Visit with the Senior Research Editor
Have you ever spent days writing a scientific manuscript only to realize upon review that it sounds as though an eight year old wrote it? Has there ever been a time in your life when you realized that your written description of an experiment was so complex and convoluted that you did not even know what you intended to say? Have you ever spent an entire night writing all of a paragraph for your 15 page report? We have all experienced these moments in our scientific career, but is there a quick fix to perfect writing? Unfortunately there is not (were you actually expecting that I had a quick fix?), but there are many strategies that you can employ to increase the readability of your writing. In this editorial, I will describe a few key points in the overall writing process that can help improve the quality of your papers immensely.
Has there been a time in your life when you experienced the dreaded writer's block when you sat down to write a paper? Isn't it the most frustrating of moments!? What can we do to solve it? One of the best ways to prevent writers block is to, ironically, "spill the beans" of your thoughts onto the page. "What did he say?" you may be thinking to yourself. When we compose a paper, we frequently get so caught up in thinking about our first sentence that we end up thinking about our sentence well into the evening and possible well into the next day. But, a proven technique is to simply write all of your thoughts on a topic randomly and all at once. As soon as you have placed all of your thoughts on the page, it is much easier to go back and reorganize your concepts, adding or subtracting new ideas as you go along. In terms of the psychological aspects of writing, isn't it better to reorganize and build upon many random ideas than to stare at a blank slate for hours on end thinking for "The Perfect" opening line and paragraph?
Another key point in developing a good essay is to remove passive verbs and instead be active! In science, there is a false dogma that we must always write in the passive tone because it sounds more "professional" and increases the objectivity of the writing. However, this obscures the truth that science is indeed a very personal affair in which projects are conducted by real life people. Let us consider the following sentence for discussion - "There were several laser blasts that struck the hull of the spacecraft." Ok, so what exactly is wrong with this? Let us take a look at the active voice of this sentence: "Laser blasts struck the hull of the spacecraft." So, what is the difference? First, the sentence is shorter, enabling the writer to add more content to their essay. Also, using active tense produces a more vibrant sentence that does not bore the reader to sleep. Another example is the following sentence: "A sugar seizure was induced quite strongly and visibly by an intraperitoneal infusion of 10% gummy bear extract." In the active tone, this sentence would read "An intraperitoneal infusion of 10% gummy bear extract induced a sugar seizure quite strongly and visibly." Again, although the sentence has decreased in size by a significant amount, the content is the same.
Finally, another way to improve your writing is to remove linking verbs. For example, consider the following sentence: "Sudden loss of weight can be an indication of many serious health problems." The linking verb in this case is "can be." Removing the linking verb gives "Sudden loss of weight can indicate many serious health problems." Another example: "It is our intention to update the company's website by the end of the year." Here, the linking verb is "is." Removing the linking verb in this case gives the following: "We intend to update our website by the end of the year." As we can see again, eliminating linking verbs greatly increases the simplicity and precision of sentences.
In this editorial I discussed two important ways that you can improve your writing. Just for fun and if you have nothing better to do with your time (i.e. during midterm procrastination), try to calculate the "Froth Factor" of sentences in which the passive verbs or linkers were removed. The Froth Factor is defined by the following equation: [100 x (original number of words in a sentence minus revised number of words)] divided by original number of words. Shoot for a goal of reducing your sentences by 40% and enjoy the freedom to include more content in your publications! If you have any questions on how to write better, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, stay tune to next month's Visit with the SRE editorial and learn how to get your manuscript published 99.9% of the time!