Length and complexity alone don’t make a sentence difficult to understand: some long sentences are perfectly understandable, and specialized terms may be necessary to explain complex problems. Sometimes short sentences with simple words are more difficult to follow because of the way they are written. It follows that structure of the sentence may be more important than length or complexity.
However, scientific writers sometimes needlessly inflate their writing in length and complexity in an effort to “sound scientific” or convey intelligence. In truth, it takes a deeper understanding to explain a complex topic simply and succinctly. It was best put by Shakespeare: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” The best scientists can communicate complicated results to intelligent readers outside their field. Long, complex writing doesn’t imply good science.
This lesson will give you some techniques for keeping your writing brief.
- Omit needless words (excessive hedging, ineffectual phrases)
- Prefer simple words
- Use simple subjects
- Use adjectives/adverbs frugally
Principle 1: Omit needless words
Examine your writing and consider what each word adds; you may be surprised at how many are unnecessary.
The biggest category of needless words comes from ineffectual phrases (phrases that add no meaning). Robert Hartwell Fiske writes in The Dimwit’s Dictionary:
If you start to pay attention, you may be amazed at how often you read the words “it should be noted that.” Think carefully about what they mean: nothing. Here is a list of ineffectual phrases:
|It should be noted that|
|It is important to realize|
Another source of needless words are multi-word phrases that mean nothing more than a simple word. For example, I routinely read “a large number of” instead of “many,” or “due to the fact that” instead of “because.” John Ludbrook
included a list of such phrases in an article in 2007. Strunk and White’s Elements of Style also includes such a list. Here, I’ve compiled and adapted these lists:
|Elements of Style|
|the question as to whether||whether|
|there is no doubt but that||doubtless|
|used for fuel purposes||used for fuel|
|in a careful manner||carefully|
|this is a subject that||this subject|
|a large majority of||most|
|has the capacity to||can|
|whether or not||whether|
|are in agreement||agree|
|at this point in time||now|
|due to the fact that||because|
|in the event that||if|
|a new initiative||an initiative|
|plays a key role in||is essential to|
|both cultures were equally affected||the cultures were equally affected|
You can do a find-replace for these phrases in your manuscript and permanently eliminate such phrases from your writing. Here’s a real example that is quite long (118 words), but it makes the point. I’ve highlighted the areas that include ineffectual words:
Rewritten without useless words and phrases: 92 words (about 20% less reading)
Does it matter? If you could get more reading done for the same level of effort you exert now, wouldn’t that make a difference?
This is an easy one: do a search for each of the phrases above. If you find them, try removing or replacing them. See if it changes your meaning.
Principle 2: Prefer simple words
Never use a complex word when a simple word will do.
-John Lynch [emphasis added]
Methodology vs. method
Just to clarify the difference:
Method: A way of doing something.
Methodology: The system of methods followed in a particular discipline.
Utilize vs. use
I always notice the word utilize instead of use in scientific writing. I think some writers like utilize better because it sounds more important. If the words mean the same thing, we should prefer use for the sake of simplicity. But I read the words slightly differently: utilize can carry a sense of employing something not designed for the purpose. It can also mean use to full potential. For example: The family ran out of wood for the fire, so they utilized old cardboard boxes instead. I don’t believe use carries these nuances. The point is this: without the subtle difference in definitions of these words, the distinction is meaningless; in either case, prefer the simpler word unless you intend to convey the meaning of the more complex. People also utilize other phrases in the place of use, like take advantage of or employ. Often, this is unnecessary inflation that doesn’t improve understanding.
There are lots of complex words that convey simple ideas. There is nothing inherently wrong with these words, but they are overused. Here’s a table of such words that regularly appear in scientific writing:
|contribute more words…|
Search for these words and replace them if you can use a more simple word to convey your intended meaning.
Principle 3: Use simple subjects
Scientific writing abounds with complex subjects. The biggest problem this creates is increased distance between subject and verb (covered in lesson I). Often, science writers want to accomplish too much in a single sentence: define a complex abstract entity (the subject), and then describe something that it does. Instead, it is usually more clear to split these tasks into multiple sentences, some to define the subject and others to describe what it does.
