Monday, February 21, 2011

Words on Good Writing

One of the most common ways academics communicate is in writing. And good writing is a skill increasing lost in these days of truncated communication via email or twitter or texting. Nonetheless, one of the coins of our realm is a good scientific manuscript in which we share our ideas, research, or perceptions. Writing well helps us do that effectively. To that end, I wish to cite an excellent book, by noted editor and writer Robert Day, “Scientific English: A Guide for Scientists and Other Professionals.” (1)In his text, Day devotes a chapter to discussing redundancies and jargon, and he has much we should consider.

Doublespeak: This where we double words with the same meaning. Typically, we do as an intensifier, but it is bad and unnecessary verbiage. Examples are terms such as “free gift,” or “the pinnacle of perfection.” I view this as added words conveying no additional meaning.

Useless words: We add and add words to our writing, in order to perhaps impress people with our erudition. But I spent two decades as an editor, in which my task was to make everyone's writing as clear and concise as possible, which meant that I removed all the unnecessary added words. Take a look at the following list of terms and think carefully about what they convey: “complete stop,” “consensus of opinion,” “end result,” “fewer in number,” past history,” repeat again.” Now look at this list, which removes the useless additions: “stop,” “opinion,” “result,” “fewer”,” history,” and “again.” No change in meaning, but many fewer words used. Now, this is fairly obvious. But consider how we write our scientific papers: “In our paper, we will show that A caused B when conditions were such that C was causing D,” or even worse “This paper demonstrates a summary of evidence that indicates that A may under very specific circumstances lead to a direct cause of B if and only if condition C is met so that outcome D occurs in other situations.” Look at all the unnecessary words here! Try to edit this for clarity: “We show that A causes B.” The rest is discussed in the paper.

Oxymorons: This is a term with contradictory words in it, the classic example being “jumbo shrimp.” There are so many others: “clearly confused,” “death benefits,” “definite possibilities,” “partially complete,” etc. Do not use them.

Words and expressions to avoid: We should not use certain words and terms because shorter and simpler ones should suffice; the idea is to effectively communicate meaning, not obfuscate by adding meaningless words. Why say “a majority of” when we can say “much,” or “based on the fact that” when we can say “because?” Let’s reduce clutter.

Writing is a skill and the more we write the better we get at it. Add in the help of a professional editor, and in the end you will have a very good and potentially publishable manuscript.

1. Day R. Scientific English: a guide for scientists and other professionals. Phoenix, AZ; Oryx Press, 1995

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