Short sentences are easier to understand than long ones.* Academic writers all too often forget this simple axiom. I’m certainly not exempt. (Targeting and fixing others’ long-winded sentences is much easier for me.)
For an assignment in the scholarly communication course I took, I revised a typical paragraph of mine. Here’s the original version, with an average 27.5 words per sentence:
Because the current diagnostic criteria are set up in a pick and choose manner, it is possible for two individuals to meet the definition for and receive the diagnosis of autism while displaying none of the same behaviors. This leads to a large degree of heterogeneity within the autism population. Further complicating matters, autism falls within a spectrum, reflecting that the symptoms can present across a wide range of impairment. For example, diagnoses of Pervasive Developmental Disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) require meeting fewer criteria than for classic autism and diagnoses of Asperger syndrome do not require speech delay, but both of these developmental disorders are still considered to be ASDs.
And my revision, with a svelte 12.2 words per sentence on average:
Current diagnostic criteria for autism are set up in a pick and choose manner. This makes it possible for two individuals to receive the diagnosis despite displaying none of the same behaviors. A large degree of heterogeneity within the autism population is one consequence. Further complicating matters, autism falls within a spectrum. Symptoms can present across a wide range of impairment. For example, diagnoses of Pervasive Developmental Disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) require meeting fewer criteria than for classic autism. Additionally, diagnoses of Asperger syndrome do not require speech delay. Regardless, clinicians consider both of these developmental disorders ASDs.
I could undoubtedly still improve the style, but the second paragraph is much easier to follow.
Please don’t think I’m saying sentences should all be bare and choppy–no one wants to read stilted prose either. Just keep in mind that winding sentences will lose some readers along the way.
*This isn’t the whole story, though. In a future blog post, I’ll tackle the idea of a grammatical core. I’ll show that sentences with short grammatical cores are easier to understand than sentences with long grammatical cores. Stay tuned.
In searching for a quote to use in my trial Bunkr presentation yesterday (read my review of Bunkr here), I found this great one:
As a scientist, communicating well is one of the most important things–perhaps the most important thing–that we do, because it doesn’t matter how good your science is or how important it is: if you can’t communicate to other people why it’s important, then you won’t be able to help it reach its full potential.
~Will Cox (from his video testimonial)
Even a superb writer needs a good editor. A merely good writer needs a superb editor.
~Dan A. Wilson
Like I always say, all writers need editors.
(That certainly doesn’t exclude me, by the way! If you ever spot an error on my site, let me know through the “My Bad!” contest for $5 off your next edit.)
Edit: Lisa M. of Madison, WI spotted that I originally said “$5 off you next edit.” I wish I could say this was an intentional plant, but it’s really just a coincidental mistake. Well done, Lisa!
*Don’t forget about the ongoing contest for 10% off your next edit! Figure out how to parse the buffalo sentence from Monday’s post and you could win!*
Editing entails much more than correcting typos. For example, depending on the level of editing you choose, Science Refinery can work with you to make each sentence as effective as possible or even to help craft the message of a project and determine its overall organization and structure.
That said, sometimes it’s fun to catch embarrassing typos that somehow got published. Here’s one from a local paper last fall:
“The pounding beat of the drums. The crackle of the public address system. The smell of freshly pooped popcorn. A chill in the air. These are the unmistakable things synonymous with the arrival of high school football, and there’s nothing quite like it.”
Somehow I feel that football wouldn’t be quite so popular if it did involve freshly pooped popcorn…
If you find any egregious errors or sentences that leave you wondering, “what does that mean and how in the world did this get published?” please send them in. It can be instructive to turn the negative examples we see into more beautiful prose.
If you spend a decent amount of time on The Internet, you’ve probably seen people posting image macros such as this one:
That guy is Actual Advice Mallard (as opposed to his evil twin, the redheaded Malicious Advice Mallard), and he’s saying, “If you want your paper to be taken seriously, have it professionally edited. Hire Science Refinery.” I happen to think that’s some great advice!
For an interesting perspective about how image macros are changing the rules of language, check out this post on The American Scholar.
