Write it Right, part I

As a PhD student for FOM I’m offered to follow some soft-skill courses during my career. These included the ‘Art of Presenting Science’ and ‘Write it right’. The latter ended Friday, 16 of April, and it was a two days course teaching how to write better papers. But why should we write it right? There are several reasons. But probably we care just about one. Publishing! If we want to make a living out of our scientific career we have to publish as much as possible. This means to convince one editor and two referees that our work is worth! But how? First we have to lure them into our articles. Then the articles have to be enough sexy to keep them reading, understanding and agreeing.

This is not only true for the referees: you also want the other readers to keep reading, to understand and to agree. Only in this way they will cite your papers, they will make you famous and eventually they will offer you a job.

Well, let me tell you, it surely seems like a hell of a job. But reading on will help you getting things done.

Keep it simple

Although good in English, we are not native speakers. The simpler we keep it, the less mistakes. Furthermore, most of the readers have an english level lower than ours: so KEEP IT SIMPLE! Use the Gunning fog index if unsure about a passage. This index is designed to keep your sentences short and without complicated words. You do not have to show off your English: you will impress your referees with your results, so keep the English simple and out of the way.

There is another reason to keep a sentence short: our attention-per-sentence vanishes after 30 words. Then try to avoid anything longer than 15: in this way you will not only keep your audience, but they will also feel smart: they’re understanding this difficult bosonic nuclear reacting stuff paper with little effort! And if the introduction in the article is well written, they will cite your clear and easy (yet complete!) paper when writing their own. Another free lunch that comes if you stay away from long sentences, is that they are more difficult to keep coherent and to construct.

Speaking of construct, avoid all unnecessary constructions! Don’t use It could be noted that: just replace it with Note. The same holds for In order to: a to will make the same job, for less typing. If is possible to shorten a sentence while preserving the sense, then go for it! The two examples above are, well, just examples, there are many more cases where this applies.

Example

It is the scope of this paper to determine which..

becomes

Here we determine which..

This was a personal mistake I did in my exercise (before taking the course), and the correct form looks 1000 times nicer than the original.

Another advice is to use the active form instead of the passive one. The passive one seems more formal, more objective, but keeps the reader away from the subject and it is longer reading and using it. It is archaic in the blog and twitter era. If everywhere around passive is less and less used, reading a paper all written in passive form feels weird. Do we want our readers to feel weird? No we want them feeling comfortable with us, we want them citing us! But this is not the only reason: writing passive sentences without mistakes is more difficult, so keep them active!

There are however cases where you need the passive form: use it, but not too much (they advised us to write the article 23 in the active form, and 13 in the passive one, so keep these proportions in mind).

All the above should contribute to a shorter paper, which is good for three reason

  • journals have a limited amount of pages per year, therefore editors like short articles;

  • referees do not care about journals space limit; they care however for their time limit: the shorter an article, the more time they have for their things

  • if a reader can learn about your results in 4 pages, he will not be happy when reading about them in 10!

Better technical English

Journals do not publish articles poorly written. The first thing a referee has to say is whether the article is clear and written in correct English. So in addition to what said above

  • avoid the to + verb form: it is better the verb + ing, because often the infinite is wrongly used.

  • the pompous it, or pit: when you find a it in your paper, ask yourself “To what does it refer?”. If you can answer the question, keep it, otherwise “off with his head”.

Example

In order to access information it is necessary…

becomes

To access information is necessary…

Not only the it is gone, but also In order to is replaced by to. Without changing the sense of the sentence.

  • use inverted commas around a word only when is used in a novel way or uncommon context

  • avoid repetition we said that we would like to see whether we are able to convince you that we…

  • do not use abbreviations like don’t or he’s: they are a bit slangy and they may be ambiguous: does he’s mean he has or he is?

  • Avoid double negation to say a positive thing.

Example

Do not make it longer than..

becomes

Make it shorter than..