"Overwriting" is a disease in scientific and technical writing


Posted July 31, 2018

When you include too much information in your writing, you lose clarity, confuse and bore readers, and get lost in the weeds. Ultimately, you make it harder for the writing to have the effect(s) you intend. 

Unfortunately, overwriting is epidemic in science, engineering, and other technical writing. In an editorial criticizing common practices in science writing, Science magazine writes, “Do you know what you’d call a magazine article that required intellectual scrutiny and uninterrupted neural commitment to figure out what it’s even trying to say? You’d call it a badly written article.”
Yet science and technical writing often demand that readers scrutinize every sentence just to make sense of it, and overwriting is a major reason why. We’ve written before about why so much writing is too long, and perhaps it would help to understand how overwriting compromises the quality of science and technical works. These are the dangers of overwriting a scientific or technical document:

Overwriting erodes structure

An effectively written work is a carefully structured one. Good structure improves information retention and recall in readers: people retain structured information up to 40% more reliably than “freeform” information. However, including irrelevant or only indirectly related information interrupts structure and leads both author and reader down long tangents that interrupt flow and structure.

Overwriting undermines “chunking”

“Chunking” is a mental process of assembling information into easily understood and memorized groupings. This can mean assembling individual units of information into larger groups or breaking large groups down into smaller pieces. A simple illustration is the way we format phone numbers: +1 (234) 567-8901 is easier to parse, understand, and remember than a single long string like 12345678901. Overwriting undermines this process by inserting unnecessary information into the groups, making it harder for readers to accurately and effectively “chunk” the key points.

Overwriting forces the brain to expend energy on parsing the writing rather than remembering it

When readers must spend time and energy understanding what they’re reading, they will be less likely to recognize, understand, and remember the main point. Duke University offers an example of an overwritten sentence:
“The assumptions that all sites evolve at one of two evolutionary rates (conserved and nonconserved), that these rates are uniform across the genome, that sites evolve independently conditional on whether they are in conserved or nonconserved regions, and that the phylogenetic models for conserved and nonconserved regions have the same branch-length proportions, base compositions, and substitution patterns, all represent oversimplications of the complex process of sequence evolution in eukaryotic genomes.”
The content of that sentence may be correct and essential to the subject of the paper, but it is overwritten. It contains at least four or five separate arguments that all relate to each other, but it will take the reader time and energy to work their way through each argument and then to understand how they relate to each other.

Overwriting interferes with semantic connections.

When the reader is presented with a large amount of new information, it can lead to cognitive overload. The problem gets worse when the writing contains unnecessary words, phrases, sentences, and information that add cognitive load without adding value. Consequently, the text is less comprehensible, and readers may walk away missing the main point altogether.
We’ve written before about how to figure out the balance between “too much” and “too little,” along with strategies to keep writing concise and clear. Ultimately, however, the best solution to overwriting is to learn to write better: practice writing, solicit (and listen to) feedback, read guides to writing, and take classes. Stronger writing skills can yield science and technical writing that is straightforward, easily understood, and highly effective in its impact.
About Hurley Write, Inc.
Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 25 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations.