Over the past few days, I have reviewed a small mountain of student conference abstracts, as the deadlines for two conferences where we usually have a strong showing are approaching. This exercise has reminded me of some of my favorite technical writing slips.
— Don’t start a sentence with an abbreviation, i.e., don’t write “Eq. (3) can be simplified…” or “Fig. 5 shows the dependence…” At the beginning of a sentence, always write out the full word instead, i.e., “Equation (3) can be simplified…” or “Figure 5 shows the dependence…” Abbreviations are fine elsewhere.
— Compound adjectives need hyphens. For instance, is should be “a well-deserved honor” as opposed to “a well deserved honor.” However, “the honor was well deserved.” In both cases, “well” qualifes “deserved”, but in the first example both “well” and “deserved” together form a compound adjective that further qualifies “honor.”
— If hyphens start making you dizzy, such as in “the 5-nm-wide ribbon,” consider rephrasing, such as “the width of the ribbon is 5 nm”
— Commas are your friend. Commas make the world a better place. Love them, use them.
— Don’t use “this” or “that” as subject in technical writing (it’s OK if writing casually), i.e., don’t write “We report that the leprechaun fart rate increases cubically with their bean consumption rate. This implies that leprechauns should be kept on a bean-light diet.” What does “this” refer to? The fascinating bean-fart relationship? One of the many nouns in the previous sentence? Something like “This dependence implies…” would work. Maybe I should start adding “bean-devouring leprechaun” after “this” or “that” every time I catch this type of mistake.
— Statements should be kept emotion-neutral, especially if they refer to the work of others. For instance, you can say that your approach is more accurate or has a wider range of applicability than the approach of Schmoe et at. , but don’t say things like “Our approach is vastly superior to that of Schmoe et al. because they only relied on this lowly old-fashioned approximation. ” Also, while it is wonderful that you are excited about your research, you can’t say things such as “Amazingly, we found that Schmoe et al. had it all wrong.”
— Don’t say “To the best of our knowledge, this has never been done before.” It’s just silly — it’s your duty to do the most comprehensive literature survey that you possibly can and then stand behind what you consider to be the state of the art. “To the best of our knowledge” implies to me that you might have slacked on lit review and are preemptively apologizing in case you missed something and the referee gets upset.
— Always write with an audience in mind. The readers are not inside your head; they don’t think about this problem of yours all the time like you do. What you think are the most fascinating aspects of your work may not, in fact, be the most important ones to emphasize, either broadly or to a specific audience. Leading with the motivation and insights that your audience will connect with is key to creating enthusiasm about your work.