The Australian manual of scientific style (AMOSS)

Whether you are a scientist writing journal articles or an editor working on scientific documents, I can strongly recommend the Australian manual of scientific style (AMOSS). This great resource can answer many of your questions about scientific writing style, language and editorial consistency. It also has special sections that focus on peer-reviewed scientific papers, grant applications, reports and books.

The manual has just been released by the Biotext team, who have a wealth of experience in looking after scientific documents, gained over many years.

Finally a resource for scientific style that is online and accessible from anywhere!

Content

The Australian manual of scientific style (AMOSS) gives sound advice on just about anything you will come across when publishing scientific reports, articles and books. It has three main sections —‘writing’, ‘editing’ and ‘showing’ — which each contain a wealth of articles and advice. Topics vary from simple things, such as when to use a comma or how to use the dashes, to more complex issues such as how to standardise tables, figures and charts.

The information in the manual is detailed, clear and well organised. I also like the many links to external specialised information, and the fact sheets for downloading.

Access

You can access the manual through online subscription. This is great: you don’t need to carry around a heavy manual but have access to it from anywhere. So you can write or edit on the beach, in the field or from your favourite cafe!

You can find the manual here.
Disclosure: I used to work for Biotext as an employee, and still do contract work for Biotext.

To find other recommended resources for writers and editors, check the resources page.

 

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PerfectIt for writers and editors

Of the many proofreading aids for writers and editors, PerfectIt is my favourite.
It is a Microsoft Word add-on program that will find many of the inconsistencies you have inadvertently left in your document.

Here are some examples of the things it will find in your document:

  • inconsistent spelling (e.g. you have used both ‘program’ and ‘programme’ in the same document)
  • inconsistent capitalisation (e.g. you have used both ‘crown-of-thorns starfish’ and ‘Crown-of-Thorns Starfish’ in the same document)
  • unspecified or inconsistently specified acronyms or abbreviations
  • missing brackets or quotes.

In addition, the program will let you create your own style sheet (a list of words or terms). You can then instruct PerfectIt to use this style sheet when checking your document.

PerfectIt resources

You can find more information about this program on the Intelligent Editing website.

There is now also a course on how to use this program: see Introduction to PerfectIt for writers and editors.

Other resources

To find other recommended resources for writers and editors, check the resources page.

 

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Lists — how and when to use them

Lists — how and when to use them

 

Graphic showing an itemised tick listNot sure how to write high-quality lists or when to use a list?
Confused about punctuation and capitalisation of lists?

This page answers those questions and shows you how to use a list to capture your reader’s attention.

 

 

Quick content links

Definition

 

A list is a record that consists of an introductory statement and a a series of items written one after another. The list can be presented vertically or horizontally.

In a vertical list, the items are on separate lines. In a horizontal list, the items are part of the sentence and follow the introductory statement.

Lists: vertical versus horizontal list

Comparing a vertical list to a horizontal list

 

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Vertical lists

I am a great fan of vertical lists. They are the best tool to make important information stand out on the page, show the steps in a process, or present an overview to the reader. Lists are therefore extremely useful in reports, technical and scientific documents, and online.

When to use a vertical list?

In non-fiction writing, vertical lists are an important tool for the writer. A vertical list can be extremely useful when you want to draw the reader’s attention to certain important points.

Use a vertical list when you want to:

  • make the reader memorise something
  • group information or give the reader an overview of something
  • show an order, hierarchy or chronology
  • make the reader follow ordered instructions.

A vertical list is much easier to read and scan than a paragraph because it visually breaks up long sections of text and creates white space. It stands out on the page and helps the reader find information quickly, thus improving the usability of a document.

Vertical lists are therefore often found in non-fiction documents such as manuals, procedures and guidelines, self-use instructions and cook books, reports, online content and blogs.

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Types of vertical lists

Lists can be unordered or ordered, simple or multilevel. Below, I show examples and when they can be used.

The unordered list is the most commonly used list. You can use it to draw special attention to certain elements you want the reader to remember.

Example — a simple unordered list

For the Australian region, the main drivers of natural climate variability are the:

  • El Niño–Southern Oscillation
  • Indian Ocean Dipole
  • Madden–Julien Oscillation
  • Southern Annular Mode.

