A short and utterly incomplete list for geologists, paleontologists, or really anyone who happens to read this. Originally created for the Drexel Geo/Paleo Journal Club in 2014.
CLEAR DESIGN CLEARS THE MIND
Explaining something to someone else can help you understand it better. Think of your audience, and start designing for them early on. Your own thinking will benefit the most.
THINK OF YOUR DOCUMENT AS A TOOLBOX
When you create a document, you build a set of tools that someone will use to understand your concept with. Imagine what that person needs, and how they’ll use each tool to build your concept inside their own minds. If your concept is an Ikea desk, your document is the assembly packet. Figure 1: a hex wrench. The first headline: one of those wooden peg thingies. You get the idea.
ASSUME THEY KNOW LESS THAN YOU DID WHEN YOU STARTED
If you had to learn it for this project, chances are your reader will have to learn it from your document. Give them everything they need – an introductory paragraph with background information, a glossary, a link to more detailed information, or a visual key for diagrams or maps.
REDUCE DRAG SO THAT SMART READERS CAN HAVE SMART THOUGHTS FASTER
When you think you have all the information down, delete words until it stops making sense, then add just enough back in. Use the active voice, because it’s shorter and requires less processing to read. (For example, “We used the following methods” is a faster read than “The following methods were used by our team”.) And if a more familiar word conveys the same information, use it.
ALIGN EVERYTHING WITH SOMETHING ELSE
Imagine holding a ruler to any edge of anything on your page, horizontally and then vertically. There should always be something else lining up against that edge – except maybe your title. You can do this narratively as well, by connecting each sentence to another, making sure your concepts build on each other, and tying each paragraph to the one before and after it.
HAVE A SINGLE FOCAL POINT
Make your document about one thing. If you find yourself trying to squeeze in another point, save it for a second document.
HEADLINES ARE LIKE TINY STORIES
Most people will probably skim your document without reading it. They should still learn something, so write your headlines as if they were all the reader could see. Are the most important parts of your concept conveyed even if no one reads the paragraphs?
EDITING IS EVOLUTION
Have your document poked and prodded by people whose opinion you respect. Kill the parts you don’t need, even if you like them. In the end, your document will be stronger for it.
IF YOU GET STUCK, MAKE IT FUN FOR YOURSELF
Write your concept in haiku form. Bust out some construction paper. Make it out of mashed potatoes. Go outside and picture it in the clouds.
REWARD YOUR READERS
Make it fun for them where you can, because if they stay awake and read your whole paper, even the paragraphs, they’ll remember it better and be more likely to share or reference it later. After you’ve reduced the information processing that has to be done as much as possible by making everything familiar, repeated, and aligned, make sure you add back in something surprising and strange. The things that make people think or laugh are the things they’ll remember.