Chapter 21 Writing style

Did you ever feel that reading a paper was like trying to solve a puzzle?

During my PhD I read a lot. My study species was the subject of tens of thousands of papers, and I was convinced that I’d find what I’d needed somewhere in those musty old reprints and heavy volumes that came from the library shelves. It was easy to believe that the authors of those papers had set great puzzles for me to try to understand their content. The realisation that this is not the best form of communication came as a personal epiphany some years ago.

“The goal of good writing is straightforward: to make your reader’s job as easy as possible.”

Kevin W. Plaxco (2010)

This great quote from a paper by Plaxco (2010), who cuts to the heart of why it’s essential to write well. As an editor, I once experienced an author who thought the opposite, and for me, this was the epiphany. The submitted manuscript was an impenetrable mess. I could tell that there was good work in there, but as an editor, I felt that the information had been made so obscure by the authors that my readers were unlikely to get much out of it. The author was a colleague, and so I decided to phone him and chat about the need for much greater clarity in his manuscript. Experience with email has taught me that they can often be taken in the wrong way; usually in the worst possible way.

The response I got surprised me. The author recognised that his text was dense and was unapologetic. “Let the reader work to make sense of my data,” he said. My epiphany came not because this was a totally alien concept, but because during my PhD days, this was exactly how I had thought scientific writing should be done. I had spent so many hours slogging through dense and dreary papers by well-respected figures. The reward came when I finally understood what it was that they were trying to communicate. This felt so great that I believed the puzzle they had set me was what I should set my own readers. Happily, my advisor didn’t feel the same way, but for years I continued to believe that a paper should be a decent puzzle for readers to crack. This might seem a crazy concept, but it’s not an uncommon problem. For a great take on this in Chemistry, see this article by Murray (2011).

The preponderance of impenetrable guff has led to a general perception that “academics stink at writing” - as Steven Pinker put it (Pinker, 2014). But, I think that Pinker (2014) is outdated. Certainly, as Plaxco (2010) has it, there are a lot of ways that academics can improve their writing, for each other. But the belief that all academic writing is going to be accessible to the general public is far fetched. This is because there are a lot of terms when writing journal articles that are there for precision and brevity. These terms will exclude a larger audience, especially when they get so dense that looking them up is simply too arduous. What Plaxco (2010) urges us to do is to make the rest of the text as accessible and easy as possible.

Any good writing is an artform, and that includes good academic writing. You can’t expect to be the best until you’ve spent some time at it. If you consider a portfolio of your completed written work as ‘your experience,’ you will get some insight into exactly how small this is, even once you’ve finished your PhD.

There are still authors out there who attempt to set puzzles for their readers, but they aren’t in the mainstream any more. Instead, biological sciences have some inspiring writers, and many more are taught how to inspire future generations towards communicating great science. That’s not to say that there are no puzzles left. Much of what we do requires great puzzle-solving abilities. However, let’s keep the puzzles away from communicating with our audience, make their job as reader easy or even pleasurable, and they’ll keep coming back for more.

21.1 Develop your writing style

During the course of your PhD you should improve your writing style toward proficient communication with your target audience. This will involve improving both your technical writing and accessibility writing skills. Although the bottom left portion of Figure 21.1 is labelled “Poor communication” we might more productively think of it as being the area of the ‘first draft.’ You have to start somewhere. If your current style is too ‘hard’ and technical (top left), then you will need to increase your accessibility. If on the other hand you are used to a more popular writing style (bottom right), you will need to increase your technical ability. See Dunleavy (2003) for more insight on achieving your requisite writing style.

Develop your scientific writing style. Pitching your writing style will take some practice to reach the desired pitch. Wherever your starting point in this technicality and accessibility square, your aim is to move toward the top right corner. Adapted from Dunleavy (2003: Fig. 5.1).

FIGURE 21.1: Develop your scientific writing style. Pitching your writing style will take some practice to reach the desired pitch. Wherever your starting point in this technicality and accessibility square, your aim is to move toward the top right corner. Adapted from Dunleavy (2003: Fig. 5.1).

21.1.1 Don’t bamboozle

It’s easy to use technical jargon (top left portion of Figure 21.1). The whole point of jargon is to convey an (usually complex) idea in a short amount of space. Using a word (or two) instead of using several sentences clearly has some advantages. However, there is such a thing as too much jargon. Simply put, it’s unnecessary to use jargon when you can use plain English in the same amount of space. My old advisor at Liverpool University, the late, great Brian Moss, shared the following example of too much jargon by Bump et al (Bump et al., 2009), when plain English would have been much shorter. Do yourself a favor and read the abstract of Bump et al. (2009). The fact that it gave Moss a chance to write about moose wasn’t lost on anyone (see Figure 21.2)!

Bamboozled Moss takes on the moose. Brian was so unhappy after reading Bump et al. (2009) that he felt compelled to write a letter to the British Ecological Society Bulletin.

FIGURE 21.2: Bamboozled Moss takes on the moose. Brian was so unhappy after reading Bump et al. (2009) that he felt compelled to write a letter to the British Ecological Society Bulletin.