Ordered lists are useful when you need to show a chronological sequence of events, or steps in a process.

Example — a simple ordered list

The four steps of the scientific method are:

  1. observe and describe a phenomenon
  2. formulate a hypothesis
  3. test the hypothesis
  4. establish a theory based on repeated validation of results.

You can also use an ordered list when you intend to cross-reference to the items in subsequent paragraphs.

Example — a simple ordered list

There were four testing sites for water quality:

  1. downstream of the lake
  2. the northern part of the lake
  3. the southern part of the lake
  4. upstream of the lake.

Sections a and b showed good water quality, but sections c and d were below standard.

You can use a multilevel list to bring clarity and show overview in complex information. The following example has two levels.

Example — an unordered multilevel list

Fish species currently prescribed as threatened under the Nature Conservation Act 2014 in the ACT are:

  • endangered species
    • Macquarie Perch (Macquaria australasica)
    • Silver Perch (Bidyanus bidyanus)
    • Trout Cod (Maccullochella macquariensis)
  • vulnerable species
    • Murray River Crayfish (Euastacus armatus)
    • Two-Spined Blackfish (Gadopsis bispinosus).

However, I do not recommend using more than three levels. Using lists that are too complex may confuse the reader.

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How to punctuate and capitalise a vertical list?

This section shows you a quick way to work out punctuation and capitalisation in vertical lists.
Steps include:

  1. write the list as normal text
  2. convert the list to a vertical format
  3. adjust the punctuation and capitalisation.

In the following examples, I show how to use this method for list items that are words or groups of words, part-sentences, full sentences, or other lists.

1. Write the list as normal text

Example — words or groups of words

To make a cup of tea you need a cup, a tea bag, and hot water.

2. Convert the list to a vertical list format.

You can quickly convert the text to a list by separating the introductory statement from the list, adding a colon, and retaining punctuation and capitalisation.

Example — words or groups of words

To make a cup of tea you need:

  • a cup,
  • a tea bag, and
  • hot water.

In the above example, commas separate the list items. The second-last item retains ‘, and’ at the end, while the last item retains the full stop.

3. Adjust punctuation and capitalisation.

Remove the comma and the ‘, and’ at the end of the item lines. This is not essential, but makes the list easier to read.

Example — words or groups of words

To make a cup of tea you need:

  • a cup
  • a tea bag
  • hot water.

I recommend using this style.

Many lists consist of more or less complex part-sentences. Part-sentences need extra care when itemising to make sure the list does not become ambiguous.

1. Write the list as normal text.

Example — part-sentences

The museum’s role is to look after the state’s collection; create exhibitions on the state’s past, present and future; and contribute to historical research programs.

2. Check parallel structure.

Before converting to a vertical format, make sure all list items are parallel. Each part-sentence has to make a full sentence when read after the introductory statement. For more details on how to check parallel structure, see How to ensure parallel structure in a list?.

Example — check parallel structure of part-sentences

The museum’s role is to look after the state’s collection.

The museum’s role is to create exhibitions on the state’s past, present and future.

The museum’s role is to contribute to historical research programs.

3. Convert the list to a vertical format.

Example — part-sentences

The museum’s role is to:

  • look after the state’s collection;
  • create exhibitions on the state’s past, present and future; and
  • contribute to historical research programs.

4. Adjust punctuation and capitalisation.

Remove the semicolon and the ‘; and’ at the end of the item lines. This is not essential, but makes the list easier to read.

Example — part-sentences

The museum’s role is to:

  • look after the state’s collection
  • create exhibitions on the state’s past, present and future
  • contribute to historical research programs.

I recommend using this style.

Lists of full sentences are useful to show structure as you write. They help the reader understand the text, and also create some white space in what would otherwise be solid text.

1. Write the list as normal text.

Example — full sentences

The report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change lists the following key climate changes. Each of the past three decades has been successively warmer at Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850. In the Northern Hemisphere, 1983–2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the past 1400 years. Ocean warming dominates the increase in energy stored in the climate system, accounting for more than 90% of the energy accumulated between 1971 and 2010. It is virtually certain that the upper ocean (0–700 m) warmed from 1971 to 2010, and it is likely that it warmed between the 1870s and 1971. During the past two decades, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have been losing mass, glaciers have continued to shrink almost worldwide, and Arctic sea ice and Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover have continued to decrease in extent.

