Posted June 18, 2018.
Science writing is getting worse, according to science.
In 2017, Swedish researchers reviewed over 700,000 English-language biomedical abstracts published between 1881 and 2015 to understand how scientific and medical writing has changed over time. Their conclusion was chilling: “We show that the readability of science is steadily decreasing.”
Writing well leverages your work. Well-written science will translate important research into desirable outcomes, which can range from the humble (expanding humanity’s understanding of the world we inhabit) to the personal (gaining access to funding or awards) to the ambitious (leading to real-world changes in policy and action). But no such results can come about if the science is rendered confusing or unclear by bad writing.
Good writing can’t save bad science, but it can make good science more compelling and valuable. Here are the hallmarks of excellent scientific writing.
The Swedish researchers specified a major cause for the decline in readability: an increase in the use of jargon. And not just technical jargon; they also found that more modern scientific writing uses more
The first best practice of science writing is to avoid jargon. David Dobbs, a science writer for Wired, says it clearly: “Hunt down jargon and kill it.”
Obviously, scientific writing is going to contain scientific language, but authors must always focus on the reader’s vocabulary, not their own:
- Avoid inventing new terms, if possible.
- Use language that’s familiar to your intended readers.
- When necessary, define terminology or notations with which readers may be unfamiliar.
- When introducing new terms or concepts, try to build on what your readers already know.
Make it easy for the reader to understand what you’re trying to say; use familiar, expected, and grammatically correct sentence structure.
Specifically, readers expect subject-verb-object construction. Deviating from that rhythm will make them do unnecessary mental work to parse the sentence. Readers expect the beginning of the sentence to introduce the topic and the end to be a stress point – something the author wants to emphasize. An unusual structure will either force readers to reconstruct the sentence in their heads or miss the intended meaning. This is partly why passive voice isn’t preferred: it subverts traditional sentence structure.
Beyond that, use no more words than needed to make your point.
In many ways, paragraph structure should mirror sentence structure, because readers have the same expectations of both. Follow a conventional, expected, and correct paragraph structure. Each paragraph should focus on a single topic. The first sentence should introduce that topic, while the rest of the paragraph makes the argument around that topic. Each sentence in a paragraph should flow into the next and transition logically.
Brevity is clarity. Don’t use more sentences per paragraph than needed to make your point.
Be clear about assumptions; don’t make the reader wonder or guess which statements are tested or proven facts versus speculation, conjecture, or hypothesis.
Try not to include a claim unless you can substantiate it; however, don’t shy away from addressing uncertainties. “Grasp the importance of testing ideas against evidence, the need for publication, replication
Remember your readership. What are they going to do with the research or concepts your writing includes?
The meta-structure of the document should support
Fundamentally, the quality of the writing should reflect the quality of the ideas being presented. With a little care and attention to the writing, scientific reports and research can ensure improved information transfer and more desirable outcomes for both author and audience.
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