5 Tips for Technical Writing

October 28, 2013

There are few career paths in which technical writing skills are unimportant. For those who pursue a science track, it is even more important. Whether it’s a resume, a grant proposal, a project summary, or a monthly report, technical writing plays an important role in finding a job, succeeding in that job, and being chosen for promotions. Simple grammar mistakes or rambling descriptions can distract from the focus of the document and diminish the impact of your work.

Here are five tips for improving technical writing.


It may seem obvious, but the first tip is proofread, proofread, proofread. Spell check cannot be relied on to catch all typos. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen “insure” when it should have been “ensure”, I could retire early. This is a simple mistake that will not be caught by spell check. However, don’t proofread immediately after you’ve finished writing; the work is too fresh in your mind, and you are likely to overlook mistakes. If possible, wait until at least the next day. For an important document, such as a resume, it is helpful to have someone else proofread it also.

Check your grammar

For some people, grammar may be the distant memory of a required class they took long ago. It is also an important component of technical writing. If you can’t remember the difference between an adverb and an adjective, don’t assume that others won’t – take time to brush up on basic grammar rules. If you’re in the middle of a sentence and don’t know whether to use “lay” or “lie”, do a quick Google search. There are many websites that provide quick answers to get you back to writing. Double check any word or punctuation that you are unsure about.


As you proofread your work, ask yourself if each word is really necessary to make your point. Often, descriptive words like “very” or “really” can tend to clutter technical writing without providing any real value. For example, consider the following sentence: The final solution had a very high concentration of 2 mM. Note that the word “very” does not add substantial value. To make the point more effectively, the word “very” could be replaced with something more specific, such as “a high concentration of 2 mM, which was five times the expected value”. Try to use only words or phrases that contribute significantly to each sentence, and be quantitative rather than qualitative when possible.

Keep it short

While decluttering should focus on words and sentences, the overall length of the document should be considered as well. This means determining whether paragraphs or entire sections are really relevant. Consider who your audience is and what level of detail they are interested in. If you’re writing a research paper, a detailed experimental section is highly relevant and expected.  However, if you’re presenting the same results to upper management in a two-page summary, they probably don’t care to know how long you stirred the suspension or what size your volumetric flask was. In general, get to the point and stick to the point with technical writing.

Keep it technical

Technical writing should not read like poetry or a riveting fictional novel, because it is typically not something that people like to read in their free time. It is work related and should be highly focused. If you have successfully decluttered and kept it short, it should already be technical. Keep an eye out for rambling sentences. Look for places where quantitative values could improve the impact of the writing. Ask yourself, what is the main point (or points) that I want my audience to walk away with? Make each point as briefly and quantitatively as possible. Then proofread, proofread, proofread.

This article was written by Sherrie Elzey, Ph.D., a chemical engineer and freelance technical writer/editor. Sherrie has a background in nanoscience and nanotechnology research, with experience in academia, government, and industry positions.

How to Write a Research Paper

February 11, 2013

For a scientist, if you don’t publish your results, it may as well not exist.  Communicating the results of your experiments is crucial, so others in your field can learn from, repeat, and expand on your work.  While there are a wide variety of journals and other publication venues from which to choose, the actual process of writing a paper varies little between them.

Professor Peter D. Battle, an inorganic professor at Oxford University, recently shared the process he uses to write a research paper with a group of students at Edinburgh University, and kindly allowed me to share his process here as well.

When, Where, Who, What and Why

Obviously, the first step is to decide when you have enough data to publish, where you will publish it, who the authors will be, and exactly what will and will not be included in this particular article.   (Why we publish is left as an exercise for the reader.)  In general, you need to learn what the smallest publishable unit is to allow your article to be published in a journal with a high impact factor.  Impact factor is a numerical score that measures the average number of times an article in that journal is cited in other articles, a commonly used measure of prestige.

Read the Directions

Every journal has instructions to authors, usually available on their website.  Once you’ve targeted a journal for submission, download their instructions and follow them exactly.  There is no easier way to guarantee rejection than by not following the prescribed format.

