Improve your writing

For many of us the most difficult part of writing—whether a short blog piece or a lengthy article—is the preparation of the first draft. Once this is ready, it is time for polishing (improving the phrasing) and weeding (removing unnecessary words and phrases). You are aiming for prose that is both informative and interesting, conveys its message or purpose as concisely as possible, and that abides by a number of conventions. If you are writing a manuscript for submission to a peer-reviewed journal, conciseness is paramount: there is much competition for page space. All other things being equal, editors prefer shorter manuscripts.

There are many guides to improved scientific writing, including this one. If you would like to hone your written English for all purposes we recommend the update to Henry Watson Fowler’s classic work A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (Fowler & Butterfield, 2015).29 Fowler famously promoted a direct, straightforward style of writing—guidance we would all be well advised to follow.

Here we concentrate our advice on the principal matters with which, in our experience, authors struggle.

Style

Style, whether in dress or writing, is a personal matter. But to communicate conservation and ecology research or practice in a manner that is both informative and interesting requires some stylistic compromise: in telling your story you need to do so in prose that is straightforward, clear, concise, free of jargon and non-colloquial (i.e. formal, at least to a degree).

Table 6: Improved word and phrase choice for brevity and clarity.

Awkward/long Better/shorter
approximately circa
conduct an analysis analyse
currently now
due to because
exactly the same the same
from July to September during July–September
in order to to
in the present study here
located in in
made up of comprises
allow for facilitate
represents is
to understand better to examine
utilize use
vast majority majority
was done to ensure ensured
worldwide global

There are many ways to do this, and writing in the appropriate style is largely a matter of practice and familiarity. In Table 6 we suggest replacements for some overused phases and words.

Tense

As far as possible, limit the number of verb tenses that you use, and use a tense that reflects the situation correctly.

In referring to findings from published work, the past tense is most appropriate:

The earlier surveys of Fisher & Jones (1999) were ad hoc rather than systematic.

In describing the climate of an area the present tense is most appropriate (unless the climate has since changed):

The lower altitudes have a tropical climate.

In describing the work you carried out the past tense is most appropriate (because the work took place in the past):

We surveyed during the dry season because of the improved visibility.

In describing a prediction that has been made in the present, the present tense is most appropriate:

The RCP 8.5 climate scenario is the least likely.

For additional examples, see the Introduction, Study area, Methods, Results and Discussion sections.

Voice

One way to improve your text, making it livelier and more attractive to read, is to use the active voice rather than the passive voice. This results in a more direct writing style (Table 7).

Table 7: Examples of improved phrasing, using the active rather than the passive voice.

Passive voice Active voice
It is recommended We recommend
The sampling was done We sampled
The surveying was done We surveyed
The conservation status of the elepahnt bird was assessed. We assessed the conservation status of the elephant bird.

Punctuation

The role of punctuation is to ensure clarity and to disambiguate meaning. The well-known tale about the carnage cause by the panda who ‘eats, shoots and leaves’ illustrates the dangers of misplaced punctuation, as does the sobering story of Roger Casement, who was supposedly ‘hanged by a comma’. Given the dangers of misplaced punctuation the subject merits a guide of its own. Here we will concentrate on a few key points, to keep you safe. As a general guide, a minimalistic approach to punctuation will serve both you and your writing well.

Apostrophe

The correct use of the apostrophe is unambiguous: to indicate a contraction (e.g. can’t for cannot) or the possessive case (the woodland’s trees). But this has not prevented the errant, inappropriate use of the apostrophe, such as to indicate the plural of numerals (in the 1990’s).30 As this usage can be commonly seen on informal signage (potato’s for sale) it is sometimes referred to as the grocers’ apostrophe.

Colon

A colon following a sentence indicates that a list or explanation will follow, with the material following the colon ending with a full stop, thus:

The landowner felled three species of trees: oak, beech and sweet chestnut.

Other uses of the colon include to indicate ratios, subtitles and to separate hours and minutes (but for the latter a full stop may also be used).

Comma

The comma is probably the most troublesome punctuation mark, as when misplaced it can so easily change the intended meaning (as in the story of the panda), so it merits careful attention. Commas are typically used in lists, to separate clauses, after certain adverbs, and in some cases between adjectives.

