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Top 10 Tips For Sleep-Inducing Scientific Writing

Top 10 tips for sleep-inducing scientific writing

by Linda Wang
September 10, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 37

Credit: Shutterstock
Soporific: Writing the perfect paper.
Credit: Shutterstock
Soporific: Writing the perfect paper.

Top 10 tips for sleep-inducing scientific writing

Writing a scientific article so boring that it sends the reader into deep sedation takes a certain amount of skill, according to Kaj Sand-Jensen, a biologist at the University of Copenhagen, in Denmark.

Not everyone can master it, but now there's help. In the May issue of the ecology journal Oikos (2007, 116, 723), Sand-Jensen identifies the characteristics that make for an incredibly dull paper and offers his top 10 suggestions for PERFECTING THE CRAFT.

1. Avoid focus. Sand-Jensen suggests introducing so many questions, ideas, and possible relationships that you kill any hope of a clear hypothesis. "The technique can be refined by putting the same emphasis on what is unimportant or marginally important as on what is really important to make certain that the writing creates the proper hypnotic effect which will put the reader to sleep," he writes.

2. Avoid originality and personality. "Nowhere in the approach, analysis, and writing should there be any mention of the personal reflections leading to this intensive study that robbed five years of the author's youth," Sand-Jensen says.

3. Make the article really, really long. Why write a succinct two-page paper when you can expand it to 16 and fill it with mental drivel, he asks. After all, scientists know long papers display one's great scientific wisdom and deep insight.

4. Remove any suggestion of the work's potential implications. Sand-Jensen points out that if Watson and Crick had not stated at the end of their famous paper that their finding "suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material" they could have escaped fame.

5. Leave out illustrations, particularly good ones. "Because illustrations, which are fundamentally engaging and beautiful, can often portray very complex ideas in forms that are easy to visualize but impossible to explain in thousands of words, boring science writing should not use them," Sand-Jensen says. If you have to include an illustration, include a bad one.

6. Omit necessary steps of reasoning. Communication with ordinary people is just far too time-consuming.

7. Use as many abbreviations and technical terms as possible. This way, you can ensure that people unfamiliar with the field have no access to the paper. "Since we went through all the trouble to learn this 'secret language,' we must make sure that the next generations of students suffer as well," Sand-Jensen writes.

8. Don't even think about being funny or using flowery language. Science writing is a puritanical, serious, and reputable business, so any efforts to come up with creative names for genes or species should be suppressed.

9. Focus only on statistics. For example, understanding the characteristics of each compound in a chemical solution is far less important than knowing how many compounds are in the solution.

10. Support every statement with a reference. Even if a statement is self-evident, add a reference or two, or three, or four. And when you've run out of papers to cite, cite your own work, regardless of whether or not it's relevant. It will make you look smarter.

Sand-Jensen tells C&EN that he was inspired to write the article after hearing about a Ph.D. student in Sweden who was an excellent writer, but when it came time to write his Ph.D. thesis, he had to change his relatively vivid style to a technical and boring style. That got Sand-Jensen thinking about his own experiences. "I have to review papers every day, and many times I have to ask the question, 'Why did they go so far to make this so extremely boring?' "

As Sand-Jensen set out to write the article, he started giving suggestions on how to make scientific literature more interesting. "It became extremely boring, so I had to turn it around 180 degrees to make it ironic or sarcastic." It worked. He's gotten more than 1,000 e-mails from readers around the world since the article came out.

This week's column was written by Linda Wang. Please send comments and suggestions to


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