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Writing Tips

The tips below where originally from Dr. Tom Stohlgren. I've added to them over time based on suggestions and ideas from a wide variety of folks - thanks to everyone!


Reviewing and editing is most of writing. Get a first draft done quickly and then get the manuscript to someone to add content or review. Don't feel bad about corrections, they will help the paper become better which is the goal.

Write like you speak. If you get stuck, act like you are talking to someone, the words will flow. Then, just write them down. If you don't like how something is written, speak the message out loud over and over until it feels write, then write it down.

Take ownership of your manuscripts. If you are the primary author, then you control the content and where the manuscript will be submitted to. Don't let other authors change the direction of the paper unless you agree and don't let two authors fighting over the direction keep it from moving forward.

Use MS-Word's "Review" features. Turn on "Track changes". This allows the changes to be tracked by who made them. When the article is returned from reviewers, you can then "accept", "reject" or rewrite the edits as needed. Use "comments" for comments rather than putting them in the content of the paper as they can be hard to find and remove before submittal.

When pasting images into MS-Word, do not use the defaults! The default is an MS-Office object that will try to keep it linked back to the original program that created it and will cause lots of problems, especially when distributing the manuscript to other reviewers. Instead:

  1. Select "Paste Special"
  2. Make sure that "Enhanced Metafile", "PNG", or another simple raster file format is selected.
  3. Paste the raster
  4. Right click on the raster and select "Properties" (pre-MS-Word 2010) or "Size and Position".
  5. Select "In line with text" for the "Wrapping style".

Writing is a life-long learning experience. Make sure you've read "Elements of Style". Read scientific articles but also read for fun and while reading, ask your self what you like and don't like about the writing.

If you need help, get it! There is an urgency to research. Don't wait because you are stuck, find someone how can help you keep moving forward.

Use something to manage citations. Endnote and other citation-management software packages will help you to keep track of your citations and, most importantly, they make it really easy to re-format them for specific journals.


It's more important to get started than it is to have a perfect outline. If you have an outline in mind, start with it as the section headings for your paper. If not, just start inserting figures and/or paragraphs of content. Give the new content headings and you'll see a structure for the paper emerge.


Use strong topic sentences. Not: "Summary statistics on species richness by vegetation type are shown in Table 1." Instead: "Species richness varied significantly among vegetation types with increased richness in more mesic types (Table 1)". Check all your topic sentences to see that they provide information and "hook" the audience to read further.

Avoid the verbs "was" and "were" as often as possible. Circle these verbs on your first draft, then try to re-write many of the sentences in an active voice. Not: "Soils were collected in plastic bags and were analyzed for soil texture, nitrogen, and phosphorus." Instead: I collected soils in plastic bags and analyzed them for soil texture, nitrogen, and phosphorus."

When multiple references are used in parentheses, put them in chronological order. Not: "(Jager 1969, Darwin 1858, Bon Jovi et al. 2002). Instead: (Darwin 1858, Jager 1969, Bon Jovi et al. 2002).

A.A. = Avoid acronyms (everyone else but the author hates them). Not: "I used a GIS to map NPP for the NPS in the USA" Spell them out! On very rare occasions, it may be appropriate to use an acronym like NPP if it used more than 6 times in the text. Or, you could "define" NPP for the purposes of your study. Instead: For this study, I have defined above-ground net primary productivity as "productivity."

Define acronyms when used. Don't assume everyone knows what NASA means. Your manuscript may be translated into other languages and read by researchers who are not familiar with US agencies.

Simplify your language - some common examples follow:

From To
In order to To
As well as And
I utilized I used
I prioritized I set priorities
I parameterized the model I set parameters in the model
I demonstrated I showed
I performed an analysis of . . . I analyzed . . .
A veritable cornucopia of verbosity A wordy person


Vary sentence structure and length. Have some very short sentences.

Try moving verbs to the beginning of the sentence.

Watch out for run-on sentences, which seem to go forever, including those sentences containing long phrases separated by commas, colons, and semi-colons because they really tire the reader, who has forgotten your preliminary point (and as this example clearly shows, putting additional phrases in parentheses sure doesn't eliminate obfuscation).

Spell out numbers less than ten. Use digits for other numbers. Try to avoid starting a sentence with a number. Use scientific notation only when really needed and for audiences that are familiar with them.

Don't provide numbers that are larger than your significant digits but don't provide too many digits either. Typically, two digits is enough. Don't put more than 2 significant digits after a decimal point (i.e. use 0.0012 instead of 0.001234).

"Spell check" and "grammar check" your paper several times, and after each major revision. Be careful adding words to your personal dictionary. Check them first in a dictionary or scientific reference.

Try to format tables in "portrait" rather than landscape".

Create black and white graphics except when absolutely necessary.

Don't use tiny fonts! This includes all text, even the labels on the axis of your graphs. You should be able to read the paper from three feet away. Remember that much of your audience is made up of old folks (like me) whose eyes are fading. Your fonts should never be below 9 point and sometimes 10 is a requierd minimum.

Spend extra time on the Abstract. Those 200 words are very important!

Use only simple formatting, with single columns.

Nouns that representing things you can count just have an added "s" (eggs, apples, computers) or we change the word (person->people). Things that represent "mass" (bacon, data, rain) are inherently plural. Singulars use "is" while plurals use "are". Below are some interesting singular/plural combinations.

