Clearly: How to Write & Edit Well as a Scientist (and a Human Being)

  • February 2, 2017
iJOBS Blog

By: Maria Qadri Universal truth: Writing is HARD. Corollary: Editing is hard, especially without imposing your own stylistic choices. How do we here at Rutgers iJOBS solve that problem? Our model for editing on this blog allows two different people to review any writer's writing, partly to ensure the style of a writer stays the same regardless of our feedback. Before I sign off for my senior editing duties entirely (Ph.D. here I come!), I wanted to share some thoughts and ad-hoc tips about editing/writing for clarity. 2 Laptops, 2 writers scribbling notes on 1 pad of paper "Clarity" as a description of writing sounds extremely vague for most people (raise your hand if your PI ever wrote "unclear" with no explanation on your writing), but it can be empirically measured just like everything else (or so my inner-scientist tells me). The most common method to measure clarity is by gathering multiple perspectives on a sentence (two different editors, perhaps?). If you have achieved clarity, both people will read the sentence and interpret the meaning of the words in the same way.  My hypothesis: short and simple sentences have the most clarity, which seems antithetical to what we as graduate students perceive as good academic writing (protip: a longer sentence does not equal a better sentence). Most shortcomings in writing can be broken up into two categories: lack of content and lack of language. In essence, language is the organization of the words in a structured way to convey meaning whereas content is the information or meaning that we want to transmit. Despite conveying similar intents, these two categories are distinct and therefore have distinctly different solutions. Lack of Content: Most often, I notice a lack of content problem either when I sit down to write OR just after I finish reading a piece of writing. "I don't know what to write." OR "I feel like I learned nothing new."  Answering two simple questions will solve this problem as an author: "Who are you writing to (aka who is your audience)?" and "What do you want to tell them?" While simplistic, those two questions save me time and time again when I'm stuck. When I can't answer those questions, I find myself filling the page with meaningless words while using passive and boring language as filler. Once I know my audience and what I want to tell them, I can break down the problem further: what can I assume they already know, and what do I need to say in order for them to understand what I want to tell them? If I'm really blocked, I start by writing out my objective and my assumptions about my audience (this is also how you know I'm an engineer - I outline my givens). Lack of content issues also include poor overall organization of information; examples include presenting new information without context, omitting important information, or cramming too much information into one sentence. As an editor, I ask questions of the writers when I see a very obvious gap in context or knowledge. When I edit my own writing, I step away long enough for my brain to forget what I wrote OR I read my piece aloud and pretend I don't know what comes next. If the phrasing yields confusion or I lose track of the subject, I break the sentence up into multiple sentences for increased clarity (protip: the simplest solution is usually the optimal solution). One simplistic example: "They ran an assay." Without context clues, this one sentence leaves any reader with questions: Who are they? What assay did they run? Where did they run the assay? When did they run the assay? Why did they run the assay? How did they run the assay? All this one sentence conveys is that at some point in the past more than two people ran some random assay. Compare the simple sentence with this: "The Doe lab members ran a standard Thermo-Fisher viability assay at a one-week time point." More context leads to fewer questions. (In case you missed it, the questions above follow the 5W+1H set: Who, What, Where, When, Why, & How). Lack of Language: Problems of this variety present as incorrect or unclear word choice and sentence construction. A lack of language problem arises most often in non-native English speakers who lack a robust vocabulary OR native English speakers who misunderstand and subsequently misuse words. My number one gripe about English as a language is that many solutions require memorization OR reference tools. I have multiple dictionaries and grammar books on my bookshelf (very anachronistic, I know), more as a reminder of when I took writing courses than as reference guides (hello, the internet of 2017).Person standing between library bookshelves Three modern tools I personally recommend in no particular order:

  1. Google. Or your search engine of choice. Search for the definition of words you use. Even regular ones that you think you can define. With the aid of the internet, during several conversations with my parents, both non-native English speakers, I often re-learn the definitions of words I thought I understood or I learn the secondary definition that is the primary definition for my parents.
  2. OneLook. Ever feel like you can define the word you're looking for, but can't remember it? Here is a great reverse lookup dictionary to translate from phrasal English to better English. As a bonus, it serves as both a dictionary and a thesaurus. I keep this one pinned on my web browser when I find myself struggling to find appropriate words to capture my thoughts.
  3. Grammarly. Grammar is hard. Luckily, we live in 2017, and the internet affords us free apps that will check our spelling and grammar automatically. A neat feature that I just found: you can set it to offer synonyms if you double click on any word in your browser. Obviously, I have installed it everywhere I can.

Again, these are just tools. I highly recommend learning a new word every day and absorbing everything related to grammar (because I'm a nerd). See below for a quick guide of what I know about grammar for everyone (because who was paying attention in English class besides this nerd?). Basic sentences are structured as: noun + verb. Maria wrote. Sentences gain complexity by adding objects, descriptors (both of the nouns & verbs), and clauses: noun + verb + adverb. Maria wrote quickly. noun + verb + adjectiveobject + adverb. Maria wrote three pages quickly. noun + verb + adjective + object + adverb + dependent clause. Maria wrote three pages quickly that explained her stance on good grammar. noun + verb + adjective + object + adverb + independent clause. Maria wrote three pages quickly, which detracted from her original goal. And for the full picture, an example of an unnecessarily complicated sentence with no grammar breakdown (because even the parts of grammar used here are complicated): Maria was writing that explained her stance on good grammar which detracted from her original goal and quickly produced three pages. For blog, personal, and scientific writing (as well as communicating in general), I HIGHLY recommend limiting the following types of words (treat them the same way I treat salt: extremely sparingly unless absolutely necessary or only when I'm being lazy):

  • Absolutes: all, always, none, never, every
  • Non-specifics: it, there, thing, a few, some, this, these, those, that, Unobvious Pronouns (it, its, he, she, they, him, her, them, his, her, their)
  • Passive language: Any version of the verb "to be." is, are, was, were, has, have

The most important takeaway that I can leave you with is: be direct and say what you mean. Remember: What is obvious to you is not obvious to every reader. Clarity makes the unobvious clear. And because you probably know something that I may have missed, what resources (books, websites, apps) have you found helpful in learning to write and/or edit better? Please, share them with me in the comments!

For more grammar and writing tips, check out: 

Purdue's Online Writing Lab (OWL): Grammar Girl's Quick & Dirty Tips: The Tameri Guide for Writers (Editing Tips): Duke's Graduate Student Science Writing Guide: