Meenakshi Prabhune has a golden rule for effective science writing—keep it simple.
The life of a researcher is incomplete without undergoing the trauma of writing scientific documents: papers, grants, protocols, theses, and so on and on. Most researchers find this stressful, time-consuming, and difficult; and, despite the enormous time and effort invested in writing, I for one often come across close-to-incomprehensible papers while digging through the literature. Why is that the case, and how do we fix it?
In my opinion, clarity breeds precision, and vice versa. It’s impossible to summarise a finding precisely if you haven’t understood it. A vague sentence that rambles on into the woods without a solid point will only confuse your readers, and indicate a lack of understanding on your part. Research your references and data thoroughly to avoid this. Preparation is an essential ingredient when writing clear and precise sentences.
Let’s consider the actual writing process—you write a sentence, realize you need a reference, search around for it, re-read the sentence, decide it’s not perfect, edit it, and wonder if you’ll ever finish at this speed.
Sounds familiar? Here’s something I wish I’d known sooner: writing and editing are separate processes. It’s perfectly fine to envision the end product and work in that direction, but don’t expect the first draft to be flawless. An effective writing method is to actively think about the content, write an entire paragraph or two—or three, or four—and then edit for perfection. This approach ensures a logical flow of sentences, as you’re following your own train of thought at a decent pace.
In terms of style, a healthy mix of short and long sentences is the key to a good manuscript. Short sentences read well. Long sentences with multiple conjunctions, punctuations, parts, pieces, bits, bobs, tenses, disclaimers, derivatives and definitions, although grammatically sound, are exhausting, and they also require extra attention on the reader’s part—that is, if the reader hasn’t given up already. Point proven?
Lastly, I think an important issue is that researchers—especially young researchers—often focus far too much on ‘sounding smart’. Your boss, peers, and the rest of the world are going to read something written by you for the first time, and there is often a real fear of coming across as stupid. Researchers should remember that the science in their paper is the only thing they need to validate their intellect.
Your aim while writing should be to spread your scientific findings to a large audience. So, confusing your readers—or potential reviewers—with complicated sentences and thesaurus entries will only discourage them from reading further. Write to express, not impress.
Meenakshi Prabhune is a researcher-turned-science-writer living and working in the Bay area, California. You can read her blog, that covers science and travel, here.