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Style in Scientific Writing

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  1. Style in Scientific Writing Arash Etemadi, MD PhD Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Tehran University of Medical Sciences

  2. What is style? • Communication is an attempt to sell someone else our ideas • Style in writing is all about choice of how this is done • Every writer has available resources of a full language • English has particularly large choice of words and structures • Style is a choice of these that covers balance, emphasis and tone • No such thing as a “correct” style • Each writer selects arrangement of words to best express intended meaning and obtain desired response from readers

  3. Is there a “correct” style? Example • The door is not to be opened during a session because the delegates may escape • Do not open the doors during a session; the delegates may escape • On no account should the doors be opened during a session, or the delegates may escape • The delegates may escape: do not open the doors during a session

  4. Good writing • Good writing is not just about a consistent choice from one side of these oppositions • The best writing has variety and flexibility • Medical writers use formal, third-person, passive, impersonal constructions: the “dull dog”

  5. Two important principles • Clarity • Brevity

  6. Clarity • Write with a design • Avoid eccentricities of language • Use simple, short sentences • Put message at start of sentence • Maintain unity of thought in sentences and paragraphs • Keep paragraphs short

  7. Punctuation is powerful • An English professor wrote the words: "A woman without her man is nothing“ on the chalkboard and asked his students to punctuate it correctly.. • All of the males in the class wrote : “A woman, without her man, is nothing.” • All the females in the class wrote : “A woman: without her, man is nothing.”

  8. Effective Paragraphs • Length • 100 to 400 words • Development • Unity • Coherence • Completeness • Function • Introduction • Transition • Emphasis • Conclusion

  9. You can say a lot in 70 words 1974 by Tim Browse, London, UK The solicitor stood up. "So you won't pay the outstanding council tax?" "No." said the old man, standing calmly in the dock. "Why not? You think you're special?" "No. But I don't see why I should have to pay for my wife, too." The solicitor smiled, and leaned forward. "That's the way it works. Why shouldn't you pay like everyone else?" The old man paused. "Because she died in 1974."

  10. 1. Match your content to your readers’ knowledge. ”HOMA اساساً مدلي از گروه مدل‌هاي پارادايمي است (75). چنين مدل‌هايي (برخلاف مدل‌هاي حداقلي) مدل‌هايي با پاية فيزيولوژيك‌اند كه پاسخ‌هاي آنها بر اساس نُرم جمعيت تنظيم شده است.“

  11. 2. Keep information specific rather than general. 3. Write in plain language. Keep your sentences short. 4. Use tables, diagrams, flowcharts and graphs.

  12. Keep your sentences short and simple (an average of 20 words, or so) • Use the active not the passive ("We did" rather than "It was done") • Be positive rather than negative (He was "usually late" rather than "not often on time") • Prefer simple words ("about" rather than "approximately," "raised" rather than "elevated") • Avoid needless words ("absolute perfection" is too much; "perfection" will do).

  13. Some tips for writers • Write paper first, do research later • Ask an enemy to comment on the paper • Ask a 14 year old to read the paper • Try to win the Nobel prize for science, not for literature • Learn from journalists • Improve writing skills • Keep it simple

  14. Help! • This was the first sentence of a recent scientific article in the Journal of Clinical Oncology (Introduction section): • “Adoptive cell transfer (ACT) immunotherapy is based on the ex vivo selection of tumor-reactive lymphocytes, and their activation and numerical expression before reinfusion to the autologous tumor-bearing host.” • Aaaccckkkk!!!!! That sentence does not make me want to read on…

  15. “GET TO THE POINT!” “Now if you will all give me your attention… I’ll try to give you a complete overview… A complex situation such as this one has many subtle layers of meaning… Furthermore we need to examine the juxtaposition of forms… while delving deeper into interpretive understanding of each … but let me digress a moment… beetle baileyMort Walker

  16. Good writing style • Spend time acquiring a good, readable style of writing • Be clear and concise • Avoid using too many long sentences • When you have the choice of two words, use the simpler one • Avoid using colloquial language (are you sure you know the culture?)

