Part of science and research is the ability to communicate research effectively to a wide audience. Writing well is essential to the job and the associated skills should be invested in. Even for the more experienced researchers, it´s often good to go back to the basics, reassess our own writing and remind ourselves of what it takes to write well. I have been lucky enough to have sat through writing courses in multiple universities worldwide and exposed to different writing styles and teachers. One key writing advice they all had in common – Keep it Simple.
Good writing is not complex. It should be clear, concise, and accurate and also convey exactly what you mean. Look at examples of good writing in the journal you wish to submit to; if the writing looks effortless, it probably wasn´t.
Let´s look at how to Keep it Simple in three aspects of scientific writing: Word choice, Sentence structure, and Paragraphs.
- Word choice
Word choice is crucial for clear and easy to read documents. It affects readability and precision and should be targeted to your intended audience.
In scientific writing we have a defined audience; in general other researchers of the same field. However, there maybe varying ability in English and may also be read by others outside your subfield. Therefore, to be widely understood, it is important to make appropriate word choices. Avoid jargon, abbreviations and colloquialisms. Jargon does not make you appear more knowledgeable in your field. On the contrary, it only decreases readability and makes your text more difficult to understand. Similarly there is no place for similes or metaphors in scientific writing. Don´t leave your audience with any doubts and say exactly what you mean.
English has a wealth of words to communicate exactly what we wish to convey – use them. Are you “showing”, “demonstrating”, “indicating”, “proving”, or “suggesting”? These words are not synonyms or substitutes for each other and have different nuances in their meanings. Be precise with what you want to say. Some of the aforementioned words are more certain in showing an outcome than others. Another good example here is the words correlated and related. Correlation is a precise statistical association and this word should be used if this is what you mean. We will discuss common verbs for reporting results and discussing them in a future post.
When we need to choose between a complex word and a simpler word, the best choice is usually the simpler word if we do not lose precision. For example, utilize vs. use. Although be careful with the nuances of these two if referring to people. Utilizing employees is a positive method of making the most of your employees, whereas using people is generally seen in a negative light.
In short, make each word communicate what you intend.
Next we need to consider sentence structure. Again our objective with sentence structure is to be precise and clearly communicate an idea. Complex long sentences should be avoided. While it´s good to vary the length of sentences to mimic normal speech and create natural flow, long sentences risk containing too many ideas. When revising your sentences, break long complex sentences into the separate ideas conveyed. Then try to rewrite each idea into its own sentence if possible.
Connecting words help sentences to flow from one to the next. However, you can lose impact with overuse of connecting words as the information gets lost amongst the extra words. Try to find a balance between too many connecting words and disjointed unconnected sentences.
Finally, get rid of padding and make each word count. There are many vacuous phrases that are repeated throughout scientific papers. These phrases do not add any meaning, rather they add reading effort. A good example phrase here is, ‘due to the fact that’, where a simple’ because’ would suffice.
An excellent resource for sentence structure is the Duke Scientific Writing Resource. As written on their website:
“The best scientists can communicate complicated results to intelligent readers outside their field. Long, complex writing doesn’t imply good science.”
Paragraphs are key to readability and keeping a reader engaged. Long wordy paragraphs risk losing a reader and short staccato paragraphs do the same. Paragraphs should lead the reader through your arguments logically and also allow for skim reading.
The structure of a paragraph is very straightforward. The first sentence of a paragraph is the argument or subject of the paragraph. The following sentences support the statement in the first sentence. Finally, the last sentence often summarizes the paragraph and links back to the first sentence. A good revising test here is to read only the first sentence of each paragraph and assess whether or not you are able to understand the entire text.
Again Keep it Simple – Each paragraph supports only one idea. A few ideas can be incorporated into one paragraph if they are able to be linked together. If not, they must be separated into their own paragraphs.
Finally, there is no best way of writing or one preferred writing style. Read and then read even more scientific papers noting the writing style and features. Find what works, but don´t lose your own voice and style.