In this unambiguous sentence, the comma separates items in a list:

The forest includes oak,31 Quercus species beech32 Fagus species and sweet chestnut.33 Castanea sativa, native to southern Europe and parts of Asia, and widely cultivated elsewhere

Some writers would insist on an additional, final comma:

The forest includes oak, beech, and sweet chestnut.

This is the so-called Oxford comma, about which there has been much debate—largely futile and unnecessary. In this example the comma is superfluous. But there are some situations in which the final comma is required, to avoid ambiguity:

The forest includes oak, sweet chestnut and beech.

In this case it is ambiguous whether the forest includes sweet beech, or just beech (only someone who knows that sweet beech is not the common name of a species of Fagus would be certain). If one insists on listing the sweet chestnut before the beech, this version is unambiguous:

The forest includes oak, sweet chestnut, and beech.

A comma is also used to separate subordinate and main clauses when the subordinate clause is placed first:

After the landowner felled the oak, beech and sweet chestnut, he planted Sitka spruce.

But the comma is not required when the subordinate clause is placed second:

The landowner planted Sitka spruce after he cut down the oak, beech and sweet chestnut.

Ellipsis

The ellipsis is a series of three dots (…) indicating the omission of some text, commonly used to remove unnecessary material from a quotation:

The landowner claimed he ‘was unaware that clear felling…was prohibited’.

Exclamation mark

The exclamation mark is used for emphasis but you should avoid its use in scientific writing, except perhaps in a quote:

The farmer complained bitterly: ‘I am tired of conservationists telling me where to plant my crops!’

Full stop

The full stop34 Known as period in American English has several purposes, including the termination of a sentence, to indicate missing words (in an ellipsis), to separate hours and minutes (although a colon may also be used for this), and is also used after initials35 M. Fisher and some abbreviations. Where the abbreviations includes both the first and last letter of a word it is a contraction and therefore a full stop is not required.36 Prof. requires a full stop, whereas Dr does not.

Hyphen, and friends

You may have formerly presumed that a hyphen is simply a -, but when your text is typset short lines of different lengths will be used to indicate varied connections and relationships between words. The humble hyphen (-) is used for hyphenating words, an en-dash (–) to indicate a relationship between two words, or a range, and an em-dash (—) as an alternative to parentheses or a colon, or to indicate the source of a quote (Table 8), and there is even a dedicated hyphen minus. You can mostly ignore these subtleties—although knowledge of them indicates particular care with your punctuation—but use of the en-dash to indicate a range is helpful, as the range is less obvious if a standard hyphen is used, as in 2017-2018 versus 2017–2018.

Table 8: The standard hyphen, en-dash and em-dash characters, their unicode values, and example usage. The standard hyphen is available directly on keyboards but the en- and em-dashes are not. Unicode values are useful for adding these.

Character Name Unicode Example
- hyphen U+2010 camera-trap image
en-dash U+2013 human–wildlife relationship
em-dash U+2014 The landowner planted Sitka spruce—despite a ban against doing so—after he cut down the oak.

Quotation marks

Used either in their single or double form37 British English generally uses the single form, whereas American English uses the double form. quotation marks—also called inverted commas— indicate speech or a quotation. Where a quotation is nested, the alternate forms of quotation marks can be nested, thus:

The landowner argued that ‘It’s my land. The planning officer said “permission is not required to fell trees”, so I felled them’.

Quotation marks are also used for emphasis or to indicate irony, but this usage is best avoided, thus

The ‘woodland’ no longer contains any trees.

is better as

The so-called woodland no longer contains any trees.

because the former lacks clarity.

Semicolon

Using the semicolon correctly can be a challenge. If you are uncomfortable using it, rest assured you can generally write without it; if you are unfeared, this sentence illustrates one of its two principal uses. A semicolon can be used to separate independent clauses where they are related in some way—as in the previous sentence—and to separate items in a list in situations where the comma does not suffice, because of complexity, thus:

The woodland contains many species: oak, beech and sweet chestnut trees; bluebells and wild garlic in the spring; and an abundance of butterflies in the summer.

Italics

Use of italicized text for emphasis and special purposes is, like use of punctuation, highly variable between styles of writing and different English speaking cultures. As a general guide, be minimalistic: restrict the use of italics to scientific names of species,38 Alhajarmyia umbraticola and Juniperus spp., but note that names of Phyla, Classes, Orders, Families and other levels of the taxonomic hierarchy should not be rendered in italics. to the titles of books and names of journals in a bibliography or reference list, and to the names of books, projects or web sites embeded in text, thus.

