University of Minnesota

“It Isn’t Always Fun.” – Writing 101

In words are seen the state of mind and character and disposition of the speaker.

Plutarch, biographer and philosopher (circa 46-120 BC)

For years I have encouraged and cajoled students and faculty to improve their writing skills. Recently I organized the following counsel into a formal presentation for post-doctoral fellows. The lecture was accompanied by a “quiz,” by writing and reading assignments, and by a personal gift, a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Some appreciated the effort.

*  *  *


First Dictum: Don’t touch writing. You don’t know what it is to write. It’s a crushing task, it bends your spine, blurs your eyesight, creases your stomach, and cracks your ribs.” (Anonymous, from a late Medieval manuscript.)

Second Dictum: Discover writing. Embrace it. For writing opens the mind, frees the spirit, delights the senses, and exposes the soul. It bonds friends, persuades skeptics, deflates enemies, and, even more than speech, defines your self.”  (Henry Blackburn, ardent amateur)

I was pleased that a few of you submitted writings for edit. Even Ernest Hemingway had editors. I suspect, in fact, that the better writer and investigator you become, the more you will seek editorial counsel and the more you will rewrite, again and again, for clarity and brevity.

Let us presume that all of us want to improve our writing.  I have found, nevertheless, that some people in science respect only the quality of thought, the idea itself. They find it tiresome to present, write, and publish their research; in any case, they consider these as chores that are much less important than their ideas. They seem to think that to write well is no more than a “God-given way with words,” to be admired but not to be vigorously sought after and worked over.

From experience, I can assure you the contrary, that the ability to formulate ideas clearly, simply, and succinctly is central to your career. Your language is the prime evidence of the quality of your thought. It is ancillary evidence of your industry, and, strangely enough, even of your character — caring about yourself and about your peers who inevitably must read your writings.

We can only begin to discuss the myriad issues of good writing in one springtime lesson. We can, however, hope to become interested in and motivated to learn about sources and strategies for improvement. We should then find it easier to move on to edit one another’s work and eventually to discover happy evidence of progress. Learning to do research is a lifelong process.  So it is with writing and speaking. The elements required at the outset are simply an awareness of good and poor writing and a desire to improve.

Your greatest need now is to write clear articles, lectures, and grant proposals and to present them effectively. Before long, with experience and reputation, you will be called upon to write reviews and book chapters and editorials, a different creative activity and one that is usually broadening as well as pleasurable.

Work Plan for Today

I propose a couple of ways we might launch your new awareness of writing today:

First, with help and borrowing, I have composed a series of sentences, each of which illustrates a common problem and which I will challenge you to edit. Later, I will provide suggested “corrections.”

Second, I will go over a few principles of good writing, giving illustrations.

Third, I will provide a small collection of scientific writing that I will ask you to read aloud, critique, and express an opinion about the writing strengths and weaknesses contained. Then I will list a few websites dealing with writing adventures, usage, style, and grammar.

First off, you should check the style advice of journals to which you submit your articles. Here I will refer only to classic writing manuals and to on-line sources of advice on writing, and I recommend that you acquire the Chicago Manual of Style as the more modern and authoritative guide. Because there is no direct counterpart of these manuals for technical or medical writing, you may want to develop your own personal guide, making a compendium of common writing problems and errors, a file folder that you can expand and edit over a professional lifetime.

Finally, I have a gift for those particularly interested, a small, classic volume, Strunk and White, a guide to English usage, by E.B. White, the author of your favorite childhood story, Charlotte’s Web.

Components of Composition

(Here I have borrowed heavily both order and ideas  from Strunk and White)

The Paragraph: The first sentence of a paragraph introduces the topic or makes a transition from the prior paragraph.

Large blocks of words are daunting to the reader. Break a long paragraph in two, to let the reader breathe, even if there is no natural breaking place.

The Sentence: The main unit of composition, the sentence, purveys your meaning and harbors your style. It is to be pondered and worked to perfection so that it sings in your voice.

Voice: Use of the passive voice and writing in the third person are the soporific banes of scientific writing. I suspect that they represent false humility and imprudent shyness. For example:

“It is the intent of this investigation to test two HMG co-A inhibitors in their comparative ability to reduce LDL-cholesterol levels in middle-aged males.”

That’s not too bad, but try it in the active voice:

“We address the comparative LDL-lowering effects of two HMG co-A inhibitors in middle-aged men.”

