Scientists on scientific writing, part 2

June 4, 2009 at 12:18 pm Leave a comment

Continuing on from my last post, here is some additional advice from scientists on improving scientific writing.

Use plain language. Many fields of science use more jargon today than ever before, including lots of abbreviations. But jargon alone isn’t to blame for ponderous and inaccessible writing. A larger problem is that scientists tend to shy away from words that are simple and plain, and gravitate toward verbose language that they think sounds smarter.

Consider this rewrite of my first two sentences: “A predominant number of scientific fields utilize a larger quantity of jargon at the present time than in previous eras, including a considerable amount of abbreviation. However, jargon in and of itself cannot shoulder all of the responsibility for writing that is inaccessible and ponderous.”

While the second version is still intelligible, the bloated style makes it harder to digest.

Wordy_resizedCombat wordiness. A related issue is wordiness. As you can see above, using common language should shorten your sentences significantly (i.e., the first version is 26 words; the second, 45). And another way to fight long-windedness is to use verbs instead of nouns as much as possible.

For example: Instead of “This result leads us to the conclusion,” write “From this result, we conclude.” Likewise, “one of the key issues which is the cause of the critical point of the sampling size” can be rewritten as “one of the key issues that causes the critical point of the sampling size…”

Maintain linkage between ideas. “Another mistake often occurs right at the start of a sentence, in the ‘topic position,’” says an article from a May 2003 issue of Nature. “Readers expect to find some sort of bridge between sentences here. If a completely new word or phrase occupies this spot…the reader is momentarily confused.”

In this excerpt from a recent paper, observe how the authors make this common mistake between the second and third sentences:

“DNA breaks arise spontaneously or in response to genotoxic events. Cells respond to double-stranded break (DSB) formation to prevent chromosomal abnormalities. The conserved Mre11-Rad50-Xrs2 (MRX) complex (MRN complex in mammals) is implicated in the DSB response. It binds and holds together the broken extremities, thus preventing chromosome fragmentation and mediates the loading of Tel1/ATM at the break.”

The problem is easily fixed, though, by flipping the third sentence around. Notice how this change also clarifies what “It” refers to at the beginning of the fourth sentence:

“DNA breaks arise spontaneously or in response to genotoxic events. Cells respond to double-stranded break (DSB) formation to prevent chromosomal abnormalities. Implicated in the DSB response is the conserved Mre11-Rad50-Xrs2 (MRX) complex (MRN complex in mammals). It binds and holds together the broken extremities, thus preventing chromosome fragmentation, and mediates the loading of Tel1/ATM at the break.”

References

The science of scientific writing. G Gopen and J Swan (1990) American Scientist. Read it here.

The infectiousness of pompous prose. MW Gregory (1992) Nature 360: 11-12

Clear as mud. J. Knight (2003) Nature 423: 376-378

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Entry filed under: Words and sentences.

Scientists on scientific writing Writing and manuscript acceptance or (gulp) rejection

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Science of Scientific Writing

This article describes what readers expect when they read - and how scientific writing often violates those expectations.

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