Scientific English as a Foreign Language
Lesson of August 3, 1999
Your first long manuscript may be a thesis. Not only is more effort required merely because of its length, but also more effort should be put into its organization. Here are some hints.
1. Remember that not everyone will read every word of your long document. Or they may read it carefully one time, then use it later as reference material. You want the titles of the subsections to be sufficiently clear so that people may return easily to your manuscript and find the information they need.
2. Similarly, each figure should demonstrate an important point, and the figure captions should contain enough information such that the reader can grasp the major ideas of the work just by glancing at the figures. Any terminology that appears in a schematic should be explained in the figure caption. For a thesis, there should be enough background information within the text to be able to interpret each figure.
3. Longer documents require more time for the reader to digest. Help the reader by providing a good introduction that contains not only the historical and contextual background, but also gives an overview of the work and describes how you organize the information within the manuscript. (To use an analogy from Prof. W. Benoit, the overview is like your first view of a magnificent cathedral -- the total impression is breathtaking. Then you look more closely for the details -- the rest of the text.)
4. The distinctions among background information, your data, and your interpretation should be clear. People want to know what YOU have done. They may also return in a few years with a new interpretation, in which case they would want to review your data free of your interpretation.
5. For a Ph.D. thesis, you have two audiences. One is the next Ph.D. student who may try to take your work further. Write the background information and experimental results for her. These sections should be written very simply and clearly, assuming a low level of experience in your domain. The experts in your field, who will evaluate your thesis, comprise the other audience. The overview and the interpretation are for them. Write these sections assuming good knowledge on the part of the reader.
6. Ensure consistency between different parts of the manuscript by making a list of the mathematical symbols that you use. It is easy to forget in Chapter 5 in the midst of using "t" to mean time that you already used "t" to mean temperature in Chapter 2.
7. It helps to emphasize definitions and key ideas using boldface, italics, etc. My personal preference is to use boldface for key ideas and italics for definitions, or vice versa. Avoid using one form of font emphasis for both key ideas and definitions.
8. Try not to define acronyms in section titles. Don't put references there either. This makes the manuscript look cleaner.
The heaviest element known to science was recently discovered -- Administratium!
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Created August 3, 1999, by Nancy Burnham and Fred Hutson.