In addition to being an editor, I’m also a knitter, and I occasionally teach knitting and write knitting patterns. When I first started writing patterns, I was surprised by the ways that my students could misinterpret instructions that seemed perfectly clear to me, and I quickly learned to word my instructions as clearly and precisely as possible. The same could be said of the Materials and Methods section of a scientific paper. Many books on writing papers suggest that you write the experimental section so that your work can be repeated by “a competent worker” or “a reasonably knowledgeable colleague.”1,2 That’s good advice. However, you might also consider the needs of your readers who are new to the laboratory—for example, undergraduate researchers or first-year graduate students. Although you should generally try to write concisely, the omission of a few words from a procedure can lead to misinterpretation. Consider the following example:

The solution was evaporated to dryness and dissolved in 50 µl of methanol.

This sentence literally says that the solution was evaporated and that the solution was dissolved in methanol; however, it’s the residue left after evaporation that’s dissolved, not the solution. Add a comma and a few additional words, and you’ve got a sentence that’s almost impossible to misread:

The solution was evaporated to dryness, and the resulting residue was dissolved in 50 µl of methanol.

Here are a two more sentences, with suggested revisions in italics (note the added words in boldface type):

The fractions that eluted at 11–15 min were collected, combined, evaporated, and suspended in 50 mL of ethyl acetate.

The fractions that eluted at 11–15 min were collected, combined, and evaporated, and the resulting solid was suspended in 50 mL of ethyl acetate.

The supernatant was mixed with three volumes of buffer and applied to a Sep-Pak C18 cartridge.

The supernatant was mixed with three volumes of buffer, and the mixture was applied to a Sep-Pak C18 cartridge.

Be concise whenever possible, but not at the expense of clarity and precision. Be kind to newbies.

Notes

1Day, Robert A, How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper, 5th ed.  (Phoenix: Oryx Press, 1998), p. 36.

2Lindsay, David, A Guide to Scientific Writing, 2nd ed. (Melbourne: Longman, 1995), p. 14.

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One Response to Be kind to newbies

  1. Michele says:

    Great post and so true. One of the first laboratory protocols I wrote was for an undergraduate genetics class. I was amazed at how many ways something that seemed perfectly clear to me could be misinterpreted. One of the problems we encounter here at Promega is overwriting instructions–adding so many notes and “but firsts” that the actual steps in a procedure get lost. The best way to know if the writing is clear is have someone else read it and tell you what they read (or perform the procedure), which we do. It always leads to revision.

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