Start with Figures

Professor Battle starts the writing process by creating the figures and tables that will accompany the article.  Collecting all the data makes it quite obvious if data are missing, when there is still time to go back to the lab and do another experiment. The table and figure titles should be both informative and detailed, with the font size in the figures about double that used for article text.  Color can add clarity to the data, but can also increase publication costs.  You may want to create three separate versions of each figure – one for black and white printing (with symbols), one for color printing (with colored lines), and one for use in oral or poster presentations (with even larger titles and less explanatory text).


In the experimental section, detail not only what you did and how you did it, but why.  This can be a great learning opportunity, to think about ways you might do things differently in the future. Be sure to include enough details so someone else could reproduce your work.  If you include references to standard methods, make sure you actually read the papers and understand them.

Results and Discussion

The results section is where you describe your findings, detailing the non-negotiable facts that came from your experiments.  The discussion section is where you put those findings in context and draw conclusions – and these conclusions may be open for debate.

Summarize, then Summarize Some More

Now that the bulk of the paper is written, go back and write the introduction. Summarize what the reader needs to know in order to read the discussion, and again include relevant references.  Summarize the entire paper into the abstract – repeat information from each of the now completed sections to present a cohesive, general overview of the entire paper.  Finally, summarize the entire abstract into a concise, informative title that describes your work in as few words as possible.

Throughout the process, be sure to follow all author guidelines and professional ethical guidelines.  Prepare the submission packet with all required forms and information, and a well-written cover letter that describes the impact of your research. If you suggest reviewers, don’t suggest people you’ve worked with since the editors will just reject them.

Response from the Editor

The peer review process exists to improve the quality of scientific research, maintain standards, and provide credibility. When you receive the editor’s response to your submission, remember that it is not a personal attack.  Read the reviewers comments, and then set them aside for 24 hours.  Realize that if the reviewers had problems with a certain issue, other readers will most likely have the same issues. Strive to understand their concerns, and revise the paper to address them.  Prepare a detailed response, describing exactly what you changed.  If you choose not to change the submission in response to reviewers’ comments, tell the editor exactly why not.

At the completion of this process, your results will be published and shared with the rest of the scientific community. Their comments and feedback will help advance your work, in a continual cycle of learning and improvement.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC.  Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists:  New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press. Special thanks to Professor Peter D. Battle for source material and insightful review comments. 

Comparative Advantages of Young Chemists to Industry Veterans

July 9, 2012

Employers hiring chemists consider new graduates and post-docs leaving academia with a very different mindset than they do industry veterans. By understanding these mindsets both industry novices and veterans can job hunt more effectively. So what are these mindsets and the relative advantages each type of chemist brings to the job market?

Skill sets

Employers are searching for very specific skill sets when evaluating job candidates. They want to hire individuals who can rapidly “come up to speed” and begin producing useful results for the employer. Employers may not hire and train a new graduate when they can hire a recently laid-off scientist with exactly the technical skills they need.

Additionally, veteran industrial chemists will often have advanced soft skills that graduating chemists and post-docs leaving academia haven’t had the opportunity to develop. These include project management skills, polished oral presentation skills, teamwork opportunities and working productively with customers and suppliers. Also, preparing articles for industry trade magazines requires a different approach to writing than preparing a thesis or writing papers for research journals. The differences are important because industry trade journal articles can promote product sales while research journal papers seldom do this.

Having a practical understanding of how to protect intellectual property can help chemists work productively with patent attorneys to safeguard their employers’ interests. Many chemists, both industry veterans and novices, don’t have these skills. Therefore, veteran chemists who have these skills and can describe them clearly have a significant advantage in the job market.

Employers may be reluctant to hire veteran chemists because they feel they have to pay them more than recently graduated chemists. However, by emphasizing their ability to come up to speed rapidly and use their valuable skills gained through their experience, veteran chemists can overcome this reluctance.

Carefully choose your graduate and post-doctoral research advisors so you gain the knowledge and skills in demand when you looking for an industrial job. For example, nanotechnology is being increasingly utilized in catalysis, polymer fillers and consumer product formulations. Chemists leaving academia after working in nanotechnology can often take advantage of these needs and emphasizing their skills when job hunting.

