This is a guest post by Lea Gagnon, an Editorial Development Advisor in Nature Research
Welcome to the first of a series of tips from the Nature Research Academies to help researchers navigate the academic landscape. In this competitive landscape where no research is complete without publication, researchers are pressured to publish scientific articles. However, writing a paper in academic English presents many challenges, especially for non-native speakers. In this blogpost, we will introduce the three writing principles that good writers use to reach their readers better.
The first principle is called the cognitive load theory and refers to how much new information readers can process. Science is already complex. Scientists need to be concise and avoid unnecessary words. Therefore, short sentences of 10 to 20 words are better than long-winding sentences. Similarly, expressing one single idea per sentence ensures optimal understanding. If you give too much information at once, you risk confusing and losing your readers. If you limit the information, and carefully select strong words to concisely express your idea, the reader is more likely to understand. Although varying sentence length can make a text more dynamic and exciting, previous research1 has shown that comprehension level increases when sentence length decreases. A 50-word long sentence allows only 50% comprehension, whereas 20- and 10-word long sentences raise it to 80% and 95%, respectively.
The second principle is cognitive bias, which describes the tendency for authors to assume that their readers know as much as they themselves do. Specialists should keep in mind who their audiences are, and put information within context to make it easier to be understood. For example, defining ideas and theories in the introduction increases clarity for newer researchers or those from outside the field. Avoiding subjective (e.g. interestingly, surprisingly) and complex (e.g. “to ascertain” instead of “to test”) words reduces ambiguity. Using more active voice (e.g. “I write a paper”) instead of passive voice (e.g. “the paper was written by me”) makes a text simpler, more engaging and easier to read.
The last principle refers to the readers’ expectations – or the logical flow of information. Logically structuring a text involves introducing an idea, developing it and highlighting its importance. The topic position at the beginning of a sentence introduces an idea whereas the stress position at the end emphasizes its importance. A nice logical flow can be maintained with the signposting technique that good communicators often use to guide their readers. Signposting consists of placing keywords in the stress position of the first sentence in order to introduce the topic position in the following sentence:
- “The treatment efficacy is promising, but the side effects are serious. This treatment will be used clinically to fight the infection.”
- “The side effects are serious, but the treatment efficacy is promising. This treatment will be used clinically to fight the infection.”
In the examples above, the second option uses signposting effectively and has a better logical flow between the two sentences than the first option. Signposting is also beneficial for linking paragraphs together, where key sentences at the beginning or the end of paragraphs replace keywords.
In conclusion, these three learning principles can be summarized into three reminders for researchers: conciseness, clarity and logic. By writing articles effectively this way, researchers increase their chance of publication and their readers’ comprehension.
- Miller G.A. & Selfridge J.A. (1950) The Journal of American Psychology 63(2):176-185.