Scientific Communication for Natural Resource Professionals

Chapter 4: Style, Usage, Grammar, and Punctuation

Alexander V. Zale, David A. Hewitt, and Brian R. Murphy


Authors can best ensure that their ideas and results are conveyed effectively by maintaining a constant focus on making their writing easy to read and understand. The primary task of the technical writer is to inform the reader. When a reader is confused or misinformed, the fault lies with the author. Authors therefore must give high priority not only to what they are writing about but also to the way in which they write it. The sheer volume, specialization, and complexities of science make keeping up with the literature increasingly difficult (Peters 1996; Graham and Dayton 2002). Clear scientific writing eases that difficulty. Accordingly, the objective of this chapter is to provide natural resources professionals with guidance on making their writing easy to read and understand.

We originally developed the advice in this chapter independently as checklists to remind ourselves of common mistakes that we committed in our technical writing. The lists were designed to facilitate pruning of errors from our reports, theses, dissertations, and manuscripts. In particular, we sought to eliminate the simple mistakes that were notorious for irritating our reviewers and editors, and that were equally notorious for slipping our minds. The checklists helped. We subsequently provided them and related guidance to our students and colleagues, who passed them along to others. Our hope is that this guidance will make writing, editing, and publishing more pleasant and efficient for others as well. Little of it is of our own making. Most was gleaned from those irritated reviewers and editors, and from books and articles authored by experienced technical writers and editors (Gopen and Swan 1990; Day 1992, 1994; Toft and Jaeger 1998; Strunk and White 2000; Williams 2006; AFS 2010), especially Eschmeyer (1990). The guidance in this chapter is not intended to be comprehensive but rather to address the most common mistakes and problems that we see in scientific writing about natural resources.