Three key steps in scientific writing

Advice from Ryan Sills, winner of The James Clerk Maxwell Writers Prize

From best papers to scholarships, travel grants to society awards, Taylor & Francis offer hundreds of prizes for researchers, collaborating with journals, institutions, and societies to provide support and recognition.

So, how do you approach writing an award-winning article? What are the key steps to follow in scientific writing to produce a clear and concise piece of work? Ryan Sills, winner of The James Clerk Maxwell Writers Prize for 2016 shares his advice.

The James Clerk Maxwell Writers Prize is awarded annually to a talented researcher published in either Philosophical Magazine or Philosophical Magazine Letters.

From Ryan Sills  

In my experience with scientific writing, there are (at least) three key steps towards producing a clear and concise piece of work.

1) Identify the point

Unlike other writing styles, scientific writing needs to have a clear point. It needs to be obvious to the reader what they get out of reading your work, answering the question, “what’s in it for me?”

A ‘point’ has three elements: a problem, a gap in our understanding of that problem, and a contribution towards filling in that gap. The ‘problem’ should be one that many other people care about (especially if you want it to be cited). Identifying the ‘gap’ is synonymous with conducting a thorough literature review. And you should be able to clearly state the contribution in a handful of sentences. Not only do you need to identify the point, but you need to weave it throughout your work so that the reader can follow, without losing hope that they will arrive at the promised destination.

2) Empathize with your readers

Remember, the whole point of writing is for people to read what you have written. It doesn’t matter how great your research is if you confuse your reader or put them to sleep on page two. You need to identify your target audience and write for them.

In many ways, you are the worst possible reader for your work because you already understand everything. To write well, you have to put yourself into a novice’s shoes and ask yourself, “if I knew little or nothing, would I understand or care about this?”

3) Start writing early 

I like to start writing very early, long before I am done with the research. This accomplishes a few things. Firstly, it provides a check on my understanding of the subject matter (it’s hard to write about something if you don’t understand it). It forces me to conduct a thorough literature review (you can’t write a good introduction unless you are aware of what has already been done). And it helps me determine what research direction will provide the most cogent manuscript. This is important because often a manuscript is the primary output of research, so the research should be guided by the manuscript needs, to some extent.


Ryan B. Sills, PhD has been a staff member at Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, CA since 2010. He received his B.S. from Cornell University in 2009, his M.S. from the University of Michigan in 2010, and his PhD from Stanford University in 2016, all in Mechanical Engineering. His research focuses on the mechanics of materials, using theory and computer simulations to understand the fundamentals of damage and fracture in structural materials. Ryan has authored numerous journal articles and book chapters. He was recently awarded the 2016 James Clerk Maxwell Writers Prize for a journal article he published in Philosophical Magazine.