Diamonds and Drafts: Clarity in Scientific Writing
Written by Ryan Valdez
One of the most critical factors determining a diamond’s value is clarity; the same can be said of scientific writing. Whether it’s a journal article, a grant application, or an email to a colleague, clarity in your writing enhances communication – and communication is the point of the writing in the first place, isn’t it? When a piece of writing lacks clarity, the reader might find themselves lost in a labyrinth of words. If the reader happens to be a reviewer for a journal article or grant application, this could be especially perilous for the submission.
Fortunately, improving the clarity of a document can be easy. With a few minor adjustments, you can help keep the reader out of a labyrinth of words.
A Leaning Tower of Words
We’ve all seen what I not-so-lovingly refer to as “word stacks”, a series of adjectives and modifiers applied to an often-elusive noun. Take the following sentence into consideration:
“Outer membrane-associated peptidoglycan synthesis activators are cool.”
Is the peptidoglycan synthesis membrane-associated? Or is the activator membrane-associated? When a reader sees this kind of sentence, it can be difficult for them to parse out the meaning. Now, consider the following revisions:
“Activators of peptidoglycan synthesis that are associated with the outer membrane are cool.”
This sentence leaves far less room for misinterpretation. It is clear to the reader that the activators (not peptidoglycan synthesis) are associated with the outer membrane.
Some words have additional meanings or implications that can make a sentence less clear. Take the following sentence into consideration:
“While my friends dance, I take naps.”
This kind of sentence is often used for contrast in scientific writing. One interpretation is that my friends often dance, whereas I often take naps. However, another interpretation is that during the time my friends dance, I take naps. In this case, “while” implies the actions occur simultaneously. For a contrast, the words “although” or “whereas” would be clearer in place of “while”.
Similarly, “since” can lead to some confusing sentences. Consider the following sentence:
“Since my laptop died, I have not finished my assignments.”
Writers often use “since” to indicate causation. One interpretation of this sentence is that my laptop dying caused me to not complete my assignments. However, “since” can also indicate that one event precedes another. The above sentence could also be interpreted to mean that in the time following my laptop dying, I have not completed my assignments. This leads to some ambiguity about whether or not the two events are causally linked. For causation, “because” would be a better substitute for “since”.
What is “this”?
Although pronouns can be useful because they prevent the writer from needing to restate a previously explained idea, they can also make a sentence unclear if misused. Consider the following phrase:
“I stopped for coffee and walked to work. This made me late for lab meeting.”
What made me late for lab meeting? There are three valid ways to interpret this phase. Stopping for coffee may have made me late, walking to work may have made me late, or the combination of the two may have made me late.
When using a pronoun such as “this” and “it”, including clarification on what the pronoun refers to can make the phrase clearer overall. Consider the following revision:
“I stopped for coffee and walked to work. This detour for coffee made me late for lab meeting”
This sentence makes it clear that stopping for coffee is what made me late for lab meeting.
I hope this post helps your work shine like a diamond, and if it needs a bit more polishing, our editing team would be happy to help!