A Beginner’s Guide to Scientific Writing

This short article is a summary of my dissertation editing and revising, where several common questions facing the non-native English speaker were addressed, e.g. past vs present tense, the formal unit, and avoiding run-on. As to the writing style, one needs to consider the fields within which the article/paper/thesis will be.

Elements of Style

Basic rules on writing and style can be found in the Elements of Style. A gist of my opinions is so listed.

Elementary Rules

  • place a comma before and or but introducing an independent clause; this way the sentence is loose, and it is better rewriting to define a clear relation between those clauses.
  • use semicolon between to independent clauses, even the second one is preceded by an adverb, such as accordingly, so, then, therefore, or thus.
    • I had never been here before; so I had difficult in finding the way
    • In general, however, it is better to avoid using so in this manner
    • Rewrite: as I had never been here before, I had difficulty in ……
  • enclose parenthetic expressions between commas,
    • for instance, the best way to see a country, unless you are pressed for time, is to travel on foot.
    • restrictive relative clauses are not set off by commas.
    • for instance, the candidate who best meets these requirements will obtain the place
  • a participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject.
    • Not ‘on arriving in Chicago, his friends met him at the station’
    • But ‘on his arrival or when he arrived, his friends met him’
    • Not ‘young and inexperienced, the task seemed easy to me’
    • But ‘young and inexperienced, I thought the task easy’


  • begin each paragraph with a topic sentence; end it in conformity with the beginning
  • ending with a digression, or with an trivial detail, is particularly to be avoided.
  • if more than one sentence is required preceding the topic sentence, better to set apart the transitional sentences as a paragraph

several ways to develop the paragraph with regarding to the topic sentence:

  • restating in other forms, defining its terms, denying the converse
  • giving illustrations or specific instances
  • establish by proofs
  • showing the implications and consequences

avoid make one passive depend directly upon another; for instance, do not use ‘Gold was not allowed to be exported’, use ‘It is forbidden to export gold’ instead.

another common fault is to use as the subject of a passive construction a noun which expression the entire action: such as ‘confirmation of these reports cannot be obtained’; instead, ‘these reports cannot be confirmed’ suffices.

make definite assertions, since the read is dissatisfied with being told only what is not; one wished to be told what is. Hence, express a negative in positive form.

  • not much use -> useless
  • not admirable -> unattractive
  • not import -> insignificant
  • not much confidence in -> distrusted

be concise:

  • owing to the fact that -> since (because)
  • in spite of the fact that -> though
  • call your attention to the fact that -> notify/remind you

avoid loose sentences; use parallel construction; keep related words together, the subject and the principal verb should not be separated by a phrase or clause that can be transferred to the beginning.

Compare ‘there was a look in his eye that boded mischief’ to ‘in his eye was a look that boded mischief’.

If the summary is in the present tense, antecedent action should be expressed by the perfect; if in the past, by the past perfect.

APA publication guide

grammar and usage

Typical problems are presented as following:

  • do not use would to hedge (); for example, change it would appear that to it appears that
  • misplaced modifiers and use of adverbs:
    • correct: On the basis of this assumption, we develop a model
    • correct: Based on this assumption, the model…
    • incorrect: based on this assumption, we developed a model
  • only:
    • correct: these data provide only a partial answer
    • incorrect: these data only provide a partial answer
  • dangling modifiers:
    • correct: using this procedure, I tested model a
    • incorrect: the model a was tested using this procedure
    • correct: author found the peaks were located at a, b, and c, a result that is in agreement with those of previous studies.
    • incorrect?: author found the peaks were located at a, b, and c, in agreement/consistent with previous studies.
  • introductory or transitional words: similarly, consequently, importantly, interestingly, etc
    • correct: we find it interesting that / an interesting finding was that
    • incorrect: interestingly, sentence A.
  • subordinate conjunctions: since, while, although.
    • since and while better only refer to time;
    • use while to link events occuring simultaneously;
    • use since for time; otherwise, replace it with because.
    • precise: the argument is purely philosophical, but the conclusion …
    • imprecise: While the argument is purely philosophical, the conclusion …
  • relative pronouns: which, that. use ‘that’ for restrictive clauses and ‘which’ for nonrestrictive clauses, which are set off with commas.

  • ensure parallel construction.

    • results show that … and that …
    • between … and …, both … and …,
    • correct: it is surprising not only that … but also that …
    • incorrect: it is not only surprising that … but also that …

style mechanics

  • period for inch (in.), but not other metric measurement abbreviations
  • use comma
    • between elements in a series of three or more items
    • to set off the year in exact dates: April 23, 1984
  • do not use a comma between the two parts of a compound predicate.
    • subject did A and did B; not subject did A, and did B.
  • use colon
    • between a grammatically complete clause and a final phrase or clause that illustrates the preceding thought. If the clause following the colon is a complete sentence, it begins with a capital letter
    • They agreed on the outcome: Informed participants performs better than do uninformed participants.
    • do not use a colon after an introduction that is not an independent clause or complete sentence
    • the formula is $r = a + e$

    • use centered dot, not slash, to express compound units

    • hyphens: some prefixes and suffixes do not require hyphens:
    • like, wavelike; multi, multiphase; post, pre, preexperimental; ultra.

Past versus Present

According to the 5th edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA), the following suggestions

  • for literature review: use past tense (author showed) or present perfect (author has shown)
  • for describing results, use past tense (band gap decreased monotonically)
  • for discussing results and preseting conclusion, use present tense (results of this study suggest)
  • backshifting in subordinate clause

related questions:


The NIST checklist is a good start. Some common mistakes or improper usage are listed as following:

  • plurals: unit symbols are unaltered, e.g. 200 cm, not 200 cms;
  • space : one space should be present between the value and unit symbols; exception: the superscript angle unit symbol should stay closely;
  • object and quantity: a resistor of resistance 10 kOhm, not a resistance of 10 kOhm.
  • abbreviations: s or second, not sec; m/s not mps; 10 nm to 100 nm, not 10 to 100 nm/ 10-100 nm

List of phrases

  • prior to (before)
  • due to. Incorrectly used for because of, owing to in adverbial phrases: ‘he lost the game, due to carelessness.’ Correct use: ‘this invention is due to Edison;’ ‘losses due to preventable fires.’
  • effect. As noun, means result; as verb, means to bring about, accomplish (affect, ‘to influence’).
  • etc. not to be used of persons. at the end of list introduced by such as, for example, or similar expression, etc. is incorrect.
  • However. in the meaning nevertheless, not to come first in its sentence or clause:
    • NOT ‘The roads were almost impassable. However, we at last arrived.’
    • Should be ‘The roads were almost impassable. At last, however, we arrived.’
      when however comes first, it means in whatever way or to whatever extent.
    • However you advise him, he will probably do as he thinks best
    • However discouraging the prospect, he never lost heart.
  • less. not be misused for fewer. less refers to quantity, fewer to number.
    • ‘his troubles are less than mine’ means ‘his troubles are not so great as mine’
    • ‘his troulbe are fewer then mine’ means ‘his troubles are not so numerous as mine’
    • Exception: ‘less than a number’ is thought of as meaning a less amount.
  • while. avoid the indiscriminate use of this word for and, but, and although. better replaced by a semicolon. fine in the sense of during the time that
    • sentence a, while sentence b -> sentence a; sentence b

FAQ List

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