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Review on the Stanford online course “Writing in the Sciences”

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How do you define a good writer? Is he/she someone particularly gifted? An artist who has a flair for prose or poetry? Well… it could help, but honestly, most scientists are no Shakespeares and yet the profession demands a certain talent to communicate one’s science in a clear, concise and interesting manner.

I recommend the “Writing in the Sciences” course, available on Stanford Lagunita, to any scientist looking to improve their scientific writing abilities. It is a free, self-paced online course conducted by Dr. Kristin Sainani, who is an associate professor at Stanford University as well as a science writer for both specialized and non-specialized audiences.

In this course, she covers the basic principles of good and effective writing with few simple rules of styles mostly based on logic. We are often tempted to write in an “academic style” because of our background or education. But this can often be hard to read and comprehend for the layman. It often results in monotonous text owing to a boring tone and complex language intended for a well-informed audience. However, science should be easy and enjoyable to read. This course teaches you how to quit bad writing habits to effectively  communicate complex ideas without excessive use of scientific jargon. For example, the use of the active voice is more apt compared to the passive voice. The choice of strong verbs or nouns and the removal of unnecessary words/phrases confer some strength to the text. Dr. Sainani shares many tricks to cut the clutter, grammar tips, and punctuation rules.

She also explains the three phases of the writing process: pre-writing, writing the first draft and the revision. This is the key to writing faster, in an organized fashion, with less anxiety. First, you need to prioritize the collection and organization of the information that you want to communicate.  Next, you will learn that you shouldn’t be a perfectionist at the beginning. You should begin by writing some sentences in a logical order for the first draft. It’s the revision that brings the finesse, with the verb checks, rephrasing, cutting the clutter and refining the text.

The course also covers the writing of an original scientific manuscript. Dr. Sainani  recommends a specific order to write a paper and build a story. She compartmentalizes the information that should be found in the introduction, the figure legends, and the discussion. She shares some tips to take the reader step by step and to emphasize the study. There is also a part on the revision of a paper and how to do a peer review for a journal. Further, she talks about ethical issues in scientific publications, like plagiarism or conflicts of interest. At the end of the course, there is some advice on how to communicate with journalists and the lay public to accurately and effectively share your work.

During the course, there are some lecture quizzes, self review assignments and homework assignments to do if you want to get a certificate or statement of accomplishment. It is quite easy to navigate on the platform and to follow your progress. In summary, this course improves and simplifies communication in the sciences.

Link to the course:

Don’t hesitate to have a look at the other courses offered on Stanford Lagunita.


Written by Isabelle Arnoux; Edited by Radhika Menon. Featured Image: NGC/Design.

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