Many industry veterans know the “rules of the road” for industrial job hunting. However, these rules have changed greatly over the last decade. Therefore, veteran chemists who have not been in the job market for many years may be competing ineffectively. Whether you are an industry veteran or are leaving academia for the first time you have to learn today’s job-hunting skills. These skills are taught in books, through ACS employment workshops and by talking to recently successful job hunters or recruiters.

Professional networks

Having a professional network of individuals who can provide job leads and expert job-hunting advice can be a major advantage in job hunting. It takes chemists time to develop these professional networks. Therefore, professional networks can be a source of advice for many veteran chemists looking for work. Unfortunately some veteran chemists do not take the time necessary to develop or maintain their professional networks because they feel they are too busy.

Novice chemists need not despair over their professional networks if they work at developing them starting a year or more before leaving the academic nest. Learn if your research advisors have industrial connections that will be helpful in your job-hunting efforts. You may want to consider this factor when choosing your graduate and postdoctoral research advisors.

Members of your professor’s research group who recently got industry jobs can be particularly helpful members of your professional network. This is because they work in the same or similar technology area as you and have recently honed their job-hunting skills in a very demanding job market.

The war for talent

The war for talent is not a battle between generations. Every job hunter is competing with every other to convince employers that they have the skills to best fill the available job opening. Rather than building up resentments towards other job hunters, the most effective strategies are to hone your own job hunting skills and professional networks. Good luck!

John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1200 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.

Unemployed? Don’t Let Your Job Skills Become Rusty

May 2, 2011

Preventing your job skills from deteriorating or becoming out of date is an important issue when you are unemployed, particularly if you have been unemployed for a year or more. Job hunts are taking longer nowadays. Overall, the number of long-term unemployed is at its highest levels since the Great Depression of the 1930s. “Newly laid-off chemists face a job market in which long-term unemployment has become the rule rather than the exception” according to the July 5, 2010 issue of C&EN (http://pubs.acs.org/cen/coverstory/88/8827cover2.html ). Over 40% of the unemployed have been out of work for than six months or longer, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is more than 6 million Americans. The number and percentage of people who have been unemployed for more than six months has risen sharply since 2008. Corresponding numbers for chemists have not been reported. However, anecdotal information suggests that the number of chemists unemployed for six months or more has increased.
Besides the adverse financial effects of long-term unemployment, unemployed chemists face another challenge: the danger of their job skills and chemical knowledge becoming out of date.

“The wasted human capital is just tremendous,” says Jacob Kirkegaard, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “Once people become unemployed for long periods of time, you start seeing a serious depreciation or reduction in their skill levels — in the human capital that they carry… They essentially lose contact with the latest developments in their own field.” For example, unemployed chemists may not have convenient access to research and trade journals now that their former employers’ libraries are unavailable. Given the cost of journal subscriptions, few unemployed chemists are likely to make this investment.

So what steps can you take to keep your professional skills up to date and even expand them?

Check the ACS website

The ACS offers benefits to unemployed members that include waived dues for up to two full years. Benefits specifically related to helping unemployed members keep their professional skills up to date include registration discounts for online business skills courses, ACS ProSpectives, ACS short courses, webcasts, and the ACS Leadership Development System. Information on these programs is available in the Careers section of the ACS website.

National and regional ACS meetings can be an important way to keep your chemistry knowledge from becoming out of date. ACS members receive reduced meeting registration fees. There are also other ways to reduce the cost of attending ACS meetings including using frequent flyer miles to eliminate airfare expenses and reducing hotel room costs by sharing a room with a friend.

Temporary employment

Many current job openings are for temporary positions. For example, in December 2008 the U.S. economy lost 85,000 jobs overall according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, at the same time the number of people employed in temporary positions increased by 47,000 people.

By registering with a temporary employment agency such as Kelly Scientific Services, Aerotek, Olsten Staffing Services and other firms, you may be able to find a temporary position that will both provide some income when your unemployment benefits are exhausted and offer a means of utilizing your chemical skills and knowledge. These jobs can help you keep your chemistry skills up to date.

