While you can readily quantify grants, leads, and sales, gauging the true impact of your scientific writing can be a far more elusive endeavor. The effects of your writing may not manifest immediately; instead, they evolve over time. External feedback is often scarce, leaving writers wondering how their content is received. So, even as experimental results and innovation serve as the cornerstones of your success, many scientists in academia and companies find themselves grappling with how to improve their science writing.
Enhancing your science content doesn’t have to be daunting. As a writer, proofreader, and editor, I’ve identified three simple yet powerful writing techniques to elevate your content. These tips, while straightforward, will set you apart from your peers or competitors and, most importantly, keep your readers coming back for more.
Shorten your sentences – the readers will thank you
One common issue in scientific and medical literature is the prevalence of lengthy and intricate sentences, often conveying multiple ideas. While providing ample information is essential, squeezing too much into sentences may backfire on your attempts to inform.
Excessively long sentences can distract the reader from your main point. So, while you think your additional information completes your text better, you may be diluting your take-home message in a word soup.
Moreover, overusing long sentences usually signals you’re unsure of what you want to communicate. Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it to a 6-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself”? Well, we can make a similar point about writing. How about this? If you can’t formulate one idea in a short sentence, you’re unsure what you want to say.
So trim those sentences!
What’s the optimal word count you should aim for, you ask? That depends on who you’re asking. Some will say that an average sentence length longer than 15-20 words is too long, indicating that you need to shorten, split, or reformulate the sentence. For scientific and medical communication, which regularly contain complex concepts, I find 25 words reasonable.
Of course, try to vary between short and long sentences. Filling a paragraph with 25-word sentences will read monotonous and robotic, ultimately putting your reader to sleep. So, use a range of sentence lengths, but make sure the average sentence length doesn’t exceed 25. You can use a free online checker to assess your sentences.
Activate your sentences for clarity
I’ve proofread and edited scientific literature paved with a passive voice. Sometimes, when pointing these out to the authors and suggesting changes to include an active voice, I’ve learned that the (often last) author preferred the passive voice. Why?
An active voice usually makes for more direct, clearer, and stronger writing since something or someone (a subject) does something (a verb) sometimes to something else (an object). By contrast, when you use passive voice, the subject is acted upon by something else and may be excluded from the sentence.
Compare the formulas and examples below to familiarize yourself with active and passive voices.
The active voice
Subject + verb (performed by the subject) + optional object
We identified five gene mutations that induced resistance to the drug.
Here, it’s clear that the authors (the subject) identified (the verb) gene mutations that caused drug resistance (the object).
The passive voice
Subject + some form of the verb “to be” + past participle of a transitive verb + optional prepositional phrase
Five gene mutations that induced resistance to the drug were identified.
Note that the researchers identifying these mutations (“we”) are absent in the example. However, we could include their presence at the end by using the optional prepositional phrase (“by us”). You can see how the passive voice becomes unclear compared with the active one; we often miss the responsible subject. Who did it?
Following the sentence-length point above, another disadvantage of the passive voice is that it can lengthen your sentences, especially if you need to clarify the subject (now the object).
There are times when the passive voice is preferred over the active voice (see what I did there?). For instance, it’s OK to use the passive voice whenever the performer of the action is less important than the action, completely irrelevant, or unknown. For example, a sentence focusing on the discovery year of a scientific finding or the Material and Methods section doesn’t need an active voice. Nobody cares about who did what and having an active voice can require repetitive passages.
However, apart from specific exceptions, it’s recommended you use the active voice as much as possible. Spare your reader from unnatural and unclear reading. And yes, that includes academic manuscripts. Your reviews and papers will read much better if you can take your reader through the exciting process, depicting the story’s hero and how he or she discovered the unique scientific answer.
Embrace verbs, energize your message
This tip is especially relevant to academics writing their manuscripts but also applies to businesses. Let’s talk about nounitis.
Whenever you read influential texts, you’ll find they often prefer verbs, powerful verbs that describe actions. However, for reasons beyond the scope of this post, you’ll discover that the scientific literature usually contains too many nouns that cripple the message.
I once heard someone describe nouns as the bones that structure your writing and verbs as the muscles that move your writing. In other words, strong verbs clarify and energize your content; they make reading more dynamic.
You’ve probably encountered sentences like these before:
- The prediction was that the cells would induce survival to the treatment.
- Our tool can deliver improvements to RNA sequencing.
- The enzyme caused the conversion of the compound into a toxic product.
Don’t these sentences read gray and dull to you? How long could you converse with a person speaking in these sentences at a cocktail party before you make an excuse and mingle on? Yet, these sentence structures saturate the scientific literature.
Moreover, sentences suffering from nounitis often contain abstract nouns you cannot perceive with your five primary senses. These abstract nouns make the text vague, and your audience cannot visualize the image you attempt to communicate.
Abstract nouns often need filler verbs to complete the described action. For example, “deliver improvement” or “create solutions” [extremely common in marketing]. These filler verbs are redundant and interchangeable, making the content dull, unoriginal, and unclear.
You can improve your noun-to-verb ratio today and remove dull abstract nouns – which ultimately make your text longer – by learning how to spot them. Next time you review your material, scan for these endings and indicators of abstract nouns:
-ion, -ism, -ity, -ment, -ness, -ance/ence, -ability, -acy.
Once you identify them, ask yourself if you could reformulate the sentences and replace the abstract nouns with strong, energetic, and colorful verbs.
Improve science writing with ease
Back in the day, as a researcher, I eventually realized that scientists sometimes are surprisingly detached from scientific evidence. Back then, I was referring to the academic working conditions, including the long hours, holiday shaming, and other habits we should’ve abandoned long ago.
Once I became interested in communication, I realized we’re also detached from the scientific evidence on writing and communication. Why write excessively long passive sentences filled with abstract nouns when you could persuade more readers using empirical knowledge?
As you’ve seen, improving your content doesn’t need to be complicated. Focus on these three tips next time you review your content, and you’ll have an advantage over other scientists stuck in time. More importantly, your readers will thank you.