2. Convert the list to a vertical list format.

Choose the introductory sentence carefully before converting. In the example, the introductory sentence could end with a colon or a full stop.

Example — full sentences

The report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change lists the following key climate changes:

  • Each of the past three decades has been successively warmer at Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850. In the Northern Hemisphere, 1983–2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the past 1400 years.
  • Ocean warming dominates the increase in energy stored in the climate system, accounting for more than 90% of the energy accumulated between 1971 and 2010. It is virtually certain that the upper ocean (0–700 m) warmed from 1971 to 2010, and it is likely that it warmed between the 1870s and 1971.
  • During the past two decades, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have been losing mass, glaciers have continued to shrink almost worldwide, and Arctic sea ice and Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover have continued to decrease in extent.

3. Adjust punctuation and capitalisation.

If each list item is a full sentence, there will be no further need to adjust the punctuation or capitalisation of the list. Each full sentence starts with a capital and ends with a full stop.

There are many combinations of multilevel lists and their punctuation can be hard to work out. When creating complex lists, always make sure that the structure is logical and items are parallel.

1. Write the list as normal text.

Example — multilevel lists

Fish species currently prescribed as threatened under the Nature Conservation Act 2014 in the ACT include endangered species and vulnerable species.

Endangered species are native species eligible to be included in the endangered category on the threatened native species list if not critically endangered, but facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild in the near future.

Endangered fish species include Macquarie Perch (Macquaria australasica), Silver Perch (Bidyanus bidyanus), and Trout Cod (Maccullochella macquariensis).

Vulnerable species are native species eligible to be included in the vulnerable category on the threatened native species list if not critically endangered or endangered, but facing a high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium-term future.

Vulnerable fish species include Murray River Crayfish (Euastacus armatus) and Two-Spined Blackfish (Gadopsis bispinosus).

2. Convert the list to a vertical list format.

Example — multilevel lists

Fish species currently prescribed as threatened under the Nature Conservation Act 2014 in the ACT include endangered species and vulnerable species:

  • Endangered species are native species eligible to be included in the endangered category on the threatened native species list if not critically endangered, but facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild in the near future. They include
    • Macquarie Perch (Macquaria australasica),
    • Silver Perch (Bidyanus bidyanus), and
    • Trout Cod (Maccullochella macquariensis).
  • Vulnerable species are native species eligible to be included in the vulnerable category on the threatened native species list if not critically endangered or endangered, but facing a high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium-term future. They include
    • Murray River Crayfish (Euastacus armatus) and
    • Two-Spined Blackfish (Gadopsis bispinosus).

Note that a colon is only used at the end of the first introductory statement and not for the second-level introductory statement.

3. Adjust punctuation and capitalisation.

As shown in the previous sections, remove comma and ‘, and’ from the end of item lines. In some cases, repeated text can also be removed at this stage.

Example — multilevel lists

Fish species currently prescribed as threatened under the Nature Conservation Act 2014 in the ACT include endangered species and vulnerable species:

  • Endangered species are native species eligible to be included in the endangered category on the threatened native species list if not critically endangered, but facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild in the near future. They include
    • Macquarie Perch (Macquaria australasica)
    • Silver Perch (Bidyanus bidyanus)
    • Trout Cod (Maccullochella macquariensis).
  • Vulnerable species are native species eligible to be included in the vulnerable category on the threatened native species list if not critically endangered or endangered, but facing a high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium-term future. They include
    • Murray River Crayfish (Euastacus armatus)
    • Two-Spined Blackfish (Gadopsis bispinosus).

Note that a colon is only used at the end of the first introductory statement and not for the second-level introductory statement.

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How to check a vertical list?

Once you have created your list, use the following checklist to make sure it will be of high quality:

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Horizontal lists

A list that appears in a sentence is called a horizontal list or a run-in list (sometimes also referred to as an in-line list).

When to use a horizontal list?

Horizontal lists are useful if you do not have space to create a vertical list or if you do not wish to visually interrupt the flow of the text. To make a horizontal list easier to read, keep it short. I suggest you do not list more than four or five items.

Example — simple unordered horizontal list

Example To make a cup of tea, you need a tea bag, a cup and hot water.

