Writing Clearly across Cultures and Media in publications

1. READABLE WRITING

Earlier chapters have presented principles of writing readably: structuring sentences simply, using proper syntax, deleting needless words, condens­ing wordy phrases, using words accurately, using mainly active voice, avoiding strings of nouns, using verbs rather than nouns made from them, punctuat­ing properly, using short and familiar words, minimizing use of abbreviations, and defining abbreviations.

Also for readability, generally avoid starting sentences with “It is” or “There is.” For example, change “It is not necessary to remove this structure” to “This structure need not be removed” or (if appropriate) “You need not remove this structure.” Likewise, condense “There is another method that is gaining accep­tance” to “Another method is gaining acceptance.”

In general, say what things are, not what they are not. If you mean that some­thing is important, do not say that it is “not unimportant.” If you mean that it is substantial, do not say “not insubstantial.” Avoiding such double negatives makes writing more readable.

Many suggestions for making writing more readable also make it shorter. This brevity can especially help if you have a word limit or page limit, such as for a scientific paper or grant proposal.

Over the years, formulas have been devised to estimate the readability of documents. Microsoft Word can compute two such measures of readability, the Flesch Reading Ease score and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score. (Doing so is an option under “When correcting spelling and grammar,” in “Proofing.”) Computing these scores, which are based on average number of words per sentence and average number of syllables per word, can help you estimate how
readable your writing is (or how much progress you have made in making it more readable). These formulas do not, however, take into account all aspects of readability. Thus, they are imperfect measures. Indeed, a piece of writing could make no sense but still get an excellent readability score if it consisted of short words in short sentences.

2. CONSISTENCY IN WORDING

For clarity in scientific writing, keep using the same word for the same thing. Do not feel compelled to vary your vocabulary, as you might in a literary piece, to make your writing more interesting. Readers should be able to focus on the content. They should not need to wonder whether “the mice,” “the animals,” and “the rodents” are the same creatures, or whether “the conference,” “the con­vention,” and “the meeting” are the same event. Using consistent wording can help make your writing clear and cohesive.

Some words, however—those that are so vivid or unusual that they tend to be remembered—should not be used repeatedly in close succession. In this regard, one can think of “blue jeans words” and “purple plaid trousers words,” in keeping with this analogy presented to American graduate students:

If you wore blue jeans to the laboratory every day, probably no one would notice that fact. Similarly, if you repeatedly used words such as “exper­iment,” “molecule,” “increase,” and “journal,” probably no one would notice. However, if you wore purple plaid trousers to the laboratory today, people probably would notice if you also did so next week. Similarly, if you used the word “astonishing,” “armamentarium,” “compendium,” or “conundrum” in one paragraph, people probably would notice if you also did so in the next.

Stay mainly with blue jeans words, and feel free to use them repeatedly. Use purple plaid trousers words rarely, if at all.

3. SERVING INTERNATIONAL READERS

Consistent wording can especially help make your reading clear to readers whose native language is not English. Here are some other things you can do to help serve this readership: Use words that have one meaning or a few mean­ings, not many, and largely avoid idioms. (For example, in revising material for this book, “a good deal easier” was changed to “much easier”; “watch your similes and metaphors” was changed to “largely avoid similes and metaphors”;

“do not bear repeated use” was changed to “should not be used repeatedly”; and “there is no bar” was changed to “there is no barrier.”) Use mainly simple verb forms, and write sentences that are simply structured and not extremely long. Retain optional words that can clarify the structure of a sentence. For instance, write “I believe that Professor Day knows much about grammar,” not “I believe Professor Day knows much about grammar,” the first part of which might be misread as meaning that you believe Professor Day. Avoid literary and cultural allusions, including sports references, that might be unfamiliar to people in other cultures.

Additional guidance appears in The Elements of International English Style (Weiss 2005). Although geared more to the business and technology communi­ties than to scientists, this book can aid in doing scientific writing that is clear to readers regardless of native language. It also can aid in communicating through letters and email to international colleagues.

4. A FEW WORDS ON EMAIL STYLE

If you are in the sciences, much of your writing probably is email. Although email is rarely published, a little attention to crafting it can help it serve you better.

Begin with a meaningful subject line. Then, for readability, keep the para­graphs fairly short, and skip space between them. Indeed, if you want your mes­sage to be read, make it relatively brief. Lengthy discourses often are better provided as attachments.

If you are sending email to a large group, spare readers the list of addresses by using the Bcc feature. And speaking of groups: In responding to messages sent to email discussion groups, beware of inadvertently replying to the whole group when you mean to address only the sender. The other members of the group probably do not care about your family vacation.

Beware of trying to convey humor by email: What may appear funny in person with vocal inflections or gestures may come across as hostile or other­wise offensive. You have better things to do than explain that you were really trying to be amusing.

If something in an email message annoys you, take time to cool down. Do not fire off an angry reply in haste. And angry or otherwise, do not say anything that you would not want forwarded. Remember that, other than in secure con­texts, email is not private. As one colleague put it: If you would not write it on a postcard, do not put it in email. Clearly, email is not the medium for com­plaining about your graduate advisor or department head.

Although email tends to be casual, suit the level of formality to the context. When sending email to potential employers, for example, word it carefully, check it for grammatical errors, and proofread it thoroughly. If you have been using a humorous email address, consider having a more formal one for pro­fessional communications.

And finally, include a concise, informative signature block in your profes­sional email. In the signature block, provide at least your name, title, and affil­iation. If customary in your field or at your institution, perhaps also include a courtesy title (such as “Dr.”) or list advanced degrees. Other items to consider providing in a signature block include your phone number, social media links, and URL. Consider having different signature blocks to use in different circum­stances or modifying your signature block to suit the situation. In any case, keep your signature block relatively short. Remember, this is your signature block, not your curriculum vitae.

5. WRITING FOR ONLINE READING

The scientific papers you publish are likely to appear online. In addition, many of us in the sciences prepare material intended specifically for reading on the web. In preparing such items, consider the following pointers (Gahran 2000, 2001): Keep the material short, or break it into fairly self-sufficient chunks of 500 words or less. Consider starting with a synopsis to orient readers. Break long paragraphs into two or more paragraphs. Use clear headings to help readers find what they are seeking. Word links clearly and concisely. Consider high­lighting key words. For readability, use bulleted (or numbered) lists instead of lists within paragraphs. Consider offering a printer-friendly version, contain­ing text but not images.

If you have a blog—which is short, by the way, for “weblog”—also consider the following advice. Keep each post relatively short: in general, no more than 250 words (the equivalent of one double-spaced page). Give each post a title that is brief and informative; if feasible, make the title lively. Write in a consis­tent style. (An informal, conversational style generally suits blogs well. How­ever, still be careful about spelling and grammar, and remember to proofread.) Provide posts at relatively regular intervals.

Because material posted on the web is accessible worldwide, writing in an internationally understandable way can be especially important. Therefore, keep sentences relatively short and direct, avoid regional idioms, and remem­ber to define terms that might be unfamiliar to readers in other parts of the world (Outing 2001). By following such advice, you can make your material on the web truly a world wide resource.

Source: Gastel Barbara, Day Robert A. (2016), How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper, Greenwood; 8th edition.

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