Peer-reviewed papers are the currency of science. They are the basis upon which we trade and record knowledge. They are our stamps of approval and they keep us employed. In short, papers are our bread and butter.
But our buttered bread can be difficult to digest; typically, it is bloated, dense and so dry that no amount of chewing can make it tasty.
So my colleague and I decided to do something about it. We wrote a paper about writing papers, explaining why and how it’s important for scientists to change the way we write. Our paper is centred around one key character: Ingredient X.
Ingredient X is rare in scientific writing. It is the substance people rarely talk about or teach. But when you do see it, complex concepts are readily absorbed, sentences skip along the page rather than plod, facts pique interest rather than disengage, and the scientific message is remembered rather than forgotten.
Ingredient X is about creativity and clarity and the use of narrative and tangible prose. It is the reader that is the priority of Ingredient X, not the writer. It is the X factor that makes writing somehow interesting and easy to read.
Here are some tips to achieve Ingredient X:
1. Think of your reader – always
Scientists are trained to be objective and focus on their field of research, they are not trained to think about the reader at the other end absorbing their information. Readers make our science exist, but readers are busy people and there is a lot of information in the world. Every time you write a sentence think of your reader: they are probably running around, on the go, reading from a small screen with tired eyes, and exploding with a day’s worth of words. With this in mind would they understand your sentence in one take? Have you made it easy for them? Have you curtailed those convoluted words, synonyms, jargon, and acronyms that they don’t need?
2. Value your writing and continually seek to improve it
Writing is not just a means to an end to describe our facts and figures, it is an integral part of science. Your writing will determine if your research is read, understood and remembered. If you value writing, just as much as any other science skill, you will write better.
3. Prioritise clarity and let go of the excess
Let go of those convoluted sentences and paragraphs that need to be read, deconstructed and then re-read. As a start, read this beautifully useful paper on the Science of Scientific Writing, it will really get things flowing. Also try using more concrete words (= tangible things and events that can be observed with your senses) and less abstract words (= intangible things we can’t see, smell, hear, taste, or touch). Whilst we need abstract words, their meanings are tenuous and endless strings of abstract words leave readers asking “what does this mean?” (And if I haven’t persuaded you to get more in touch with words that are concrete, read this). Finally, have a go reading your writing out loud, if your words don’t flow smoothly from your lips, it probably needs a re-write (if you’d like to know why, Steven Pinker explains).
But some of the best pieces of advice come from the literary greats,
my favourite from Stephen King.
4. It is OK to be creative – we need more of it
Scientific discovery is a creative process, but creativity has somehow become the black sheep of scientific writing. Adding creativity is hard work, and of course you can go too far, but it is worth the extra mile. Be bold and be original. Don’t emulate a writing style just because it is published, find writing styles you like and then add your own flavour. For instance, you could vary sentence length, add parallel syntax, mix in questions with statements, and add some stylistic devices (check out Chapter 5 in Scott Montgomery’s book for some more in depth guidance).
5. Narrative is key
Narrative is about linking themes and events together so there is a sense of time, a story unfolding. Readers (even specialist ones) remember stories, not factual lists, because they are easier to process. So check out your writing – do your sentences read like a list of standalone facts? If yes, well this is the anti-narrative. Fix it up by adding context to each sentence by linking to what was said before and emphasise your themes so they flow continuously from beginning to end. But to really up your narrative, read “The Story Net” in Helen Sword’s book.
6. When you see good scientific writing, say so
What goes around comes around. So when you are next reviewing a paper draft, in whatever context, acknowledge clear, creative writing and discourage the use of convoluted, abstract writing that fails to think of the reader.
7. Read good writing (which aren’t usually scientific publications)
Scientists should be encouraged to read and collect good writing and learn from it, to start working out what makes good writing good.