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species was established in 1964.

If you wish to emphasize a word or phrase do so with phrasing rather than by using italics, thus

The woodland contains many species: oak, beech and sweet chestnut trees; bluebells and wild garlic in the spring; and an abundance of butterflies in the summer.

is better as

The woodland contains many species: oak, beech and sweet chestnut trees; bluebells and wild garlic in the spring; and, in particular, an abundance of butterflies in the summer.

Initial capitals (or not)

Table 9: Examples of incorrect and correct usage of initial capitals

Incorrect Correct
Siberian Tiger Siberian tiger
Greater Adjutant Stork greater adjutant stork
Abdim’s Stork Abdim’s stork
sitka spruce Sitka spruce

The correct use of initial capital letters can engender confusion, especially as in some fields of endeavour there is a tradition of using initial capitals for the common names of species. For the avoidance of confusion, it is wise to use an initial capital only for proper nouns (Table 9).

In British English the first letter after the colon is usually not capitalized, whereas it usually is in American English. For the latter, our earlier example would thus be:

The landowner felled three species of trees: Oak, beech and sweet chestnut.

Abbreviations, and friends

Overuse of abbreviations,39 A shortened form of a word; e.g. m, for metre acronyms40 A word formed from the initial letters or parts of other words; e.g. IUCN from International Union for the Conservation for Nature and contractions41 The shortening of a word by elision; e.g. Dr for Doctor puts an unnecessary burden on your reader, requiring that potentially obscure acronyms and abbreviations have to be remembered for the duration of the reading. Everyday use of acronyms for organizations, initiatives and other bodies is now common and unfortunately their use has spread like wildfire through the scientific literature, to the detriment of comprehension.

Stone circle, Dartmoor National ParkFigure 14: Stone circle, Dartmoor National Park

Compare these two pieces of writing:

Dartmoor National Park (DNP) lies in Devon, England. As the largest park in the south-west, DNP attracts many tourists.

Dartmoor National Park lies in Devon, England. As the largest Park in the south-west, it attracts many tourists.

The second version avoids the uncomfortable, non-standard, acronym DNP, and is shorter. It also avoids the repetition of ‘park’ and, by using an initial capital (‘Park’) it is clear that the text is referring to the proper name of the area mentioned in the previous sentence.

Resist the temptation to use abbreviations, acronyms and contractions or at least minimize their use. Use a style of writing—as in the example above—that removes the necessity to write out terms, names and similar in full at every usage.

There are a few cases in which it is reasonable to use acronyms:

  • Some are so widely known—and often used in preference to the full name—that it seems reasonable to use them as long as you indicate their expansion at first use.42 e.g. CBD for Convention on Biological Diversity As most readers will have encountered the acronym in other writing, the first use reminds them and they will not be burdened by its repetition in the text.

  • Some are both widely known and used in everyday speech and writing to the extent that they function almost as replacement names.43 e.g. IUCN for International Union for Conservation of Nature In these few cases, the expansion of the acronym is unnecessary even at first use.

By convention, abbreviations and acronyms are always expanded at the begninng of a sentence, even if they have been used earlier in the text, as here:

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was opened for signature on 5 June 1992 at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. Convention on Biological Diversity signatories now include 168 countries.

Numbers and units

When presenting numbers, indicate the units using internationally recognized abbreviations.44 Use ISO units Thus for area, use m2, ha or km2 rather than yards, acres or miles.45 For an international audience it is also best to use ISO currency codes, thus USD 100 and GBP 100 rather than $100 and £100.

As a general rule, words are used to indicate numbers less than 10, and numerals to indicate numbers above 10 or smaller numbers if they are accompanied by units, thus:

Each transect was surveyed five times.

Camera traps were set in pairs at 12 locations.

Tree diameter was measured at 1.3 m above the ground.

The species was detected at only 5% of the camera traps.

All numbers should be written as words at the beginning of a sentence, thus:

Twelve transects were surveyed.

Numbers should be used to indicate times and dates, thus:

We surveyed for 1 week every 2 months.

We surveyed during 7.00–10.00 from 1 January to 31 July.

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