Category Archives: Writing mechanics

Is it a bibliography or a reference list?


Tui feeding in the flax by Yani Dubin, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License

At the end of your document you have a list of references. Should you call it a bibliography or a reference list? What is the difference? This page on Massey University’s Online Writing and Learning Link explains.

Showing whose idea it was


Who is that masked man? By Carolyn Lehrke, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License

Your writing will be a mixture of your own conclusions and those of others. How do you clearly indicate which is which? This page from the Learning Advisers at the University of Queensland’s Student Services works through an example to show you how to make it explicit whose idea was whose in your writing.

Alternative words


Pompous! by Stephen Lloyd-Smart, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License

Do you have a tendency to use long words in your writing when you don’t need to? Do you write “commence” instead of just “begin”; “in order that” instead of “so”; “numerous” instead of “many”; “utilise” instead of “use”?

If a simple word accurately reflects what you want to say, then use a simple word. Your writing will be clearer and you will sound less pompous. This document from the Plain English Campaign has a list of simple alternatives to unnecessarily complicated words and phrases.

Long subjects


A Most Serious Subject by Stuart Richards, Attribution-NoDerivs Licence

In scientific writing, there can be a tendency to write really long subjects in sentences. The subject is the thing which the sentence is about. It does the action in the sentence. Take a simple sentence like

The dog ate the bone.

The subject of the sentence is “the dog”. It does the eating.

You might make the subject longer by adding some descriptive and qualifying words to make the sentence about a more specific dog.

The brown, long-haired dog ate the bone.

The subject is now “the brown long-haired dog”.

So that’s manageable for readers and the sentence is fine. But sometimes authors stack up so many descriptors and qualifiers on their subject that it takes ages to get to the verb. Until the reader gets to the verb, they don’t know what is happening, as it’s the verb that tells them this.

Take this sentence:

An immunologically mediated reaction to a protein allergen (food) possibly precipitated by mucosal disruption (viral) activates the cascade of immunologic events that may create and perpetuate recurrent oral diseases. Lyon (2005) page 898

The verb in this sentence is “activates”. There are 15 words to read before you get to the verb. Did you find it easy to read? Where is the subject? Its all of those 15 words. Some punctuation might have helped the reader a bit, with a dash and some commas, like this:

An immunologically-mediated reaction to a protein allergen (food), possibly precipitated by mucosal disruption (viral), activates the cascade of immunologic events that may create and perpetuate recurrent oral diseases.

For more information on using hyphens see my recent post here.

So how could this sentence be improved? Well the first line of attack would be to break the ideas up into more than one sentence. Basically the author is saying three things:

  1. Viral diseases may disrupt the mucosa and allow proteins from food to penetrate.
  2. Protein allergens may initiate immunologic reactions
  3. Immunologic reactions may create and perpetuate recurrent oral diseases

Writing out what you are trying to say in point form like this, then helps you structure more simple sentences for readers.

Lyon KF (2005) Gingivostomatitis, Vet Clin Small Anim, 35, 891-911

Compound adjectives


Cookie Pug in Red by Moro Fenrir, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License

Sometimes when we use more than one word as an adjective we need to join those words with a hyphen to show they belong together and make our meaning clear.

For example if we say “man-eating tiger” the hyphen helps us to know that the tiger eats people. If we leave it out—”man eating tiger”—it could mean completely the opposite. 

It’s not always the case that the meaning changes so dramatically if you leave out the hyphen, but including hyphens in the right places does help the reader and improves clarity. Examples include “virus-associated clinical signs”, “antigen-stimulated cytokine release”, “domestic short-haired cat”. And if you are talking about the dog pictured above, you may want to talk about a short dog wearing a coat—”a short, coated dog”—or a dog wearing a short coat—”a short-coated dog”.

It can be hard to know when you need a hyphen and when you don’t. This short video by Uncle Mike from soisitjustme gives some good examples and a quick trick to help tell.

Vague antecedents


Who??? by John Carrel, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License

Words like “this” “these”, “it”, “their” “they” refer to other words. The words they refer to are nouns that have occurred previously. You will use these words a lot – there are plenty of them even in this short post! But often for readers, it is hard to be sure which noun the word is referring to. It may seem obvious to you, but it may not be obvious to your readers. If readers get the wrong idea they may be confused, and may completely misinterpret your point. Even if they can work it out by the context, doing so slows down their reading, can make readers lose the thread of what you are saying, and makes it unpleasant to read your work – the last thing you want!

This short posting by Barb at the Biomedical Editor website gives some examples and how to fix them in your writing.



The squirrel proof bird feeder, by Kathi, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License

Everyone makes mistakes when they write and so everyone has to proofread. But it can be hard to spot mistakes in your own work, because you know what you meant to write and that stops you seeing what you actually did write. This post from The Writing Centre of the University of Wisconsin – Madison has some tips to help you proofread.

Using headings to help your writing


HEADING WEST by M.G.N. – Marcel, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License

Headings are a brief summary of what is contained in a section of work. You can therefore use them to help you get an overview of your document and whether the sections are ordered in a way that makes the most sense.

In this post Pat Thomson describes a few different techniques for using subheadings to guide your writing.

Using quotes


Blunkett said that to you? No, no, I’d have done the same, by Dave Wild, Attribution-NonCommercial License

It’s not often we directly quote other authors in scientific writing, but when we do, it is important to know how to properly quote the material. This page has advice about when to use quotation marks and when to indent the quote, as well as how to cite the author and page number.

Ideas for sentences


Stuck by ehpien, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License

When I am stuck for the type of thing I should say, or the way I should say it, I look at other people’s writing. Look for writing that is written for a similar audience, and not necessarily on the same topic. You can learn a lot from looking at writing on different topics too.

In this blog post Luiz Otávio has collated a whole lot of useful phrases that might help you get started with your sentences. He has really helpfully categorised them into themes.