Singular Plural
Axis Axes
Syllabus Syllabi
Data set Data


Semi-Colon separates parts of a compound sentence while colons proceed a series of related items, which should be separated by commas (see UVic's Study Zone web site).

Which and however are typically proceeded by a comma if they are not at the start of a sentence as they being a parenthetical phrase. Example: "Jim struggles with writing english, which is filled with contradicting rules!".

Frequently Misspelled and/or Misused Words from Dr. Steve Martin.

Following is a list of frequently misspelled and/or misused words. Feel free to distribute this to your friends!


benefits, not benifits

primitive, not primative

resource, not resourse

vegetation, not vegitation


amount / number            Use number when you can count what it is you are referring to, but use amount when you can’t.  “There are a large number of people on the beach, and there is a large amount of sand on the beach.”

bring / take         Both have to do with objects you move or carry. The difference is in the point of reference: you                                               bring things here and you take them there. You ask people to bring something to you, and you                                 ask people to take something to someone or somewhere else.

compliment / complement          Compliment means to say something nice, to make an admiring remark, as in

“Your hair looks nice today. Why thank you--what a nice compliment.”)

Complement means to add to, enhance, improve, or complete, as in

“That scarf really complements that outfit.”

discreet / discrete           Discreet means careful, cautious, showing good judgment: "We made discreet inquiries to determine whether the founder was interested in selling her company."           Discrete means individual, separate, or distinct: "We analyzed data from a number of discrete market segments to determine overall pricing levels."

effect / affect                    Effect is most commonly used as a noun to refer to a change in condition, as in

“I saw that movie--it really had an effect on me.”

Affect is a verb, usually used to refer to the action of causing a change, as in

“Yes, I’ve heard that movie affects a lot of people the same way.”


except / accept                 Except means to take out or leave out, as in “Let’s take all of them except those.”

Accept means to receive willingly, as in “I will accept this gift,” or to believe something as true, as in “I accept your explanation of why you missed the exam.”


farther / further               Farther involves a physical distance: "Florida is farther from New York than Tennessee." Further involves a figurative distance: "We can take our business plan no further."

fewer / less                        Use fewer when referring to items you can count, like “fewer hours,” “fewer dollars,”   or “fewer people” (not less people!). Use “less” when referring to items you can’t count, like “less time,” “less money,” or “less sand.”

i.e. / e.g.                              i.e. is short for “in other words,” while e.g. is short for “for example.”

In typewritten form these are usually printed in italics.


imply / infer                       The speaker or writer implies, which means to suggest. The listener or reader infers, which means to deduce, whether correctly or not.  e.g. “When you said I was a serious person, did you mean to imply that I have no sense of humor?” “Yes, I think it’s fair for you to infer that from what I said.”


lose / loose                         “Did you lose your saddle? Yes, the cinch strap came loose and it fell off.”

its / it’s                                 its is a possessive pronoun: “That cow has a bell around its neck.”

it’s is a contraction for “it is” as in “It’s time for dinner.”

The only time you ever use it’s is if you can also correctly use it is.


principal / principle          Principal can mean main, most important, or chief, as in “Out of all these reasons, which is the principal reason?” It can also mean a capital sum, as in “Part of your student loan payment each month goes toward paying off the principal, or the amount you originally borrowed, while the rest will go toward paying the interest on the loan.”

Principle can mean a code of conduct, as in “He is a man of principle,” or it can

mean an underlying law of nature (“That explanation defies one of the most

fundamental principles of physics.”)


site / sight                           Site refers to the physical location of something, as in “This is a good site for a


Sight refers to something that is seen, as in “We went to New York City and saw

the sights.”  It can also be a verb referring to the act of seeing, as in “We went to

Patrick’s Point and sighted several whales just offshore.”


than / then                         Than is often used when comparing two things (“She is older than me.” 

                                                “That’s easier said than done.”  “I’d rather go surfing than skiing.”)

Then is commonly used to indicate that something is next in order of time or position:   “She walked, then ran.”  “First the clowns, then the lion tamer.”

Then can simply refer to a point in time: “Ever since then, I’ve been more careful.”

It can also be used to indicate ‘in addition to’ as in “There’s the price, then the tax.”


there / their / they’re:   There can mean in or at a particular place, as in “Please stand right there.”

Their is possessive: “Do you know John and Mary? Yes, this is their house.”

They’re is simply short for “they are” as in “They’re on vacation in Utah.”

Do not use they’re unless you can correctly use they are in its place.


“Look at all those people over there; they’re playing soccer with their new soccer ball.”


They and they’re are correctly used only in the plural; do not use they or they’re if you are referring to one person--instead use his or her.


theirs / yours / ours / hers  are all possessive pronouns and never take an apostrophe.


to / too / two:                   Too means excessive (too much, too large, too small), or it can mean “also,” as in “Let’s                                                                take those too.”


were / we’re / where    Were is used to indicate past tense.

We’re is a contraction of “we are.”

Where is usually used to indicate position or direction.

e.g. “Where are we?  Well, we were in Utah, but now we’re in Nevada.”


weather / whether         “Will the weather be hot tomorrow? That depends on whether or not it’s sunny.”


your / you’re                     Your means belonging to or relating to you, as in “It is your responsibility to know all of these words.”

You’re is a contraction of you are, as in “I think you’re a very good speller.”