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Education and Outreach Programs Division

Features of Good Scientific Writing

Striving for Clarity, Cohesion, and Conciseness

Regardless of whether you are writing a lengthy report, a peer review, or an abstract, the objective of writing remains the same - to find the most direct path connecting your main message(s) to your reader. This path is shortest and most unobscured when writing is clear, concise, and cohesive; therefore the qualities most sought after in written communications are just those: CLARITY, COHESION, and CONCISENESS.

Clarity

Writing is clear when it is devoid of ambiguity, is simple, and is logical. As the DOE SULI Guidelines point out, nearly every person who has read scholarly scientific reports emphasize that clear, uncomplicated exposition of the research and its findings is the single most important factor which separates good reports from bad” (pg. 5).

Bad Example:

If possible, it is suggested to plant buffers using a three-zone approach.”

Problem: The sentence is awkward and ambiguous because the reader does not know to whom it” is referring.

Good Example:

If possible, a three-zone approach should be used to plant buffers (Correll, 2005).” OR Correll (2005) recommends using a three-zone approach to plant buffers, if possible.”

Why these work: The last two examples finally tell us who the it” is, making the sentence more clear. When making claims in scientific writing that do not constitute general knowledge, always cite sources for the purpose of accuracy and clarity.

Cohesion

Writing is cohesive when ideas presented are connected to one another and appear in an orderly pattern. Cohesion is reinforced in writing through structure. When different ideas are separated by proper punctuation, spacing, and headings, their meanings are more accessible to readers. Cohesion is also reinforced through the use of transitional phrases like then,” after,”  however,” and thus,” which illustrate a pattern of relation between two or more ideas.

Bad Example:

International policies like the Kyoto Protocol have emphasized the need to increase efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and increase carbon storage in non-atmospheric pools. Harvested wood products (HWPs) include all wood materials that leave a forest after a harvest. Not only are they important for certain sectors of the economy, such as shipping and manufacturing, but they also serve as a terrestrial carbon stock.”

Problem: This paragraph is not cohesive because the subject of the paragraph switches between sentence 1 and sentence 2 without a clear transition. The subject of the first sentence is international policies.” The subject of the second sentence is harvested wood products.” Until we read the last phrase of the final sentence, we have no idea how the two subjects might be related.

Good Example:

International policies like the Kyoto Protocol have emphasized the need to increase efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and increase carbon storage in non-atmospheric pools. One way carbon is stored is through harvested wood products, which include all wood materials that leave a forest after a harvest. These products, which already play an important role in shipping and manufacturing, now have a role to play in advancing global environmental initiatives.”

Why this works: This paragraph is more cohesive because it is clear how each sentence links to one another. The second sentence draws from the information provided in the first sentence (specifically the reference to carbon storage) to introduce HWPs. Similarly, the final sentence links back to the topic of the very first sentence (the international policies).

Conciseness

Writing is concise when it is brief and to-the-point. Concise writing employs only the words that are necessary to convey meaning with accuracy, and is devoid of unnecessary or ambiguous words or phrases. Writing  becomes more consise when you strive to use specific language, uncomplicated exposition, and jargon only when it is necessary and meaningful for the target audience.

Bad Example:

As a civil engineering intern, I worked with the Facilities Management Services Division to execute daily activities in response to workplace issues. Sign Inventory was my main area of research. I helped investigate over 500 signs based on their reflectivity and compliance with federal guidelines.” (45 words)

Problem: The phrase execute daily activities in response to workplace issues” is so broad in meaning that it fails to tell us anything meaningful about the work the author performed.

Good Example:

As a civil engineering intern, I worked with the Facilities Management Services Division to investigate over 500 signs based on their reflectivity and compliance with federal guidelines.” (26 words)

Why this works: By replacing the very general phrase execute daily activities in response to workplace issues” with language that is more specific, the writing is more to-the-point, helping to advance the narrative and make it more compelling to read.