“Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.” --Matthew Arnold
Deserved or not, scientists and engineers have a reputation as bad writers. An average person reading a scientific journal paper will likely come away numb within a few sentences. Much of that is due to the complexity of the subject and a writing style that assumes a readership of knowledgeable peers. Some of that reputation is deserved, as many writers in our field either do not value clear and concise prose or do not know how to achieve it.
If you feel that you are not as good a writer as you want to be, what can be done? Specifically, how can you improve your writing for a scientific journal paper? Style is a layered concept, and learning to improve your style means mastering words and grammar first, clear and accurate sentences next, then paragraphs that communicate complex thoughts well, and finally an organized whole that contributes to the accumulated knowledge of science (see Chapter 2). If that sounds like a big task, it is because it is.
Much of the job of learning to write well is independent of genre (at least in the case of nonfiction writing). But some aspects of writing a good scientific paper are unique to the scientific style. Thus, I’ll begin by talking about good writing in general and end with the scientific style in particular.