Note: This article was originally commissioned by and published in The Singapore Microbiologist, July-September 1997 and republished in Medium.com on September 2021. While the article focuses on scientific writing, writers of any sort should find the tips useful.
In my many years editing scientific manuscripts I have discovered two extremely common myths about writing. The first is that the more obscure you are, the more profound. The second is that all people could write well if only they had enough time.
To some extent, I’m grateful for these myths (after all, the provide me with a decent living). On the other hand, they’re both dead wrong, and they lead many otherwise excellent studies to go unpublished and unrecognized. In this article, I briefly discuss each myth, hoping to convince you that writing clearly is a worthwhile goal for any scientist, at least any scientist who expects to be published in a major journal. I then offer a few simple tips that can help you communicate more clearly.
Myth #1: Obscurity Equals Brilliance
When it comes to obscurity, scientists are hardly alone. Academics in general seem to believe that the more jargon they use and the more opaque the argument, the more insightful they appear. Still, in scientific papers, convoluted syntax has become almost a badge of professionalism. Many scientists think that to sound scientific they must write in passive voice (e.g., “It was found that…”). Many use jargon that makes their words inscrutable to everyone except two colleagues who already know their work. What obscurity really does, however, is to conveniently mask ignorance and error; if no one understands your work, no one can evaluate it either.
If you’re muddled about what you want to say, muddled writing can also help disguise that fact. For example, using the passive voice allows you to bypass critical details. When you write “It was discovered that” or “It is believed that,” your reader can’t tell who discovered or who believed. If you haven’t bothered thinking about the answer, passive voice solves the problem for you but only until your manuscript is rejected. Vagueness does not make for good science or good writing; precision and specificity do.
Myth #2: Writing Well is Easy
Clear writing takes effort. Besides requiring knowledge of basic grammar and syntax, it requires a good ear, a sense of proportion, and an ability to critique oneself. Above all, clear writing goes hand-in-hand with clear thinking–and, as shown above, this is where a lot of reports and papers go wrong. If you haven’t bothered to work out just what you’re trying to say, you can be sure that you’ll fall into the obscurity trap.
Ultimately, anyone who wants to write clearly needs to develop a critical sense. You need to be able to judge your own writing objectively and, putting aside the brilliance of the content, honestly evaluate its ability to communicate.
If you need more help developing this critical sense, I strongly recommend finding a copy of the book Why Not Say it Clearly: A Guide to Scientific Writing by Lester S. King (Little, Brown, & Col, 1991). This book (easiest to find at libraries, or through Amazon) remains relevant for anyone who wants to publish in the scientific world.
Below are a few tips useful to anyone writing for scientific journals. You might call them rules, and many people do, but there really are no hard-and-fast rules to writing. Ultimately, you are trying to communicate, and the human means of communicating is evolving constantly. Still, by critiquing your papers with the following ideas in mind, you’ll definitely sharpen your writing and improve your odds of publication. Some of these tips are standards in the editing trade; some are based on recurring problems I’ve seen in my clients’ writing over the years.
Tips #1: Figure out what you’re trying to say before saying it
The hard part is putting the pen (or keyboard) away and figuring out precisely what you want to say. This may sound obvious, but few researchers bother to do it. Believe me, it’s worth the extra time. Knowing where you’re going beforehand maximizes the odds of producing an organized, persuasive piece.
Tip #2: Think in terms of an outline
To ensure a logical flow, start by making an outline (even if it’s in your head). If you’ve already written something, ask yourself if you’re giving details in a logical order. Are you assuming something in an early part of the paper that you only explain toward the end? If you raise the same issue in several different sections, might it be more effective to move these sections together? Do you define terms before you use them?
Tip #3: The more concise, the better
Tightness is a virtue in writing. In other words, less is more. Consider tightening the phrase “had the purpose of” into “aimed to,” for example, or “acceptance of a gift” into “accepting a gift.” “It is still likely that” could be changed to “probably” and “the majority of” could be changed to “most.” Learn to look for long phrases that can be turned into a single verb.
Tip #4: Substitute more vigorous verbs for “to be”
“To be” is an important verb, but it weakens prose when used excessively. Think about changing “is a summary of” to “summarizes” or “is a replica of” to “mimics,” for example.
Tip #5: Be sparing with adjectives and adverbs
You”ll be surprised how often cutting unspecific modifiers such as “very,” “extremely,” and “highly” can make your point stronger. When you do use modifiers, make them as specific as possible–try changing “a good response” to “the expected response” or “an average response,” for example.
Tip #6: Be as specific as possible
Phrases such as “a number of” and “a quantify of” are avoidance tactics. If you can, replace these with a word such as “many,” “few,” or “some,” or, even better, the specific number.
Tip #7: Avoid unnecessary constructions and prepositions
Phrases such as “It is clear that” and “The fact is that” are empty verbiage, assuming you believe what you’re about to say. Just say it.
The same is true for prepositional phrases such as “In order to” or “In an attempt to.” “In order to understand these reactions, we…” works better as “To understand this reaction, we….”
Tip #8: Use passive voice sparingly
Instead of writing “It was found…,” try “We found….” “This phenonmenon may be explained by several factors” can become “Several factors may explain this phenonmenon.”
Tip #9: Look for omissions and repetitions
Are you giving readers enough background to understand why your work matters? When presenting a conclusion, might you have forgotten an essential sentence or two that explains your thought processes to someone who doesn’t think about these issues every day?
When you see the same word or version of the word come up repeatedly, consider using synonyms. Although repeating a word or phrase is sometimes effective rhetorically, it can also make prose clumsy.
Tip #10: Leave something alone for a while
There’s not always time, of course, but do this whenever you can. It’s amazing how many flaws jump out of your “perfect” piece when you abandon it for a while. If you’re having trouble seeing the logic of an argument, or deciding if you’ve explained a new concept clearly, you can become your own “ignorant” audience by editing anew after a month or so.
Tip #11: Edit, edit, edit
Above all, don’t fall in love with your words. One professor of mine in graduate school always cited, Flaubert, who reputedly rewrote each page of his novels a hundred-plus times before he was satisfied. Scientific papers don’t have to read like Madame Bovary, of course, and some of us find it easier to hit it right the first time around than others. But don’t make the mistake of being wedded to your “brilliant” prose. Indeed, one frequently repeated gem of advice to young writers is to cut any passage that you consider “brilliant.”