To avoid ambiguity, carefully choose the placement of the list in the sentence.

Example — incorrect placement of a horizontal list

You will need the following items: a cup, hot water and a tea bag to make a cup of tea.

Reword the list to remove the ambiguity.

Example — correct placement of a horizontal list

You will need the following items to make a cup of tea: a cup, hot water and a tea bag.

In situations where the list is long or complex, using a vertical list may be a better option.
See also Vertical lists.

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How to punctuate a horizontal list?

To separate items that are words or groups of words, use a comma.

Example — list items are words or groups of words

The aims of this program are to support excellence, promote access to training, and protect non-profit organisations.

See also When to use a comma before ‘and’ or ‘or’ in a list?

For items that already contain a comma or are full sentences, separate the list items using a semicolon.

Example — list items are part-sentences with a comma, or full sentences

The museum has stewardship of the state’s collection; creates exhibitions on the state’s past, present and future; and contributes to historical research programs.
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How to order a horizontal list?

If your horizontal list is also ordered, you can use numbers or letters to clarify the order. Make sure these numbers or letters stand out clearly from the list items by adding brackets.

Example — an ordered horizontal list using numbers

To make a cup of tea: (1) place a tea bag inside a cup; (2) fill the cup with hot water; and (3) let it brew until it has the desired strength.

Example — an ordered horizontal list using letters

To make a cup of tea: (a) place a tea bag inside a cup; (b) fill the cup with hot water; and (c) let it brew until it has the desired strength.
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When to use a comma before ‘and’ or ‘or’ in a list?

The serial comma (also called the Oxford comma or Harvard comma) is the comma that occurs before the ‘and’ or ‘or’ at the end of a horizontal list with at least three items.

It is best to use the serial comma if it will remove potential ambiguity.

Example — ambiguity in a horizontal list

I dedicate this book to my parents, Bob James and Mary Higgins.

In the above example, it is not clear if the dedication is to four people (my parents and Bob James and Mary Higgins) or if my parents are Bob James and Mary Higgins. Adding the serial comma removes this ambiguity.

Example — use the serial comma to remove ambiguity

I dedicate this book to my parents, Bob James, and Mary Higgins.

If not required for removing ambiguity, using the serial comma is a matter of choice. However, many organisations use the serial comma and have this as a requirement in their style guide; so, always check!

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How to ensure parallel structure in a list?

Parallel structure ensures that the wording of the list items is consistent. This makes it much easier for the reader to understand the list, especially when the list items are part-sentences.

Parallel structure is often lost when the writer tries to amalgamate information from different sources into a single list.

Both vertical and horizontal lists need to be parallel. I use a vertical list in the example below, but the same method can be applied to fix horizontal lists.

Example — incorrect parallel structure

The organisation’s web publishing requirements are:

  • Start file names with the document identification number.
  • Heading styles must be applied in the correct hierarchy.
  • Only use provided styles, plus italics.
  • Hyperlinks to be noted using comments.
  • All images and diagrams must be accompanied with descriptive alternative text.

In the above example, parallel structure is lost. Some of the items are part-sentences, other items are full sentences.

To fix the parallel structure, rewrite the introductory statement so it will form a complete sentence with the first part-sentence items in the list.
Then, place the introductory statement before each of the other list items, as follows.

Example — test parallel structure

The organisation’s web publishing requirements are to: Start file names with the document identification number.

The organisation’s web publishing requirements are to: Heading styles must be applied in the correct hierarchy.

The organisation’s web publishing requirements are to: Only use provided styles, plus italics.

The organisation’s web publishing requirements are to: Hyperlinks to be noted using comments.

The organisation’s web publishing requirements are to: All images and diagrams must be accompanied with descriptive alternative text.

By doing this, you can immediately see the problems with the list: it does not have a parallel structure.

To fix the structure, reword each list item so it forms a complete sentence with the introductory statement. This also shows that the capitals after the colon can be removed.

Example — fix parallel structure

The organisation’s web publishing requirements are to: start file names with the document identification number.

The organisation’s web publishing requirements are to: apply heading styles in the correct hierarchy.

The organisation’s web publishing requirements are to: use provided styles only.

The organisation’s web publishing requirements are to: note hyperlinks using comments.

