Nature Network advice on writing style

Senior Nature editor Henry Gee writes on Nature Network’s Ask the Editor forum about writing a scientific paper.

“In my experience, the best-written submissions to Nature come from people whose first language is not English – and who have therefore been taught English, properly, as it no longer is in England……..I had a paper recently that was written in a most peculiar way, so much so that I had to turn to the author list – and found that both authors were English, working in England. In general, though, Nature editors aren’t looking for English that is beautiful (though it’s nice when it happens) but English that is comprehensible and clear, and whose meaning is unambiguous. If you are attempting to write in clear English, I find it’s best to adopt a few simple rules: the same rules that journalists use to improve the clarity of their prose.” Here are Henry’s rules:

1. Look at the lengths of your sentences. If you can split them into shorter sentences, do so.

2. Don’t use words or phrases in print that you wouldn’t use in conversation: write as you would speak. I find that if you’ve written something and you think it doesn’t make sense, speak it out loud. If it still seems like it doesn’t make sense, then it probably doesn’t.

3. Use simple sentence constructions that start at the beginning and progress in a stately and linear way to the end.

4. Avoid relative clauses.

5. Avoid the use of double negatives (cell biologists absolutely adore double negatives).

6. Avoid compound nouns (ditto).

7. Avoid neologisms (very popular in the United States).

8. Avoid creative-writing classes.

9. Audit English Literature classes. When looking for models of good writing, study writers who could really write. If you are English, read Jane Austen. If in the United States, read Hemingway.

The Nature Nanotechnology group Asia-Pacific and beyond (also on Nature Network) features some technical style tips with examples of how to shorten sentences, and lazy phrases to avoid. There is also excellent advice, including worked examples, at Time for a Change, the blog of Linda Cooper.


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