I hope you will pardon this anecdote of  another example of the passive voice: My first practical success in a research career, at age 28, was to modify  the  title of a senior colleague’s article for which he was unable on several tries to get journal acceptance. It read: “Differences in electrocardiographic measurements between 512 normal middle-aged males and 432 normal middle-age females, ages 40-59.”

The following translation of his title eventuated in acceptance of the article with no other modification: “Sex differences in the normal electrocardiogram”

Form: Parsimony, specificity, and concreteness are crucial to convey your meaning and to carry along your reader. Avoid these sorts of “say-nothing” words and phrases:

From: “Little attention was paid to . . .”

To: “We ignored . . .”

From: “There is no doubt but that . . .”

To: “No doubt . .”

From: “The reason why is that . . .”

To: “Because . . . ”

From: “The fact that we did not succeed . . . ”

To: “We failed . . .”

From: “In order to . . . ”

To: “ To . . . ”

From: “From the outset, coronary disease has many facets to be considered.”

To: (Why not just omit this vague sentence entirely and get  on to the point? This construction is a classic, “say-nothing” introduction, dear to many scientists but hardly endearing to their readers.)

Classic Sources of Writing Advice

The Chicago Manual of Style (see the website address below #5.)

Strunk, William, and E. B. White. Elements of Style. New York: Macmillan, 1979.

Web-site Style Manuals and Writing Advice: (On-line Technical Writing: useful and handy)

2. Manual)

3. (fun examples of bad grammar)

4. (as you might imagine, this American Psychological Assn. manual and crib sheet is oh, so very specific) (try this classic guide to good usage)

As you become more interested in grammar, words, and good writing, you may want to sample the following websites or order their free e-mail newsletters. A big world of words awaits you here:




4 Jim Pawlak: (writing and speech consultant)

Examples of good and bad technical writing

The stylized, constrained format of scientific articles is conducive to brief, clear expression. The requirement for a short abstract, introduction, and discussion provides little opportunity for egregious departures in language. Methods and results sections, too, are straightforward. It is possible, however, to find examples of good and less good communication even within such a simple and rigid format. Please read and evaluate these excerpts from the less good:

From a discussion

Not all of the expected relationships were demonstrated in these data. None of the health belief model variables differed between attenders and nonattenders. Although a weak relationship of these variables to attendance was expected, due to the population-wide recruitment of low risk individuals, the complete absence of a relationship was surprising.

From an abstract

The controversy of the importance of the role of excess dietary sodium in the development of primary hypertension is summarized by the points of view of those who accept the evidence and those who do not.

We have sketched the unforeseen errors, that now must be avoided, from earlier studies and given an outline of a current study that sets out to meet optimum requirements.

From an introduction

Obesity. No condition, as Dr. . . .  observed, is easier to diagnose and more difficult to treat; for the road to weight reduction, as evidenced by the medical literature, is paved with the good intentions of nutritionists and physicians recommending regimens from anorexigenic agents to starvation, and multitudes of reducing diets of various proportions of carbohydrates, fats and proteins. The long-term success of weight reduction regimens remains pitiable.

From another introduction

In the past six to seven years, my associates and I have been engaged in a prospective study to determine the feasibility and efficacy of activating habitually sedentary, lazy, hypokinetic, hypercholesterolemic, cigarette smoking, hypertensive, overweight males, with or without manifest coronary artery disease, to participate in and adhere to a program of enhanced physical activity. We hoped to determine whether such a program would be associated with some evidence of retardation of the effects of atherosclerosis, as manifested by a reduction in morbidity and mortality of coronary-stricken subjects and in the incidence of new thrombotic episodes in highly coronary-prone subjects.

From a government recommendation

If a petitioner chooses to use alternative procedures, however, he [she] should discuss the procedures informally with the Agency to prevent expenditure of money and effort on activities that may later be determined to be unacceptable to the FDA.

From a technical publication:

The scolasticism (sic) of the great corpus of European

philosophy must be de-escalated in favour of

transparency of ideas that allow for the participation

of the average intellect in the substance of the discourse

as an adjunct to action in the everyday world.

McCullogh, in The Sentence of Death Contest, offers this attempt at interpretation of the above declaration:


  “ I think what the author is calling for is for writers to keep what they are saying simple so that the average person in the street can understand . . . but I’m not really sure.”