The organisation’s web publishing requirements are to: provide descriptive alternative text for all images and diagrams.

Then, rewrite the text as a list (i.e. move the introductory statement to the start) and apply list punctuation to the list items (i.e. remove the full stop at the end of the items, except the last one).

Example — parallel structure

The organisation’s web publishing requirements are to:

  • start file names with the document identification number
  • apply heading styles in the correct hierarchy
  • use provided styles only
  • note hyperlinks using comments
  • provide descriptive alternative text for all images and diagrams.

Once made parallel, the list is much easier to read. It is now also easier to edit.

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Good luck with creating lists!
Leave a comment or ask a question below if you have any other issues you would like me to discuss here.

‘Macquarie Dictionary’

I use and recommend the Macquarie Dictionary for spelling. The Australian Government and universities consider this work the authoritative source on Australian English. By using this work as your spelling standard, you adopt a consistent strategy, which readers will respect.

Usage of the Macquarie Dictionary

The Macquarie Dictionary is available as a printed book, an online website, and as an app. Only the online edition is updated annually.

While I have both the Macquarie Dictionary app and the printed book in my office, I tend to use the app more than the book. This is mostly because looking up a term is much quicker on the app. The app also provides related words or terms when using the search function. I also love the list of ‘recent’ words, which saves all recent searches. Of course, the app is much easier to carry around and very handy when working away from my office.

However, for comparing definitions and for terms with large explanations, the book is more convenient. So, really, having both is the best option.

History

You can find an overview of the history of the Macquarie Dictionary on Wikipedia here.

Availability

The online edition is available for a 30-day free trial at the Macquarie Dictionary website. However, subscription to the online version is only for one year and needs annual renewal. As this costs more than the app (which is not updated annually, but still very good), I have not used the online subscription.

To find other recommended resources for writers and editors, check the resources page.

 

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‘Effective writing — Plain English at work’ by Elizabeth Manning Murphy and Hilary Cadman

This is an excellent book for writers who want to improve or refresh their skills of effective writing.

When I was doing my online editing course many years ago, I used the first edition of this book extensively. It has excellent examples and many exercises to test yourself. I still use it to look up examples when I want to explain something to a client or go back to the theory.

Content overview

This second edition of Effective writing has new material throughout that refers to writing using electronic media.

The book has three main sections:

  • the basics
  • writing effectively
  • creating effective documents.

The basics section covers many areas that are fundamental to writing. These include grammar, spelling, parts of speech, groups of words, paragraphs, punctuation and clear writing.

In the writing effectively section, attention goes to style, plain English expression and word choice.

The last section, on creating effective documents, focuses on the writing process and design. This section also discusses many types of written documents. Sections include: correspondence, minutes, emails, submissions and presentations. There is also a detailed section on report writing.

Effective writing has a back-of-book index.

Availability

The hard copy version of Effective writing is available online from the Book Depository and from Angus & Robertson Bookworld.

The book is also available as an ebook.

 

Other resources for writers and editors

To find other recommended resources for writers and editors, check the resources page.

 

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Writing tips for technical documents

Are you writing a technical or scientific document? Use these ten writing tips to create well-structured and easy to understand documents.

To write a document that readers will find interesting, clear and useful, you need to think about the whole document from the very beginning.

These writing tips can help you get started.

1. Do an audience analysis

For whom are you writing? This is a fundamental question that will determine how you will write the document and you need to resolve this first.

If you have a known audience (e.g. a user group), the best way to find the answer to this question is to go and talk to the audience. If that is not possible, then you could brainstorm for possible answers with the people involved in writing the document.

2. Do a purpose analysis

What is the purpose of your document? This is another fundamental question that will need to be resolved before you can start writing.

Try to identify the purpose of your document clearly and work out what you would like to achieve with it. If you are writing a manual, what will it explain and which problems do you hope to avoid by giving readers (i.e. users) this information? If you are writing a scientific report, what would you like your readers to find out and remember?

3. Plan the document structure

Spend time developing your document structure. This will help you during the writing process.

Use the answers found in writing tips 1 and 2 to develop your structure. A preset structure will show you where best to discuss certain topics and also give you a sense of direction while you write.

However, this preset structure should not be too ‘rigid’: adjust it during the writing process if you think it does not work quite as well as you planned. This tip is as important as the next, so always apply these two writing tips together.

