Friday, December 18, 2009

CPR for Bad Scientific Writing

When your advisor or a peer reviewer writes on your paper comments such as, “unclear” or “ambiguous” or “obtuse”, do you think that s/he:

a)    is just picking on you
b)    doesn’t understand your unique “style”
c)    is making a subjective judgment
d)    might be right

If you picked d, you have taken the first step toward becoming a good writer. 

It’s true that some professors are a bit obsessed with grammar and punctuation, but the real obstacle to good scientific writing is poor style.  In fact, a paragraph with proper punctuation and grammar might be utterly incomprehensible, whereas one that has not followed grammatical rules is perfectly clear in its message.  Consider the following grammatically correct sentence:

Increasing foreign competition and technological change, in a variety of forms, are now, as they always have been, disrupting various well-established patterns in terms of industrial organization.

Difficult to understand, right?  That’s because the style is poor. 

Next, consider an ungrammatical, but quite understandable sentence:

The material applied to the blades of wind turbines age rapidly in tests.

It should be obvious that the first example would be much more difficult for an editor to fix than the second example.  I’m not saying that you should neglect grammar and punctuation.  My point is that style is crucial.

What you should strive for, above all else, is clarity in your writing style.  Clarity is an aspect of style that is particularly relevant to scientific writing, but is one of the most difficult for some scientists to achieve. So how do you develop clarity and other stylistic goals? 

If you are having extreme difficulty, there are a few things you can do immediately.  By attending to three aspects of writing: concision, precision, and revision (CPR), you can quickly improve your technical writing.


Begin by eliminating all unnecessary or meaningless words:  “it is noted”, “as we have seen”, “in terms of”.  By dropping extraneous words, we not only reduce the wordiness, but can better see what other revisions are necessary.


Precision can be improved by selecting those phrases that are not exact in their meaning and rewriting them.  Pay particular attention to those noun clusters that scientists are so fond of: “nutrient use efficiency respiratory rates” or “plant trait plasticity variation” The best way to improve a paragraph’s meaning is to choose clear, meaningful nouns and follow them with verbs that explain the noun’s meaning in the sentence: “Plasticity of plant traits varies among species.”


After cleansing our writing of excess verbiage and improving the meaning of the remaining words, we can now revise and improve the style of the writing.  The preceding posts provide guidance as to how to make transitions from one sentence to the next and to meet reader expectations in sentence structure.  However, some very simple approaches such as using connecting words (this, also, as well as, recently) will go a long way toward improving the reader’s understanding.

To take the next steps in improving your technical writing skills, you must delve into writing guides, particularly ones that focus on style and clarity.  The best known of these is The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.  There are many others readily found on the internet.

1 comment:

Comrade PhysioProf said...

The requirement for precision entails an absolutely key difference between science/technical writing and other writing. In the case of the former, the same concept/entity must *always* be referred to with *exactly* the same word or phrase. In the case of the latter, good authors vary their wording/phraseology to avoid monotony.