  17. Do NOT • Use big words that you do not really mean • Attributable • Causality • Preferential • Significant (without statistical evidence) • Validity • Mix incidence and prevalence • Mix frequency, rate, proportion, ratio

  18. Writing Good Sentences • Use the correct tense- present means it is true while past means it is true under a specific set of circumstances • Do not switch tenses frequently

  19. Writing methods:verb tenses Report methods in past tense (“we measured”), But use present tense to describe how data are presented in the paper (“data are summarized as means  SD”)

  20. Writing Results: tense Use past tense, except to talk about how data are presented in the paper. e.g.: We found that… Women weremore likely to… Men smoked more cigarettes than… BUT: Figure 1 shows… Table 1 displays… The data suggest

  21. The Scientific ManuscriptWriting Results: tense FROM: Jarvis et al. Prevalence of hardcore smoking in England, and associated attitudes and beliefs: cross sectional study BMJ  2003;326:1061 (17 May) Example: Information was available for 7766 current cigarette smokers.Of these, 1216 (16%) were classified as hardcore smokers. Table 1gives characteristics of all the smokers. The moststriking difference was that hardcore smokers were about 10years older on average and tended to be more dependent on tobacco.Significantly more hardcore smokers had manual occupations,lived in rented accommodation, and had completed their fulltime education by the age of 16 years. There was no differenceby sex.

  22. The Discussion: verb tense Verb Tenses (active!): Past, when referring to study details, results, analyses, and background research: • We found that • They lost more weight than • Subjects may have experienced • Miller et al. found Present, when talking about what the data suggest … The greater weight loss suggests The explanation for this difference isnot clear. Potential explanations include

  23. Avoid long strings of adjectives • Avoid long strings of nouns

  24. Overview of principles… Today’s lessons: Words: • 1. Reduce dead weight words and phrases • 2. Cut, cut, cut; learn to part with your words Sentences: • 3. Follow: subject + verb + object (SVO) • 4. Use strong verbs and avoid turning verbs into nouns • 5. Eliminate negatives; use positive constructions instead • 6. Use parallel Construction

  25. Principles of Effective Writing Words • 1. Reduce dead weight words and phrases • Get rid of jargon and repetition

  26. Principles of Effective Writing “The expected prevalence of mental retardation, based on the assumption of a normal distribution of intelligence in the population, is stated to be theoretically about 2.5%.” Examples:

  27. Principles of Effective Writing “The expected prevalence of mental retardation, based on the assumption of a normal distribution of intelligence in the population, is stated to be theoretically about 2.5%.” Examples:

  28. Principles of Effective Writing “The expected prevalence of mental retardation, based on the assumption of a normal distribution of intelligence in the population, is stated to be theoretically about 2.5%.  “The expected prevalence of mental retardation, if intelligence is normally distributed, is 2.5%.” Examples:

  29. Principles of Effective Writing Clunky phraseEquivalent • A majority of most • A number of many • Are of the same opinion agree • At the present moment now • Less frequently occurring rare

  30. Principles of Effective Writing Beware ofUse instead • With the possible exception of except • Due to the fact that because • For the purpose of for

  31. Principles of Effective Writing • 2. Cut, cut, cut; learn to part with your words

  32. Principles of Effective Writing Example: “Brain injury incidence shows two peak periods in almost all reports: rates are the highest in young people, and the elderly.” More punch “Brain injury incidence peaks in the young and the elderly.”

  33. Principles of Effective Writing Sentences • 3. Follow: subject + verb + object (active voice!)

  34. Principles of Effective Writing “Subject verb object” “Subject verb object” “Subject verb object” “Subject verb object” or just… “Subject verb”

  35. Principles of Effective Writing The passive voice…. • In passive-voice sentences, the subject is acted upon; the subject doesn’t act. • Passive verb = a form of the verb “to be” + the past participle of the main verb • The main verb must be a transitive verb (that is, take an object).

  36. Responsible party! Principles of Effective Writing "Cigarette ads were designed to appeal especially to children." vs. "We designed the cigarette ads to appeal especially to children.”

  37. Principles of Effective Writing MYTH: The passive voice is more objective. It’s not more objective, just more vague.

  38. Principles of Effective Writing Passive: To study DNA repair mechanics, this study on hamster cell DNA was carried out. More objective? No! More confusing!  Active: To study DNA repair mechanics, we carried out this study on hamster cell DNA.

  39. Principles of Effective Writing Passive: General dysfunction of the immune system has been suggested at the leukocyte level in both animal and human studies. More objective? No! More confusing!  Active: Both human and animal studies suggest that diabetics have general immune dysfunction at the leukocyte level.

  40. Principles of Effective Writing A note about breaking the rules… Most writing rules are guidelines, not laws, and can be broken when the occasion calls for it.

  41. Principles of Effective Writing For example, sometimes it is appropriate to use the passive voice. • When the action of the sentence is more important than who did it (e.g., materials and methods) Three liters of fluid is filtered through porous glass beads. • When the subject is unknown “The professor was assaulted in the hallways”– they do not know the perpetrator of this heinous crime.