Do’s and Don’ts for Research Writing

Don't let bad grammar plague your writing!
Don’t let bad grammar plague your writing!

In the thick of doing research, it’s easy to forget about the ultimate goal of writing and publishing. Thankfully, about once a month, the Princeton University Laser Sensing Lab holds what we call a “literature review”: Everyone brings in papers they’ve come across for their own research, and shares techniques that could be useful for the group at large.

At our last meeting, someone changed things up. Instead of bringing in a paper that contained interesting ideas, he brought one that he declared “the worst paper I’ve ever read”.

We all had a good laugh as the paper was passed around. He was right. The paper had numerous grammatical mistakes and many passages were indecipherable. But my adviser suggested that we not take it lightly. After all, this paper had somehow been published (though if he had any say in it, he would have it retracted). It served as a good example of what not to do—especially as the writing season falls upon us (hello to senior theses and final papers!).

As you write, here are other do’s and dont’s to keep in mind:

1. Don’t blow off grammar. Grammar mistakes look very unprofessional and immediately sink your standing in the eyes of your readers. The most common example? Its vs. it’s. Not only is this typo rampant in papers, but also in emails and online articles. Other examples I’ve come across: “development activities are currently been carried out”, “in motion along our line of site”… the list goes on. Don’t worry—we all make these typos when writing, and they’re easy to miss. I often don’t find my mistakes until I ask someone else to read over my work. But correcting grammar is a very simple fix, and can go a long way to help clean up your writing.

2. Don’t make excuses for poor writing. “Scientists aren’t known for being good writers, so it’s ok if my writing isn’t good either.” “This paper doesn’t count for much anyway, so it’s ok if it doesn’t make sense.” Yes, it’s tempting. But you don’t want to get into a habit of poor writing. And would you really want to be the TA or professor on the other end, reading a nonsensical paper?

3. Write something you would want to read. It sounds obvious, but it’s one of the most often ignored adages. Do you really need all that jargon up front? Are you giving your target audience, whether it’s fellow students or scientists, enough information to understand your writing? After you write your piece, the last thing you might feel like doing is reading it over again. But if you’re really aiming for a good paper, you should finish your draft with enough time—at least a day if possible— before re-reading, to make sure your logical progressions are natural. And another round of proofreading is a great way to catch those rogue typos!

4. Have others check over your writing. If you can’t bring yourself to read your own writing, or can’t distance yourself enough to think about what may or may not make sense, have someone proofread for you. Even if you’ve read over your own paper, you might not be able to catch confusing or illogical wording — after all, you’re the one who wrote it. But having another person’s eyes on your paper can provide an important sanity check. The Writing Center is great for this, but if you want more tailored feedback, asking for help from a graduate student in your lab is not a bad idea, either!

And finally, do your research! Take note of papers you’ve found helpful in your literature review. What kind of language do they use? Is there anything confusing they’ve done that you think you can do better? Do try and actually read some of the papers you’re citing. After all, reading good writing will make you a better writer yourself.

–Stacey Huang, Engineering Correspondent