Often complex subjects encapsulate actions in a modifying phrase. Here’s an example (the complex subject is underlined):
The sheer length of the subject costs the reader energy while waiting for the verb. This underlined subject also includes several actions that aren’t verbs in the sentence. To convey these actions in verbs, we can divide this sentence into two; this also enables us to use an appropriate nominalization to summarize the actions of the first sentence, creating a simple subject (alignment) that links backwards. This opens the way for the complex subject (now turned simple) to perform additional actions in an understandable way:
You can identify complex subjects the same way you look for subject-verb separation (lesson 1). Find the subject and verb in each sentence. If they are too far apart, the culprit may be a complex subject. Try simplifying the subject in some way, possibly by dividing the sentence in two or eliminating unnecessary modifying clauses. Consider using summarizing nominalizations to simplify the subject.
Principle 4: Use adjectives/adverbs frugally
One of the most overused adverbs is “very.” Somehow, every experiment is “very innovative,” every result “very interesting,” and every conclusion “very important.” When “very” isn’t enough, you’ll find “extremely.” Often, these words can be omitted without effect.
The word “very” here is only meaningful if the sentence is making a distinction between high-energy and very-high-energy. The word high implicitly connotes a relative comparison to low. If you use “very” in a way that doesn’t convey additional information to the reader, you’re just wasting space.
There are lots of other words like “very” — adverbs or adjectives that don’t add anything. Here are a few more examples of things to watch out for.
The repetition problem
Adjectives are particularly prone to the repetition problem. The problem is that writers use two words where one suffices. The words could be synonyms, or one could imply another. For example, “completely and utterly alone” means the same thing as “completely alone,” which means the same thing as “alone.” These constructions have stylistic use in some forms of writing, but scientific writing is better off stating the facts. Examples more likely in a science paper might be: an “interesting and intriguing” finding, an “improved and modified” protocol, or a “new and novel” drug. Isn’t all fluff unnecessary?
Along similar lines, you’ll often find a single adjective or adverb modifying a word that implies the meaning of the modifier. For example, in the phrase “new invention,” the modifier “new” is superfluous — “invention” implies novelty.
Another category of superfluous adjectives is excessive hedging. It’s good to be humble, but it’s easy to go too far. A single hedge should satisfy your urge to cushion your claims. Excessive hedging erodes the confidence of your results.
The words suggest, may, possibly, and putative are all hedges. If you don’t want to come right out and say “our method identifies enhancers,” use a single hedge. You aren’t adding anything by including them all.
Be careful of demeaning words like “obviously”, “clearly”, or “undoubtedly.” Something that is obvious to you may not be obvious to the reader. There is nothing more frustrating than reading a paper that alludes to something “obvious” that you are completely confused about.
Be especially cautious of using words like “very” or “extremely” when lauding the merits of your study. I often find these in my own writing: I am so enamored by the way I’ve done things that I describe my methods in the most positive terms possible. I think it’s reasonable to present your work in a positive light, but I also think some authors go too far to promote themselves. Such self-aggrandizement only reflects them negatively; good science should speak for itself.
Maybe this example is a bit contrived, but you get the point. Let the audience deem how “innovative” or “powerful” or “intriguing” your ideas are.
Highlight all adjectives and adverbs. For each, ask if it contributes a meaningful idea, or if it’s fluff. Do a specific search for commonly overused appendages like “very”, “extremely”, or “clearly”, and remove them.
This sentence isn’t unclear, but in my opinion, it does sound a bit pompous. We can make it sound less highfalutin by simplifying methodology and eliminating words that don’t add meaning:
What’s the difference between different methods and different kinds of methods? No difference in meaning, but the revision cuts out 50% of the words.
This sentence requires several readings before it starts to make sense. I think one key problem is the subject is too complex. Here, the complex subject is bolded:
If I pull the actions of the complex subject into an introductory sentence, I can start to make sense of the method:
differences in gene expression levels might be explained, at least in part, by changes in DNA methylation patterns.
Here’s a great example of hedging. I count 6 hedges in this sentence:
- as much as
- 12-18% (a range)
- depending on the tissue
- might be
- at least in part
How about reducing that?
This is one of my favorite examples. I call it the paragon of scientific esotericism. It includes two of my favorite words: elucidate and mechanism. In English, aren’t you really just trying to say this?