However, you don’t want to become complacent while working in a temporary position even if the job is interesting and your coworkers congenial. While employed in a temporary job, you should continue your job hunt for a long-term position. Also, let the company contracting your services know that you are interested in a long-term position with them. Some firms use temporary positions as a means of screening people for long-term employment.

Other options

If you live in a large city, you can access research journals and trade magazines through your local library. Libraries in lower population areas may also maintain some of these subscriptions. You may be able to access the libraries of local colleges and universities, particularly if you are an alumnus.

ACS local sections often bring in speakers to present talks on technical subjects. You may want to ask your local section program chair to not limit these talks to chemistry. For example, a local project manager may be interested in discussing the basics of her field. A patent attorney may be willing to present an overview of his field or describe how recent changes in the patent system affect both researchers and their employers.

Consider forming a job-hunting club through your ACS local section. See the ACS tip sheet to start a job club. Participants in the club can present talks in their technical fields. This can enable club members to be exposed to technology outside their own specialty area. It can also enable them to practice interviewing skills.  
John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1200 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.

Take Charge of Your Training

February 7, 2011

Take Charge of Your Training

At the recent ACS Leadership Institute, I participated in many discussions on the current and future state of the employment market for chemists.  Much as I thought – the employment market is perhaps starting to rebound, but there is a lot of pent-up demand.  It will be a long time before it’s a job seeker’s market again, but there is hope.  One point that hit home with me was made by John Borchardt, ACS Career Consultant.  John said “companies are much less willing to tolerate employees’ learning curves.”

It used to be that companies would hire capable, accomplished people and then train them on how to do the job.  When it was time for the person to move up, the company would provide training in leadership and management, or whatever was necessary to prepare them for the next step on the career ladder.

As the employment market shifted, many companies started cutting back on training.  At the beginning of the recession, they supported it, by allowing employees time off to take training classes, and sometimes paying for classes taught by outside organizations. Now things are different.

In today’s world, companies expect you to  arrive not only ready to do the job, but having already proven yourself by doing similar things successfully in previous positions.  If there are parts of the job you are less familiar with, you are expected to learn how to do those on your own time, at your own expense.  If you’re lucky, your supervisor and co-workers will point out where you need to improve, so you can get the training and experience you need to be successful – before it’s too late.

As you go through your career, you will find things that you are good at, and things that you are not so good at.  Skills that were not important to you early in your career may become more important later on.  Things you didn’t enjoy doing when you were younger may become more enjoyable later on.  You are never done learning and growing, and therefore need to constantly evaluate both based on where you are and where you want to go.

You should take advantage of relevant training opportunities that comes along.  If your company provides training, wonderful!  Often if you can prove that taking that training is going to provide a benefit to the company, you will be able to get both approval and financial support.

If that doesn’t work, offer to split the costs with your employer.  Maybe they pay the fee and travel expenses, but you agree to work extra hours ahead of time to cover the work that you will miss while you are gone.

If that doesn’t work, there are always low cost options like spending your lunch hour listening to a webinar, or taking an evening course at a local community college.

Depending on what it is you are trying to learn, you might also be able to take on a volunteer position that will give you practical experience in some new area that you don’t get in your job, and eventually will lead to accomplishments that you can list on your resume.

It’s up to you to determine what important skills are missing from your personal experience, or which ones you need to get better at, then find ways to get training and experience in those skills.  Even if what you learn is that you really don’t like doing that particular type of task, that in itself is valuable information that you can use when you plan the next stage in your career path.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press.

Oral Presentations: Preparation is Everything!

November 29, 2010

Presenting our work to others, especially orally, is a large part of what we do as scientists. Sometimes this occurs through informal conversations, but often it happens at scheduled, formal presentations.  While very few people actually enjoy giving oral presentations, a little preparation can make your own presentations much more successful.

The most important thing is to know your audience, and tailor the talk to them.  Will you be speaking to other experts in your narrow sub-field, or to chemists in general?  Will they have chosen to attend your talk, or are they required to attend?  Will they be anxious to hear what you have to say, or just anxious because your talk is standing between them and dinner?  Is it a serious scientific presentation, or a more relaxed after-dinner talk? Find out as much as you can in advance, so you can include the appropriate level of background and detail.  Start preparing as soon as you know you will be speaking, and practice several times before the big day.

