Saturday, May 8, 2010

Guidelines for writing, pt. 1

I've spent some time thinking about it, so I suppose I had better get started. These are the first few points I've thought of for my personal list of writing guidelines for a scientific paper. I've tried to focus on the issues that I find most problematic when reading other papers. Some are technical while others are cosmetic. Of course, I can't claim that the following suggestions are without their own flaws, so judge them critically and apply them in any manner you see fit. In no particular order:

  1. Figure captions should be able to stand alone. Do not include abbreviations or references to the text.
  2. Make all your points in the introduction, figures and their captions, and conclusion. Use the body of the text to add detail and repeat your main points.
  3. Eliminate redundant and unnecessary words. My favorite example from papers on light scattering is the term "material system" for describing matter that interacts with light. Either "material" or "system" can work, but using both just takes up space.
  4. Do not list the paper's section titles and their descriptions as is commonly done in the last paragraph of the introduction. Almost every experimental paper (at least in optics and physics) follows the same format of introduction/theory/experiment/results/conclusion, so an outline of the paper is rarely needed by the reader.
  5. Use descriptive titles for sections. Compare "Theory" to "Model for Partially Developed Speckle."
  6. Use one tense throughout. I prefer past tense since you are reporting what procedure you followed and the results you obtained to the scientific community, not experiments that you are currently doing.
  7. Do not refer to previous publications to describe experimental setups.
Feel free to add your own. I will be adding more in time.