Preparing to write

Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.

- Kurt Vonnegut

Most of us were drawn to science because, like Vonnegut, we found a subject we feel deeply about, not just because we wanted to write about it. However, all scientists recognize that research must be made known if it is to have lasting value. This is how science moves forward, with the shared word illuminating each step of discovery for the sake of others that follow.

"Scientific writing" can be defined narrowly as the reporting of original research in journals or more broadly to encompass other ways that scientists share research information with one another, such as review articles, posters, and slide-based presentations. (The term "science writing" is often used for writing about science topics for the general public.) Whatever form it takes, successful scientific writing must answer basic questions and address problems raised during the dialogs that identify and define a given subject. It must be clear, concise, and follow established formats. In many ways, its language forms a dialect all its own.

What is the most efficient way to write a paper or presentation that successfully covers all this? This book exists to help you tackle the task, step by step. In this chapter, we suggest that you back up from actual writing, and start where your research does - with a question. Learn the most effective ways of compiling background information. For help defining, organizing, and planning the content, use techniques borrowed from problem-solving strategies. Choose a journal so that you have a goal and format. Finally, take charge of the whole project by using the Process Approach.


Any time we reach past our own knowledge and experience to seek out, investigate, and use materials beyond personal resources, research is involved. It may be the study of a subject through firsthand observation and investigation, such as carrying out a laboratory experiment, conducting a survey, or sifting through statistical data. Or it may be the examination of studies that other researchers have made of a subject, as presented in books, articles, or scientific debates. Most often it is an amalgamation of the two, for literature research and laboratory research form a powerful combination.

The first substantial writing that many beginning scientists produce is either a prospectus or progress report on their thesis, or dissertation research, or a short journal article written jointly with their supervisor or major professor. Increasingly, a detailed prospectus, including a literature review, is being requested before research projects can begin. Likewise, in business and industry, a well-written proposal often must precede approval for research projects, and its worth can influence promotion and pay. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find any scientific profession that would not require checking sources of information about a specific subject, integrating this information with one's own ideas, and presenting thoughts, findings, and conclusions effectively

Conducting a comprehensive literature review

Conducting a comprehensive literature review is undeniably a big job. Here are a few general points of advice to help you coordinate your work, followed by tips specific to conducting computer-based searches.

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