21.1.2 Be careful with antecedents

Grammar has lots of crazy names for all of the different parts of a sentence in English. I was not lucky enough to learn all of these names and their meanings when I did my schooling, and thus when I hear people talk about grammatical errors my eyes often glaze over as I feel completely bamboozled! However, the more I read about grammar, the more I recognise that most of these terms are linked to very common mistakes that I regularly see.

A great example is the clumsy use of ‘antecedents.’ Essentially, an antecedent is the subject of the previous sentence. When writing in English we don’t want to have to mention the subject time and again in every sentence we are writing about it. Thus, after the topic sentence of a paragraph with a clear subject, for example, the next sentence might start: “This was placed…,” because you have already established what ‘this’ refers to.

In the following sentence, the flask is the antecedent, and it is referred to using the demonstrative pronoun “This…” in the second sentence, and the personal pronoun “It…” in the third sentence:

A large, metallic, thermally-insulated, vacuum flask was used to collect the residue. This was placed into an oven at 52 ºC for one hour. It was then removed and allowed to cool to room temperature. An additional steel ball of 33 g was used to aid melting.

But watch what happens when your advisor points out (in a comment) that the 33 g steel ball was actually added to the contents before the flask was placed in the oven, and so you re-arrange the paragraph accordingly:

A large, metallic, thermally-insulated, vacuum flask was used to collect the residue. An additional steel ball of 33 g was used to aid melting. This was placed into an oven at 52 ºC for one hour. It was then removed and allowed to cool to room temperature.

You can see that the demonstrative pronoun “This…” in the third sentence is now referring to the ball, and not the flask. The reader is going to think that the ball was placed into the oven and then allowed to cool. This problem commonly comes about because sentences are moved without thinking about the way in which the antecedents were set up in the original text.

The other problem that I regularly come across is when the antecedent is ambiguous, as in the following example:

The experiment ended with a combination of faeces and bones that were then separated by a centrifuge at 16 000 rpm. This was weighed on a balance and the mass recorded to the nearest 0.01 g.

In the above example, the antecedent is clearly the combination of faeces and bones but it is unclear whether the combined sample was weighed or if the mass of each was recorded separately. This ambiguity is often compounded in the following sentences which confuses the reader and ultimately means that they get lost when trying to follow your writing. When it is possible that there is an ambiguity, you must not use the demonstrative pronoun, but instead restate the subject:

The experiment ended with a combination of faeces and bones that were then separated by a centrifuge at 16 000 rpm. The separated faecal matter was weighed on a balance and the mass recorded to the nearest 0.01 g.

Problems with antecedents often come up when editing, or pruning text. Be aware of them as potential problems and look out for ambiguity when reading your own text. The combination of an antecedent followed by a demonstrative pronoun is a great way of making your writing concise, but be aware of their problems too.

21.1.3 Avoid the passive voice

It’s really not surprising that we are so drawn to using the passive voice when writing science, as this is the way that schools continue to teach us. Most papers that you read that are older than 50 years will also tend to use the passive voice. Today, the majority of editors discourage the passive voice as it promotes convoluted sentences that are often difficult to follow and hard to read. One of my favourite explanations of the passive voice is by an eminent editor, who declares that the passive voice is “your enemy”.

Perhaps the best way of explaining active and passive voices is to look at some examples. You can find some examples in Table 21.1.

TABLE 21.1: Some examples of the Active and Passive voice. Remember that the passive voice is your enemy. Try to avoid it if at all possible in your writing.
Active Passive
The measurements did not depend on… The measurements were independent of …
Each constraint limits… Each constraint is limiting…
Moles enhance the risk of facilitation. The risk of facilitation is enhanced by moles.

21.1.4 Present to past tense?

You will find it far easier to write in the present tense for most of your chapters, as this goes hand-in-hand with the active voice. The present tense is easier to write in, and is much more direct.

Clearly, there are times in your chapter when the present tense is inappropriate. This happens most often in the Materials and Methods section. Here it is important to be consistent and logical when applying tenses. If you are writing about data that was collected at a specified point in the past, then you must use the past tense. You cannot switch tenses mid-sentence, and I find it easiest to read paragraphs where tense is used consistently. Using events as they occurred in time is also the most logical way to present your Materials and Methods.

Whether or not you have used the tenses correctly often becomes very clear when your text is read out aloud. If you can, ask a friend to read your text aloud so that you can listen for any inconsistencies; they may spot them as they read. Alternatively, there are lots of software extensions that can read your own text to you from your word-processor.

21.2 Ultimately, think of your reader

Whatever your writing style, you need to be conscious of your ultimate aim in writing: to communicate with your reader. Making your text as easy to read as possible (as Plaxco, 2010 put it) isn’t easy, but it will be rewarding. The reward you will get is having willing readers understand the message that you want to convey. This is something that will stand you in good stead no matter what career you have after your PhD.

References

Bump JK, Tischler KB, Schrank AJ, Peterson RO, Vucetich JA. 2009. Large herbivores and aquatic–terrestrial links in southern boreal forests. Journal of Animal Ecology 78:338–345. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2656.2008.01498.x.
Dunleavy P. 2003. Authoring a PhD. London: Palgrave.
Murray R. 2011. Skillful writing of an awful research paper. Analytical Chemistry 83:633–633. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/ac2000169.
Pinker S. 2014. Why AcademicsWriting Stinks.
Plaxco KW. 2010. The art of writing science. Protein Science 19:2261. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/pro.514.