Clear science writing is not only possible, but expected in the journals considered the pinnacle of scientific publishing.
This blog post by Dey Alexander catalogs excerpts from the style guides of no less than the Journal of Neuroscience, Nature, and Science (among others). She notes that “many of the techniques that are resisted–active voice and personal pronouns seem to elicit the strongest negative reactions–are explicitly recommended by many science journal style guides. However,” she laments, “style guides are rarely read. Instead we tend to copy the style of our peers, believing this is the standard we must conform to.”
Her recommendations for clear science writing–which match my own–are:
- Use the active voice
- Use personal pronouns
- Avoid nominalizations and noun strings
- Avoid jargon and acronyms
- Write concisely and use short sentences
- Use a clear, simple style
Hop on over to Alexander’s post to read the examples yourself. She also has a list of resources to improve your scientific writing (which I haven’t fully explored).
PS: Remember, if you’d rather get back to doing the science you love, you can hire Science Refinery to help you communicate it! I can ensure your article meets the intended journal’s style guidelines and clearly and effectively conveys your message.
Editing your own writing is hard. Even as an editor, I struggle with it. So much, in fact, that I still have my very talented mother edit my most important documents. (Hi, Mom!) Time helps give the requisite emotional distance, but it’s still tough to see your baby as less than perfect. This is why all writers need editors.
Last week Mark Allen wrote a great piece for Copyediting.com about how copyeditors can’t be timid. This part is great advice for writers too:
Remember this: The author wants to get a point across. This is the reason for writing. If the point is lost to even a few, the author’s influence is diminished. Vanity may compel many authors to declare it’s the poetry that matters, but the desire to be influential is what really motivates. However hard it is to accept that a first draft is flawed, what author has ever regretted doing so?
Authors may love their words, yet they care more about having their words loved.
So, to clarify your writing, be as influential as possible, and have your words loved, don’t forget the all-important step of editing!
I’m the kind of editor who will sometimes push conventional boundaries. For example, I strive to insert the first person voice and active verbs whenever feasible. But there are some rules in academia that don’t seem to be changing anytime soon.
When it comes time to write your thesis or dissertation, you’ll almost certainly be required to write a chapter outline that will almost certainly not be read (at least not carefully) by anyone. Let’s let the ever-hilarious Jorge Cham of PhD comics sum up those feelings:
I know I’ve been tempted to add filler like that to certain sections of papers and my own Master’s thesis!
So here’s another benefit of hiring an editor: at least one person will read your entire project thoroughly to appreciate your brilliance.
Poet Taylor Mali is my hero of the day. Here’s an excerpt from his poem “The the Impotence of Proofreading:”
Has this ever happened to you?
You work very horde on a paper for English clash
And then get a very glow raid (like a D or even a D=)
and all because you are the word1s liverwurst spoiler.
Proofreading your peppers is a matter of the the utmost impotence.
Eye in courage ewe two reed there set of it hear. Wait, scratch that. Even though Word’s spelling and grammar checker doesn’t see anything wrong with that sentence, of course it makes no sense whatsoever. For more great examples, I encourage you to read the rest of it here. You can also listen to the author read it in this YouTube video.
Now I doubt any of you write anywhere near that level. But everyone occasionally makes silly mistakes and typos.* To avoid potential embarrassment, hire a quality editor to edit (or at least proofread) your documents. It’s a matter of the utmost impotence.
*Even me! If you spot one on my site, participate in the “My Bad!” contest to get a discount on your next edit.
Sometimes a book is so disappointing that you just have to put it down. The folks over at goodreads wanted to find out the commonest causes of readers abandoning ship. While their infographic on “The Psychology of Abandonment” doesn’t represent a scientific study (i.e., don’t take it too seriously and don’t generalize beyond their results), it’s certainly interesting.
Nearly 3% of their readers table books with bad editing. Another ~19% do so because of weak writing. That’s more than 1/5 readers leaving for easily preventable causes!
Editing should be invisible. When it’s done right, you don’t notice it at all. But when it’s bad, people can tell. Just one more reason that all writers need editors.