Edit Challenge

Each sentence below represents a common issue in sentence construction, grammar, or punctuation. Please add or delete punctuation or rewrite the sentence where needed. When you have completed your edit, please request a copy of the suggested corrections.

1. Subject’s homes were the sites of survey visits.

2. The duration of the follow-up is for twenty years.

3. The subjects were supine and they fasted.

4. A number of repetition’s was performed.

5. The sample consisted of 1200, this includes women.

6. The principals involved were brevity, simplicity, and clarity.

7. The sorting and selection done is random.

8. Survey people spoke to whomever appeared at the door.

9. One explanation is white-coat hypertension, another lability.

10. The abdominal skin was jaundiced in color.

11. The first born sibling is given priority.

12. Dr. Charles’ correlation was significant.

13. Its a positive relation and its slope is monotonic.

14. Frequency is one criteria for physical activity class.

15. Frequency, duration and intensity, the characteristics needed to measure.

16. Felix, Pasteur’s assistant disappeared soon after the experiment.

17. We recruited subjects during May to September 1999.

18. James Prevost PhD is PI.

19. The student group that had been indifferent to writing began to get involved.

20. The hypotheses are several as listed here.

21. The first task if you undertake the trial at all is to make sample size estimates.

22. The fragrance of acidotic breath odors are unforgettable.

23. Steffes is one of the finest investigators who has attacked this problem.

24. Everybody thinks they have a sense of humor.

25. Coleman says its either him or I, its your choice.

26. Moving slowly down the column, we observed the indicator dye fall.

27. On arriving in the Twin Cities, colleagues met him at the airport.

28. This phase of the study dealing with observations of elderly disease findings and risk factor trends was completed first.

Edited Version

1. Subjects’ homes were the sites of survey visits.

(Or change to the active voice: ‘Survey staff interviewed subjects in their homes.’)

2. The duration of follow-up is 20 years. (Change to: ‘Follow-up is 20 years.’)

3. Subjects were supine and fasting.

4. A number of repetitions was (or were) performed.

(Either is correct. Try the active voice: ‘We performed numerous repetitions.’)

5. The sample consisted of 1,200 subjects, including women.

6. The principles involved were brevity, simplicity, and clarity.

7. The sorting and selection are random. (Alternatively, ‘The sorting and selection process is random.’)

8. Survey people spoke to whoever appeared at the door. (‘Who’ is the subject of the verb ‘appeared.’ Or, for agreement with the prior subject, … ‘To whomever they encountered at the door.’)

9. One explanation is “white-coat” hypertension; another is lability.

10. The abdominal skin was jaundiced.

11. The first-born sibling is given priority.

12. Dr. Charles’s correlation was significant.

13. It’s a positive correlation and its slope is monotonic.

14. Frequency is one criterion for physical activity class.

15. Frequency, duration, and intensity are the characteristics to measure.

Use of the serial comma prior to the last item of a series gives precision and avoids the need to evaluate each situation. Consider the following example of lack of precision without the serial comma: “I leave my fortune in equal parts to my sons Bill, Dave, Mike and Tom.” Thus, for want of a serial comma, Mike and Tom had to split a third instead of each son getting what was intended, a fourth.

16. Felix, Pasteur’s assistant, disappeared soon after the experiment.

17. We recruited subjects from May to September, 1999.

18. James Prevost, Ph.D, is PI.

19. The student group, which had been indifferent to writing, began to get involved.

20. We tested the following hypotheses:

21. The first task, if you undertake the trial at all, is to make sample-size estimates.

22. The fragrance of acidotic breath odors is unforgettable.

23. Steffes is one of the finest investigators who have attacked this problem. (Could read: ‘. . .to attack this problem.’)

24. Everybody thinks he has a sense of humor. (‘Everybody’ is singular.)

Avoid the he/she issue: ‘All professors think they have a sense of humor.’

25. Coleman says, “It’s either him or me. It’s your choice.” (Should you correct the grammar in a direct quote, or reword it? No reporter would correct Yogi Berra, for example.)

26. The indicator dye fell slowly down the column.

27. Colleagues met him when he arrived at the Twin Cities airport.

28. The first study phase dealt with disease and risk-factor trends in the elderly (Try to place the verb closer to the subject.)

Click to go onto the next section.