Form and content in scientific writing

I’ve been helping a friend who’s writing their first scientific papers. Scientists almost always read papers for the content and pay little attention to the craft of what they’re reading. So when it comes to writing your own for the first time, it’s not always obvious how to proceed.

It helps to know that most scientific writing is pretty formulaic. Journal articles and grant applications have a pretty set structure that journals and funding agencies expect you to follow. The abstract/introduction/methods/results/discussion format is pretty ingrained these days. Even within those sections there are standard ways of doing things. Nature, for example, gives authors a sentence-by-sentence template to follow in their abstracts. Only in review articles or perspective pieces do you have much leeway in terms of large-scale organization.

In a way, scientific writing is like Bebop. Bebop song structures are pretty rigid and predictible. It’s always head/solos/head. The creativity is all in the melody, the chord changes, and the solos. For scientists, the interesting part of a paper isn’t the writing or organization—it’s the experiments, the results, and what they say about the natural world. Everything else is secondary.

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