4. Make your document structure logical

If readers understand your document structure quickly, they will also quickly find the things they are interested in. This will make them happy and they will find your document useful.

The logic in the structure of your document is therefore very important. Structure can be chronological; historical; methodological; action, process or place-driven; or may adhere to a set standard (e.g. a procedure).

Whichever structure you adopt, make sure it is reflected in the headings and subheadings. If these headings clearly communicate your document’s structure, readers will find the information they want much faster.

See also formatting tips.

5. Write in a direct manner

By communicating directly with your readers, they are more likely to listen.

For example:

  • If you are writing an instruction document, such as a manual, you could address the reader as ‘you’.
  • If you are writing a report or descriptive document, try to use the active voice as much as possible.

See also editing tips.

6. Write for a broad audience

Scientific or technical documents are often directed to a very limited and often specialist audience. This can be appropriate, but in many cases it can restrict the usefulness of the document or turn readers away.

Even scientific and technical documents can benefit from being written for a broad range of readers.

Widening your audience can be beneficial in many ways, especially if the documents are grant proposals, journal articles, reports, manuals, etc.

7. Explain terms and jargon

As in writing tip 6, missing explanations of terminology and jargon can turn readers away.

Try to include the readers that may not be at your level of specialty by providing definitions of terms and jargon words.

These explanations do not need to clutter the main text, but can be provided in stand-alone boxed text, glossary lists, footnotes, appendixes or even in a dedicated ‘background’ section of the document.

See also editing tips.

8. Standardise the peripheral components

Peripheral components of your document include:

  • the objects that you insert to illustrate or clarify the text (e.g. tables, graphs, diagrams, images or icons)
  • text presentation aids (e.g. citations, references, footnotes, captions, acronyms and abbreviations, headings and subheadings, lists and quotations, tips, notes and warnings)
  • layout (e.g. page design and graphic layout, headers and footers, page numbers).

If you make these components consistent throughout your document, the readers will learn quickly, find information faster and can focus on the really important messages in your document.

9. Keep track of all sources you use

As a writer, you will invest many research hours into your technical or scientific document. You will most likely rely on the work of others and refer to it.

While writing, update the list of sources you use simultaneously. It will save time at the revision stage and will ensure you do not accidentally omit important cross-references.

Most importantly, do not plagiarise. Acknowledge all sources and obtain the required permissions from the authors.

10. Get help or feedback

After completing a first draft, edit your own writing, using these editing tips as a guide.

However, do not try and manage the writing process on your own. You will save time and effort if you ask a colleague or editor to help you through the writing process.

A professional editor can help and guide you from the beginning of the writing process. They can also give a reader’s perspective on your document and revise the drafts as you write.

Your suggestions are welcome

These are my top-ten writing tips for technical and scientific documents. If you have any comments or questions, or would like to suggest further content, please leave a comment below.

To find other recommended resources for writers and editors, check the resources page.

 

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Great tips to edit your own writing

It is not easy to edit your own writing. You become so closely involved with providing content that taking a reader’s perspective becomes very hard.

However, there are many copyediting tasks that a writer can do at any stage of the editing process. Here are my top-ten tips to edit your own writing. These are particularly relevant for technical and scientific documents.

1. Edit headings and subheadings

Headings and subheadings show the structure of your document to the reader.

Make headings consistent, logical and short. Do not use more than three or four levels of headings.

The easiest way to edit headings and subheadings in large documents is to:

  • apply your word processor’s template styles to all heading levels in the document
  • create an electronic contents table or view the document in ‘Outline view’.

See also formatting tips.

2. Make a style sheet and apply it

A style sheet is a list of your decisions or rules about the spelling, format, punctuation or capitalisation of:

  • certain words, names, terms, expressions or phrases
  • acronyms and abbreviations
  • dates, numbers or formulas
  • citations and references.

A style sheet is a great tool to edit your own writing. It especially will help you improve the consistency of your document. You should also pass the style sheet on to anyone who is involved in the production process of your document.

3. Check your use of the passive voice

Many scientists write in passive voice because it seems to enhance objectivity and removes the researcher out of the research presented (e.g. ‘the hypothesis was tested’ instead of ‘we tested the hypothesis’).

