Scientific Writing Coursera Course: Week 1

To improve my scientific writing skills, I’ve enrolled in a Coursera course taught by Dr. Kristin Sainani.

I’ll be sharing my notes, thoughts and writing exercises in a series of blog posts.

Week 1

Video 1.1: Introduction; Principles of effective writing

Dr. Sainani introduced the course, gave an overview of the course material, and some brief principles of effective writing.

Video 1.2: Examples of what not to do

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Is this sentence easy to understand?
  • Is this sentence enjoyable and interesting to read?


Science should be enjoyable and fun to read!

More questions:

  • Is this sentence readable?
  • Is it written to inform or to obscure?

Nouns slow down reading, verbs activate reading.

  • convert nouns to verbs when possible
    • “Selection” to “select”
    • “production” to “to produce”
    • “recycling” to “to recycle”

Course Themes:

  • Complex ideas don’t require complex language
  • Scientific writing should be easy and even enjoyable to read

Video 1.3: Overview, principles of effective writing

Things to watch out for in your writing

  • Pay attention to vague words.
  • Physiologic? What exactly does this mean?
  • Molecular species? Which species?
  • Watch out for jargon. Simplify as much as possible.
  • Careful of acronyms and initialisms.
    • Unless they are standard terms. Most readers won’t know what they mean
  • Be mindful of using passive voice
  • Place verbs early on in sentence

Overview of specific principles of Writing - Cut unncessary words and phrases; learn to part with your words - Use the active voice (subject + verb + object) - Write with verbs: use strong verbs, avoid turning burbs into nouns, and don’t bury the main verb

Video 1.4: Cut the clutter


As it is well known, increased athletic activity has been related to a profile of lower cardiovascular risk, lower blood pressure levels, and improved muscular and cardio-respiratory performance.


Increased athletic activity is associates with lower cardiovascular risk, blood pressure, and improves fitness.


The experimental demonstration is the first of its kind and is a proof of principle for the concept of laser driven particle acceleration in a structure loaded vacuum.


This experiment provides a proof of principle of laser-driven particle acceleration in a structure-loaded vacuum.


Brain injury incidence shows two peak periods in almost all reports: rates are the highest in young people and the elderly.


Rates of brain injury incidence peaks in the young and the elderly.

Cut unnecessary words

  • Be vigilant and ruthless
  • Try the sentence without the extra words and see how it’s better-conveys the same idea with more power.

Common Clutter

  • Dead weight words and phrases
    • As it has been shown
  • Empty words and phrases
    • basic tenets of
    • methodologic
    • important
  • Long words or phrases that could be short
    • Muscular and cardiorespiratory performance
    • A majority of
    • Are of the same opinion
    • less frequently occurring
    • give rise to
    • due to the fact that
    • have an effect on
  • Unnecessary Jargon and acronyms
    • Muscular and cardiorespiratory performance
    • Gliomagensis
    • miR
  • Repetitive words or phrases
    • studies/examples
    • illustrate/demonstrate
    • challenges/difficulties
    • successful solutions
  • Adverbs
    • very, really, quite, basically, generally, etc.


The expected prevalence of mental retardation, based on the assumption that intelligence is normally distributed is about 2.5%.


If intelligence is normally distributed, the expected prevalence of mental retardation is about 2.5%


A robust cell-mediated immune response is necessary, and deficiency in this response predisposes an individual towards active TB.


Deficiency in T-cell-mediated immune response predisposes an individual to TB.

Video 1.5: Cut the clutter, more tricks

Eliminate negatives

  • “She was not often right” to “She was usually wrong”
  • “She did not want to perform the experiment incorrectly” to “She wanted to perform the experiment correctly”
  • “They did not believe the drug was harmful” to “they believed the drug was safe”

Eliminate there are/there is

  • “There are many ways in which we can arrange the pulleys” to “We can arrange the pulleys in many ways”
  • “There was a long line of bacteria on the plate” to “Bacteria lined the plate”
  • “There are many physicists that like to write” to “Many physicists like to write”
  • “The data confirm that there is an association between vegetables and cancer” to “The data confirm an association between vegetables and cancer”

Omit needless prepositions

  • “The meeting happened on Monday” to “The meeting happened Monday”
  • “They agreed that it was true” to “They agreed it was true.”

Text of practice exercises for Module 1.6:


Anti-inflammatory drugs may be protective for the occurrence of Alzheimer’s Disease.


Anti-inflammatory drugs may protect against Alzheimer’s Disease.


Clinical seizures have been estimated to occur in 0.5% to 2.3% of the neonatal population.


Clinical seizures occur between 0.5% and 2.3% of newborns.


Ultimately p53 guards not only against malignant transformation but also plays a role in developmental processes as diverse as aging, differentiation, and fertility.


Besides preventing cancer, P53 also plays roles in aging, differentiation, and fertility.


Injuries to the brain and spinal cord have long been known to be among the most devastating and expensive of all injuries to treat medically.


Injuries to the brain and spinal cord are among the most devastating and expensive.


An IQ test measures an individual’s abilities to perform functions that usually fall in the domains of verbal communication, reasoning, and performance on tasks that represent motor and spatial capabilities.


An IQ test measures an individual’s verbal communication, reasoning, or motor and spatial capabilities.


As we can see from Figure 2, if the return kinetic energy is less than 3.2 Up, there will be two electron trajectories associated with this kinetic energy.


Figure 2 shows that a return kinetic energy lower than 3.2 Up yields two electron trajectories.