This week we continue our Guest Blogger Summer Series on Good Writing by Dianna Bartel. Last time, she discussed where to start and how to get started on a writing project. This week, she takes it up a notch and specifically helps us choose the most appropriate words to get our points across clearly and concisely. Here’s Dianna:
When writing about complex ideas and concepts, it’s easy to get pulled into complex writing. Yet complex writing only spurns more complexity and does little to convey our results and insights. Here, we consider some general principles and guidelines that can improve the clarity and sophistication of our writing, beginning with the smallest unit – words.
1) Use precise words
Quantifying results is the most easily recognizable way to develop precise scientific writing. Seems obvious enough – after all, we are reporting quantified results. Yet imprecise words can still sneak into our writing. For instance, rather than “the temperature increased over several hours,” it is better to exactly state that, “the temperature increased over four hours.” Similarly, as opposed to “the cells divided regularly,” opt to explicitly state “the cells divided at regular four-hour intervals.”
These are common imprecise words that can usually be clarified:
2) Use simple words
Science requires technical and often complicated terms. Therefore, to keep our writing from being too dense, we can choose simple words for the rest of the sentence. This is especially true in sentences that are already burdened with several complex terms and ideas. For instance, the dense words below can often be replaced with simpler words, assuming that we do not sacrifice precision and accuracy.
Ameliorate Enhance, Improve
Attenuate Reduce, Decrease
Augment Enhance, Increase
Elucidate Explain, Show
3) Omit unnecessary words and empty phrases
Nearly every form of scientific writing is space-limited. Grant proposals, most journal articles, and abstracts all have word or page limits, so there is a premium on concise writing. Besides, adding superfluous words and phrases distracts rather than engages our reader. Many of these unnecessary phrases are those we frequently use in speech, where they buy us some time as we’re pulling together our thoughts. But on the page, these phrases usually weigh down our thoughts and always cut into precious space.
Here are some empty phrases that creep into writing that can be simplified:
By means of By, With
Despite the fact that Although
Due to the fact Because
During the course of During
Fewer in number Fewer
For the purpose of For
If conditions are such that If
In light of the fact that Because
In order to To
In the event that If
In spite of the fact Although
Has the capacity to Can
Obtain estimates Estimates
Offers confirmation Confirms
Shows a peak Peaks
4) Use qualifiers sparingly
Qualifiers are words that modify or limit the meaning of other words; like the hundreds of words or phrases that can be used to express possibility, approximation, or doubt (some examples below). Using this cautious language has an important place in scientific writing, but using two, three, or even four synonyms is unnecessary and depletes the strength of our point: “may be possible” (better: it is possible), “seems to suggest” (better: suggests), “rather likely to indicate” (better: indicates), “may be seen as rather likely” (better: is likely). We only need to express the possibility or doubt once; one modifier is enough.
5) Choose abbreviations carefully
Like jargon and technical terms, abbreviations are in no shortage among our pages. Too many abbreviations can confuse our readers, but when used effectively they can speed up reading and ease the understanding of the subject. Take for example a study focused on the ‘nucleus of the solitary tract’ that refers to this brain structure 80 times in a seventeen-page paper. That’s 400 words, or a long paragraph, of those same five words! But by shortening to the standard abbreviation (nTS), I eliminated over 300 of those words. This is an obvious example; however, just because there is a standard abbreviation for a term does not mean we need to use it, especially if it only appears a few times. A good rule of thumb is to abbreviate words if they appear at least 10 times in a ten-page document.
In addition to field-specific abbreviations, there are standard abbreviations, such as kg, cm, and other forms of measurement, as well as those that are generally considered common knowledge, such as DNA and GFP (still a good idea to define and spell these out the first time they appear if possible though). And finally, there are several Latin abbreviations, some of the most common of which follow:
Common Latin abbreviations
e.g., (exempli gratia) = for example
…as demonstrated by earlier studies (e.g., Smith, 1999).
i.e., (id est) = in other words
…the table includes the total distance; i.e., it does not include individual measurements
et al., (et alia) = and others
…Smith et al., 1999
cf., (conferre) = compare with
…these results revealed increased numbers of cells (cf. results reported by Smith, 1999)
viz., (videlicet) = namely
…we replicated our earlier results (viz., Smith and Smith, 1999)
6) Avoid Zombies
And last, but not least, we end with some safety precautions to avoid zombies. 🙂
Technically speaking these lifeless monsters are called nominalizations: making something into a noun. For instance, taking a lively verb and adding a suffix like –ance, -ment, or -tion, creates a lifeless and passive noun. So instead of examining a result, the examination of a result occurs; rather than assessing a new technique, we implement an assessment.
The writing scholar, Helen Sword, terms these words ‘zombie nouns’ because “they lumber across the page without a conscious agent directing their motion.” She has even animated this point in a TED-Ed video (a very entertaining 5 min). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dNlkHtMgcPQ
Zombie nouns often shift our writing into a passive voice and can turn our writing into a night of the living dead. Dangerously, scientific writing is a breeding ground for zombie nouns. This is not to say that we cannot use nominalizations; however, we should beware that they usually muddy our sentences and decrease clarity.
Consider these examples from the eminent psycholinguist Steven Pinker:
Dense: Comprehension checks were used as exclusion criteria.
Simple: We excluded people who failed to understand the instructions.
Dense: Prevention of neurogenesis diminished social avoidance.
Simple: When we prevented neurogenesis, the mice no longer avoided other mice.
Plus, when we use verbs instead of their related nouns, we often use fewer words:
9 words: Helen Sword makes an observation that nominalizations decrease clarity.
7 words: Helen Sword observes that nominalizations decrease clarity.
Here are some of the typical zombies:
In summary, following and implementing these 6 basic tips will drastically improve our writing, seemingly overnight. They are simple quick-fixes that can make a big difference. We’ve all read papers that are exhausting to read, and we’ve all read papers that were enjoyable to read. Go back and see if you can figure out why one was mentally exhausting and the other wasn’t – it’s probably because the easier-to-read paper followed these tips!
Make sure your next paper falls into the “enjoyable to read” category by following these 6 pieces of advice.
Check back with us next time for Good Writing Part III when we discuss how to use our carefully chosen words to construct whole sentences and paragraphs.
** Let us know what else you think about words, words… or words **
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