I went to a seminar on improving scientific writing skills a few weeks ago and thought, in the interest of maintaining the pretense that this blog might offer anything even vaguely informative, that I’d finally get around to sharing some of the tips I picked up. The workshop claimed it would teach six writing techniques that will improve clarity and conciseness and I’ve picked four of my favourites. I must say while not every concept completely blew me away, the workshop did at the very least make me aware of some things I was already doing somewhat intuitively and offered some great tips for editing.
Technique #1: Signal the Research Question
We all imagine readers enthralled in our papers, fully engaged in whatever we are presenting. Truth is, an abstract or a quick glance is often all we get. During grants panels, each grant often only gets about 10-15 minutes so whatever you are trying to say, you had better make it obvious.
Technique #2: Keep a Consistent Order
Keeping a consistent order helps to prevent the reader from becoming confused and is particularly important in the construction of figures and figure legends. The order in which data is presented in a table, chart or graph should correlate with the order given in the figure legend as well as throughout the text of the paper. This not only makes the figure easy to read and interpret, it helps the reader expect what is coming so they don’t have to think. I find it is generally best to keep reviewers from thinking too much. This is also a good time to consider the order within your story and to lead with the primary outcome/finding. I must admit, after my last paper received a particularly harsh review (and yes, I want you to listen to my advice on writing – the blind leading the blind!) I took a close look at what I had submitted and realized that one of my figures did not follow this rule. The major problem reviewers had with my paper? Clarity. ‘Nuff said.
Technique #3: Repeat Key Terms
It seems to me that this tip would come in handy more so for editing than for drafting, particularly when you are staring at a 265 word abstract with a 250 word limit (and no, “thisresearchisimportantbecause” is not a valid solution). Repeating key terms seems counter intuitive and the tendency is to overuse the thesaurus but scientific writing is about effective communication and getting your point across should be the main priority. It is important to remember that not everyone reading your paper or grant is going to be an expert in exactly what you do. Additionally, they are often reading many such papers or grants and may not give yours the attention it deserves. Repeating key terms helps keeps things clear and concise. Allow me to demonstrate using an example from the workshop.
Digitalis increases the contractility of the mammalian heart. This change in inotropic state is the result of changes in calcium flux through the muscle cell membrane
Sounds ok right? It’s not bad, but the key terms (underlined) change unnecessarily. Why not change it to the following
Digitalis increases the contractility of the mammalian heart. This increased contractility is a result of changes in calcium flux through the muscle cell membrane.
It’s a subtle difference but it leaves no room for misinterpretation and as we learned in the workshop clear writing is not just capable of being understood, clear writing is incapable of being misunderstood. You’ll notice however that repeating key words can make things sound…well…repetitive. And this is the way in which key word repetition can be a useful condensing tool. When you have three sentences in a row that all start with the same thing, you realize they can be condensed into one informative sentence.
Technique #4: Keep a Consistent Point of View
Once again this technique is particularly useful for abstracts and for condensing your results. Basically, keeping a consistent point of view just means that you want to try to keep the subject the same. For instance, if you were reporting on the effects of diet and exercise you may write “African American men lost weight. No weight was lost by Mexican American men” (subject of each sentence is underlined). If one were to keep the point of view consistent this could be changed to “African American men lost weight. Mexican American men did not lose weight”. You can see how stringing a few of these sentences together with both repeated key terms and a consistent point of view can really emphasize where condensing is possible.
Hopefully you find these tips useful and please let me know if you have any that you use. The workshop presenter highly recommended the book “Essentials of Writing Biomedical Research Papers, 2nd Ed.” by M. Zeiger (2000) published by New York: McGraw-Hill if you are feeling super keen. The techniques outlined above are really for editing and the workshop seemed to emphasize grant writing. In the future I may post another blog with some guidelines for the general construction of a manuscript.