Writing Tips

Give Your Manuscript That Summer Body: Trimming the Fat in Scientific Writing

bathroom scale with text "Help!" overlayed on a big stack of paper.

Picture this. A grant reviewer or journal editor is reading through your submission when all of a sudden they find themselves in a word maze. The sentence they just read is so long and complicated that they have no idea how what they’re reading relates to anything. They sigh, shake their head, and toss your submission into a blazing fireplace. The end.

But your submission story doesn’t have to end like this. Eliminating excess wordiness in scientific writing is one of the easiest ways to make your documents understandable to readers. Shorter, less complex sentences mean readers don’t have to keep track of as many words and concepts as they read your work. Being concise also helps meet those pesky word count limits; using fewer words at the start means there’s less fat to cut during that final push to submission.

NEEDLESS CONTENT

Needless content in scientific writing often takes the form of unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, and the use of empty transitional statements. Below is an example sentence that incorporates a lot of needless content:

It is interesting to note that the fascinating creature called the common poorwill is actually known to hibernate in the wintertime, going into a deep sleep during the coldest months of the year.

This example starts off with an empty transitional statement, followed by some examples of unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. As scientists, we often feel the need to point out that our work is important and interesting. Instead of using empty words, it is more effective to provide your reader with concrete and factual information that demonstrates these same things. The example sentence ends with a rather long (and unneeded) description of “wintertime” and “hibernate”. Eliminating these elements produces a sentence that is clear, concise, and contains all of the information that the writer was trying to convey:

Common poorwills hibernate during the winter.

EXCESSIVE HEDGING

I, like many scientists, never want to appear to be overstating my conclusions. We compensate for this by including excessive hedging in our writing. However, excessive hedging makes sentences long and confusing, and also conveys to the reader that you don’t have confidence in the information and conclusions that you’re discussing. Below is an example:

The results suggest that it may be possible to start to show how lasers may be used in such a way.

The use of the word “suggest” already indicates that these findings are somewhat preliminary and therefore the excessive hedging that follows is not needed. This statement can be rewritten simply as:

The results suggest that lasers may be used in such a way.

SENTENCE ORGANIZATION

Another way to achieve more concise writing is by organizing your sentences so that related information is grouped together. Below is an example paragraph:

Studies on the organic composition of particles emitted to the atmosphere have identified molecular markers for motor vehicle exhaust, which are a major particle source. Combustion of biomass markers, the second most important source of particles, have also been identified. Finally, cooking of food, which is an important source in developing countries, also produce identifiable molecular marks.

The above paragraph is verbose and redundant, with several instances of phrases involving “molecular markers” and “particle sources” being present. Organizing the sentences into a list of molecular markers for the various particle sources will cut this paragraph down to a single sentence:

Studies on the organic composition of particles emitted to the atmosphere have identified molecular markers for motor vehicle exhaust, biomass combustion, and food cooking.

Science can be complicated, but your writing doesn’t have to be. The first step to making your written documents easy for readers to understand is being concise. Cutting the fat from your manuscripts by eliminating needless content and thoughtfully organizing your sentences will have you on your way to a lean and effective manuscript or grant submission. And hopefully it will save you from a premature, potentially fiery rejection.

HELPFUL RESOURCES

Middlebury College: Write Like a Scientist

Commonly Used Redundancies:

Already existing

Continue to remain

Had done previously

Period of time

Still persists

Cold temperature

Estimated roughly at

Blue in color

End result

Meaningless Phrases

It is interesting to note that

It is noteworthy that

It is significant that

The presence of

The fact that

Unnecessary Adverbs and Adjectives

Very

Extremely

Obviously

Somewhat

Really

Primarily

Absolutely

Fundamental

Much

Excellent

Unique

Amazing

Incredible

Interesting

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