How to improve your science writing January 11, 2008 Lynne Hutchison Director of Communications Vanderbilt University School of Medicine
The main goal of ALL science writing is to clearly communicate ideas • Learning to write clearly will improve ALL your science communications: papers, grants, lectures, presentations, etc.
Why is clear writing important? • Money • grants, salaries, institutional support • Success • publications, jobs, promotions, awards • Options • Corporate world, writing books • Sharing ideas with the world
“But I have to write like a scientist!”
David RobertsonDirector, GCRC • The important role our GCRC has played in clinical investigation over the past 40 years is a source of great pride to us, and it contributes to the enthusiasm and esprit de corps that characterizes our unit. • We have noted a decline of 8.4 years in average age of PIs with projects in our GCRC. Happily, this is not due to increased mortality of senior investigators but to an infusion of bright young investigators freshly minted by Dr. Nancy J. Brown’s MSCI program. • Our unit is a veritable intellectual watering hole where clinical investigators of all stripes run into each other daily, know about each other’s research, and exchange scientific ideas.
To be a better writer, use: • Strunk & White The Elements of Style • AMA Manual of Style • The Associated Press Stylebook • Successful Scientific Writing – Matthews & Bowen • Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary • Dorland’s Medical Dictionary
Clear writing relies on style Proper style creates writing that is: • Direct • Simple • Uses the right word(s) • Uses correct spelling, grammar, punctuation • Uses the active voice • Is consistent!
Style – the right way • “Never use a long word when a short one will do. • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. • Never use the passive voice when you can use the active. • Never use a scientific word or jargon when you can think of an everyday English equivalent.” – George Orwell
Style – the WRONG way • The worst problem with science writing is NOT lack of knowledge or experience • It is: • Long, dense, run-on sentences and paragraphs • Passive voice • Excessive jargon • Misused words • Incorrect spelling & punctuation
You decide - which is better? • At course level of granularity, there are approximately the same number of process steps and decision points at VICC (20 steps, 13 decision points) and at a VICCAN site (main VICCAN office plus range of local sites: 17-30 steps, 4-16 decision points). However, at finer granularity, VICC requires more participants (27 versus 4–8) and steps (>110 versus <60). For example, community sites do not require a SRC and the number of individuals. • Quality improvement and research on research will be a major component of our operations. In the spirit that “you can only manage what you can measure,” we will use process and outcome measures for all informatics projects.
Style rule 1: Keep it short! • As complexity and length of words increase, complexity and length of sentences & paragraphs should decrease. • Strive for sentences of 15-20 words, but vary length. • Optimal paragraph length for science writing: 150 words. • Keep sentences in subject-verb-object order (The drug induced arrhythmia.)
Use shorter words Instead of Try • Utilize Use • Implement Do • Subsequent to After • In the event that If • Due to the fact that Because • At this point in time Now • It would appear that Apparently
Rule 2: If you can cut a word out, cut it out • How many words can you cut? “It is interesting to note that at the present time the organism under study is green in color, round in shape, 5x10 mm in size, active with respect to motility, and absolutely unique among the genera of the group of fungi.”
Which is clearer? “It is interesting to note that at the present time the organism under study is green in color, round in shape, 5x10 mm in size, active with respect to motility, and absolutely unique among the genera of the group of fungi.” 40 words “The organism is green, round and active. It measures 5x10 mm and is unique among the genera of fungi.”18 words
Rule 3: Use the active voice • Active voice takes subject-verb-object order. • Active voice is shorter, stronger and more precise. • Active voice is direct; it is how we speak. Example: • The statistical analysis plan was written by the biostatistician. (Passive) • The biostatistician wrote the statistical analysis plan. (Active)
Shorten sentences & keep modifiers together “Five two week old single comb white leghorn specific pathogen free chickens were inoculated with 105 tissue culture infected doses of duck adenovirus.” • What is this person trying to say? • Keep modifiers in pairs (hyphenate) “When they were two weeks old, we inoculated five single-comb chickens that were free of white leghorn-specific pathogens. They received 105 tissue culture-infected doses of duck adenovirus.”
Rule 4: Cut the jargon (use an everyday English equivalent) • Apoptosis: programmed cell death • Hypoalbuminemialow level of albumin in blood serum • Transdifferentiationchange from one cell type to another • De novo new • Any arcane Latin term • Excessive acronyms • Explain the complex & obscure!
More jargon to kill • State-of-the-art • Cutting-edge • Innovative • Interface • Leverage • Synergy • Impact • Paradigm These words must die! • Informationist • 100% penetrance • Incentivize
More style: Use the correct word(s) • Assure, ensure, insure • Affect, effect • Principal, principle • Cite, site, sight • Currently, presently • Over, more than • Regimen, regiment • That, which Use that style book!!!
Use correct spelling & punctuation • Always use software spell checker • Never rely on software spell checker • “The client has a congenial hip disease.” • “She was in a comma and never woke up.” • Use science & medical dictionary software (Stedman’s) • Most misspellings are typos or misused words
Commas – get them right! • Commas add clarity, emphasis, and precision • Use sparingly, when needed for sense or readability • Place commas and periods inside quotations marks • Misplaced commas can change the meaning of the sentence: “I’d like to thank my parents, Mother Teresa and the Pope.
Editing – VITAL to clear writing How to edit your own work: • Write the first draft • Let it sit • Ask others to read; read aloud to yourself • Edit for organization, logic, flow, accuracy • Rewrite if needed • Line edit forspelling, grammar, punctuation, typos
To be a great writer, read! • Read the best writing out there: • The New Yorker – Atul Gawande, MD • Classic novels (The Great Gatsby, Heart of Darkness, To Kill a Mockingbird) • Master stylists: Truman Capote, Joseph Conrad, Calvin Trillin, Ian Frazier
How would you fix this? Statistical Analysis Plan. For the single time point data, tests of hypotheses concerning within group comparisons will be completed using the paired t-test or Wilcoxon Signed-Rank test for the interesting continuous parameters or the McNemar’s Chi-square test for the interesting categorical parameters. Tests concerning between groups will be made using either the analysis of variance (ANOVA) with adjusted least squares means, or the Chi-square test for the interesting continuous or categorical variables respectively. 73 words
Statistical Analysis Plan. For single time-point data, we will test hypotheses for within-group comparisons. For interesting continuous parameters, we will use the paired t-test or Wilcoxon Signed-Rank test. We will use McNemar’s Chi-square test for the interesting categorical parameters. We will test between groups with analysis of variance (ANOVA) with adjusted least squares means. We will use the Chi-square test for interesting continuous or categorical variables. 64 words – 14% reduction in length