating wordiness, triteness, and jargon, and smoothing transitions and positioning sentences to improve readability.


Learn more about Scientific Writing Expert and Editor Dr. Wernette wernette_2014_web


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