5 Tips to Improve Your Scientific Writing
Bring clarity, impact, and creativity to your scientific writing.
Posted Mar 01, 2012
1. Omit needless words. Edit out "it is" "it was" "there is" "there are" and "there has been" constructions.
Each year, the Bulwer-Lytton prize for bad writing (prize money: "a pittance") is bestowed upon a writer who can "compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels." Edward Bulwer-Lytton earned the dubious distinction of this eponymous award for publishing this literary gem:
- "It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."
Perhaps you'll rise to fame (or infamy) on the wings of sentences filled with "it is" and "there are" constructions. More likely, your career will crash-land. These constructions are weak and wordy, and their elimination from your manuscript will greatly improve the conciseness and persuasiveness of your writing.
- "...it is in London that our scene lies" becomes "...our scene lies in London"
Some common phrases to edit out of research manuscripts:
- "It is important ..."
- "It is hypothesized that..."
- "It was predicted that..."
- "There is evidence suggesting that..."
- "There is a significant relationship..."
One of my own cringe-worthy constructions:
- "It is hoped that these regulations in affect and cognition would lead to decreased isolation..."
A better option:
- "Regulating affect and cognition could lead to decreased isolation..."
2. Use the active voice.
Passive sentences are like passive people: dull and distant. In the active voice, the person or thing doing an action is the front and center subject of the sentence. "I fed the dog" is active. In the passive voice, the object comes before the actor (or no actor is present). "The dog was fed by me," or "The dog was fed" are passive.
Passive voice sentences generally have verbs preceded by "is" "are" "was" or "were".
An antiquated belief holds that passive voice is needed in science writing to distance the subjective scientist from the objective science. This belief not only promotes misguided thinking (you can't take the scientist out of the science), but also encourages cumbersome sentence structures and dull writing.
- "Participants were given self-report questionnaires..." versus "Participants completed self-report questionnaires..."
- "Patients and their legal guardians were approached for consent..." versus "Research staff members approached patients and their legal guardians for consent" or even "Patients and their legal guardians provided consent to participate in the study."
Researchers often resort to passive voice in an effort to avoid using the first person point of view, using, for example:
- "The items are written to measure..." instead of "We wrote items to" or "We created a measure of..."
- "The data were analyzed..." instead of "I analyzed the data..."
I've noticed that some still wrongfully cling to the belief that writers are not supposed to use first person pronouns in their research manuscripts. The APA style manual encourages the use of first person point of view when you are describing your research actions. Where possible in other situations, however, the research should hold the foreground (e.g., "the results suggest...").
3. Maintain parallelism throughout the paper.
A simple rule, but one easy to overlook (and a problem that shows up in manuscripts more often than you might think). Your hypotheses, measures, and analyses should be presented in the same order whether in the abstract, introduction, methods, results, discussion, or tables. If hypothesis 1 is that self-esteem and depression are linked and hypothesis 2 is that self-esteem increases with age, do not present self-esteem and age analyses before you present self-esteem and depression analyses. The self-esteem measure should be described in the measures before the depression variable, and a table would list descriptives for self-esteem, depression, and age in that order. Measure and variable names and labels should also be consistent throughout.
4. Do not excessively repeat words and phrases.
Variety is the spice of life and of research papers. Excessive repetition makes writing sound dull and hollow. Do a visual scan of your paper or read it out loud looking for words and phrases that appear too many times within and between sentences and paragraphs. Some repetitions can be corrected by eliminating needless words. Others can be fixed with alternative word choices. Find that you're using the word "investigate" too often? Don't be afraid to use a thesaurus to come up with alternatives like "examine", "explore", "inspect", or "review". Never use a thesaurus just to come up with big, impressive sounding words that you don't actually know how to use.
- "Although there are several self-report symptom measures available that evaluate symptomatic distress, the utility of such instruments for measuring outcome is limited. Many symptom measures group symptoms into categories and provide clinicians only with information about specific problems rather than a global measure of symptom severity."
- "While several self-report inventories evaluate psychiatric symptoms, the utility of such instruments for outcome research is limited. Many of these measures group items into highly specific syndrome categories, providing little information about global symptom severity."
Two exceptions to this suggestion are when repetition is used for either parallel constructions ("What counts isn't how you look but how you behave") or purposeful rhetorical emphasis ("We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender."—Winston Churchill).
5. Do repeat sounds.
Consonance and assonance are terms that describe the repetition of sounds across words. These poetic devices improve the flow and lyrical quality of writing, helping to eliminate "tin ear" writing that sounds stilted and stiff when read out loud.
Consonance refers to the repetition of consonant sounds. Alliteration (recurrence of consonants at the beginning of a word) is one form:
- "pick a peck of pickled peppers"
- "two times in short succession"
- "psychiatric services"
However, consonance also occurs within words:
- "Crying in sports is an appropriate and typical response in light of personal tragedy or exceptional adversity."
Alternatively, assonance refers to the repetition of vowel sounds:
- "adverse personal circumstances"
- "social and emotional" (my favorite psychology phrase)
Edgar Allen Poe, having mastered these techniques in his poetry and prose, wrote my all-time favorite sentence (sorry, Edward Bulwer-Lytton):
- "During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher."
But, you might protest, the APA style manual explicitly suggests "avoiding poetic language". Although you should generally avoid literary flourishes (don't write your dissertation in iambic pentameter), figurative language (your study is not a tree of knowledge standing strong against a blustery wind of critiques), and rhyme schemes (do not "correlate the rate of late blind dates with irate mates"), a deafness to rhythm and harmony will hurt the clarity of impact of your research writing.
- Doesn't the assonant title "Ecology, Sexual Selection, and the Evolution of Mating Systems" (which happens to be written by Emlen and Oring, 1977) sound pretty good?
- Is "Self-Reports and Finger Movements in Psychology Research" a better title for the Baumeister, Vohs, and Funder (2007) paper than their alliterative "Psychology as the Science of Self-Reports and Finger Movements"?
- Would you get rid of this spectacular sentence from that same paper: "Whatever happened to helping, hurting, playing, working, taking, eating, risking, waiting, flirting, goofing off, showing off, giving up, screwing up, compromising, selling, persevering, pleading, tricking, outhustling, sandbagging, refusing, and the rest?" (p. 399)
Conducting quality research takes patience and hard work. Doesn't your research writing deserve that same determination and diligence? Communicating your scientific work in a way that is concise, clear, and creative will enhance your chances at publication and will generate enthusiasm and impact for your papers.
© March 1, 2012. Special acknowledgments go to: Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" and Drew Westen for their writing wisdom.
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