However, a passive writing style can make text very boring and sometimes lead to long and confusing sentence structures.

Try to use the passive voice sparingly and use the active voice. You will find that your writing becomes clearer, more concise and easier to read.

See also writing tips.

4. Avoid using pompous words

Plain English works best for technical and scientific documents. The topics you are trying to discuss are often complex and require attention to detail; so why make the language you use complex?

To edit your own writing, make a list of pompous words or expressions and their plain versions. Then, use the search function to find these in your documents and replace them.

For example:

PompousPlain
we commenced the experimentwe started the experiment
to ascertain the level of riskto find the level of risk
for the purpose of analysing the coststo analyse the costs

5. Explain all acronyms and abbreviations

Use the full version of acronyms and abbreviations when first used in the text. After that, use the shortened form within the same section of the document.

For example: ‘The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) was set up in 1945. The FAO has…’

Repeat the full version for each large section of your document (e.g. chapter).

For long documents, insert a list of all used acronyms and abbreviations at the beginning or end of your document.

6. Use your electronic spelling checker

Use the spelling checker on your document after each draft as a first screening for typographical errors. Make sure the spelling checker is set to use the correct language (e.g. English Australian).

However, do not rely on the spelling checker to find all errors!

7. Check data in tables

Design your tables well and make sure they have clear headings, are easy to understand and have correct data.

Always do a full check of the data in a table during the first edit of your draft. In addition, recheck the table after restructuring or reformatting the document.

Always triple-check numerical data, as typographical errors in these can be very hard to find.

8. Check citations and cross-references

Recheck citations and cross-references each time you restructure your draft. You may need to do this several times during the editing process.

If you use the Vancouver system, use an automated numbering system. If not, any restructuring will require time-consuming renumbering of citations.

However, if you are using automatically inserted citations from a reference program (e.g. EndNote), check the fields for format corruption and make sure these update correctly.

9. Double-check the facts

While you are writing, you may allow yourself to skip fact checking. Fact checks can interrupt the flow of your writing. However, in the editing phase, you can no longer ignore these.

Check and double-check all sources, facts and information you have used. There is nothing worse than losing your reputation with the reader by presenting badly researched facts.

10. Edit illustrations

Copying and pasting of illustrations into documents has become very easy with modern word-processing software. However, illustrations are often used in more than one publication and may therefore not comply with the editorial style of your document.

Edit illustrations and their captions consistently as if they were part of the normal text.

Try to decide on a caption style for your illustrations early and use it consistently throughout your document.

If you cannot edit an illustration file, list the required changes in a comment (e.g. for the editor or designer).


These are my top-ten editing tips for technical and scientific documents.

After you have produced a first draft, your document will most likely require a comprehensive edit. This edit requires collaboration with a person removed from the writing process, such as a professional editor or an objective colleague who can:

  • analyse and improve the structure of your document
  • check and improve clarity and user-friendliness of your document
  • check the completeness of your document
  • correct grammar, language and spelling
  • improve consistency.

Your suggestions are welcome

If you have any comments or questions, or would like to suggest further content, please leave a comment below.

 

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‘Book indexing’ by Nancy C. Mulvany

This book is an excellent reference work for anyone who indexes books. While Book indexing is mostly intended for indexers, I still recommend it for writers and editors.

Content overview

Book indexing gives a good introduction to indexing. Importantly, it also contains sound advice for authors about how they can help create a book that is easy to index.

There is an in-depth discussion of index structure, and the arrangement of index entries. Special attention goes to indexing of names, short forms, numbers and symbols.

The book also covers the various index formats, options for layout and the editing requirements of an index. She also gives a good overview of software for indexing and other tools.

Naturally, this book contains an excellent index!

Other resources for writers and editors

To find other recommended resources for writers and editors, check the resources page.

 

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‘Style manual for authors, editors and printers’ by DCITA, 6th edition

Most departments of the Australian Government use the Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers as their style guide. Many other organisations also use it.

It covers the planning process, writing and editing, design, illustration usage, the legal aspects of publishing, and final product evaluation.

I have found the writing and editing section most useful and recommend it for both writers and editors. In particular, there are in-depth sections on grammar, spelling, punctuation, capital letters, shortened forms, citations and references.

Other resources

To find other recommended resources for writers and editors, check the resources page.

 

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