You need to know what the technical arrangements will be.  Do you need to bring your own laptop, or just a USB drive with your presentation? Always bring a back-up, just in case, and of course the appropriate adapter if you travel with a Macintosh.  I go so far as to  bring a hardcopy of my presentation, complete with presenter’s notes, so I can do a “chalk talk”, if I have to. (It also comes in handy for reviewing on the plane, or in the hotel room.)

When preparing your “slides”, remember that people will only see them for a short time, and many from a long distance away.  Don’t bother to put up tiny text that no one will be able to read. Remember that oral presentations are for the big picture – point people to printed articles for the details.  The more presentations I do, the more pictures and fewer words I have on my slides.

Make sure to arrive at the site in plenty of time to check things out.  If possible, I like to visit the room the night before, so I can check out the physical arrangements, the projector and screen, where the light switches are, test the microphones, and so on.  If there are any problems, you want to have plenty of time to work them out and still start the session on time.  If possible, I prefer to keep the lights on, with perhaps just the front of the room dark, to make it easier for people to take notes.

Provide your host with an introduction describing you.  This ensures that the audience knows who you are and why they should listen to you, and also allows you to segue gracefully into your presentation.

If you can’t see a clock from where you’re presenting, make sure to have a watch or timer where you can see it. Ideally, you will know where you should be at the halfway point, and have a plan to condense or eliminate material if you are running long.

Finally, wrap up by talking about the next steps for you or the audience (depending on your topic), and by thanking the people who helped you with the work.  Allow time for questions, and remember to repeat them for the benefit of those who did not hear.

These few simple steps will make you more confident and prepared, which will translate into a more enjoyable presentation – for the audience, as well as for you.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants. Lisa is a scientific communication consultant and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.

Lessons from ACS National Meeting

October 18, 2010

I recently had the opportunity to attend the ACS national meeting in Boston.  Six rain-soaked days of meetings, meals and general merriment with 14,000 fellow chemists.  While exhausting, it also energized me to be around so many other people who are passionate about the same things I am passionate about, including career development for scientists.  Below I share several ideas that occurred while there.

1.  The most important thing you can do for your career is to find a mentor.  You need someone who has been there, who is willing to share their experiences with you.  They can tell you what it’s really like, offer advice when things don’t go as you think they should, and provide encouragement.  A good mentor is invaluable, and they are paid back with your respect, and by you “paying it forward” and mentoring those who come behind you.

2.  If you are a member of a committee, take an active role.  Find some aspect of the subject you can be passionate about, and work on that.  Participate in discussions, take on tasks, and offer opinions. If you truly can’t contribute anything, don’t accept the assignment.  Find something you can care about, and direct your energies in that direction.

3.  The Royal Society of Chemistry has 12 professional attributes one needs to meet in order to become a chartered chemist. Even if you’re not a member, these guidelines can be a good checklist for your own career. Are you meeting all these goals?  If not, which ones do you need to work on, and what can you do to improve your skills in that area?

4.  And speaking of working on your weaknesses…..  Public speaking is one thing a lot of people have trouble with.  They don’t like it, so avoid it, and therefore never get better.  I often recommend people join Toastmasters, an organization dedicated to helping people become more competent and comfortable in front of an audience, and they have local chapters in almost every city.  Another great way to get more experience in public speaking to volunteer at a local science center.  You can make presentations to the general public in a low risk environment, sharing your enthusiasm for chemistry while improving your own soft skills.

Volunteering is also a great way to find a position in a down market.  Especially for students, look for summer positions or internships with an organization you might like to work with professionally.  This will let you get to know people there, and let them see what great skills you have, so when a “real” position opens up you can get them to advocate for you. It also gives you experience in the field, which makes you more attractive to the institution.

And while you are developing those skills that they want, think about what other skills you have, and what other skills you can develop.  You want to develop a unique set of skills that make you ideally qualified for the type of career you want to have.  Once you have that fit, it will be obvious to any employer that you are the right person for the job.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants. Lisa is a scientific communication consultant and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2007).