How many times do you read a journal article and feel like you are wading through a thick swamp of jargon and abstract concepts? I know I’ve been guilty of writing some pretty stodgy prose myself, so lately I’ve been working on how to make my writing a little more lively.
Science writing shouldn’t have to bore you to death to convince you that the science presented in the article is sound. Unfortunately it’s often easier to write lethargic, heavy text than it is to write creatively using active and concrete language. Writing well requires a lot of effort but I think it is well worth it. Not only is great writing more likely to get your point across more clearly to your scientist peers, but you are also more likely to make your work readable to a non-specialist audience.
There are lots of great texts available for those wanting to improve their writing. On one weekend away last year I lounged about in a hammock on a tropical island reading Helen Sword‘s fantastic “Stylish Academic Writing“. With a cocktail in one hand and book in the other, Helen took me on a surprisingly fun journey from arresting abstracts to zombie nouns.
The main points I took away were that, to communicate the often abstract ideas we are talking about in science, we should aim to use concrete examples and active language. This takes a lot of practice but luckily for us, Helen has a fabulous online test to accompany the new edition of her other book “The Writers Diet“. This test works best if you have read the book so that you have some clue of what to do next if you find you have some problem areas you need to work on. The Writers Diet is a tiny little gem of a book, and takes very little time to read and absorb the basics.
In the online test you can plug in pieces of your own writing, and find out where your writing is most flabby – or if you are unlucky, in heart-attack zone. As you can see from a piece of my own (published) writing, I am in serious need of a makeover.
Most importantly, I’m on the way to cardiac arrest with the way I use verbs and nouns. My abuse of boring, abstract “to be” verbs plagues much of my writing, and is something that I need to work on most. It is so much easier to say “my writing is boring” rather than constructing a sentence around an active verb that makes the reader visualise what you are trying to say. Helen recommends appealing to the human senses with your verb usage – make your readers taste, smell or see your ideas.
All those blue highlighted words in the picture above are nasty nominalizations, or the aforementioned zombie nouns. Funnily enough, the word “nominalization” is a nominalization in itself! These are abstract nouns that have suffixes ending in -ion, -ism, -ment, etc. They are words that once were verbs or adjectives, that have been morphed into long-winded nouns. They may sound clever, but as Helen says, they suck the life out of your sentence and are best avoided. Check out this great TED animation on zombie nouns if you want to laugh and learn at the same time.
I think that perhaps one of the best benefits of reading Helen’s work is to gain the confidence to write creatively and with humour, without feeling like the science itself shouldn’t be taken seriously. I’m encouraged to see that quite a few of my peers are embracing creative writing in formal publications. A recent (open access) review paper by Robert Jackson and Fiona Cross in the Journal of Arachnology is an elegant example of how to write informatively AND with style. From the very first sentence, the authors grab the reader: “As arachnologists, we like spiders, but we are all too familiar with people who enjoy telling us, often with considerable pride, about their fear and loathing for our favorite animals”. They don’t disappoint throughout the rest of the paper either, taking us on a journey to learn about mosquito-terminator spiders using vivid metaphors and simple but enjoyable sentences.
In today’s world where we are bombarded with a never ending stack of papers to read, being able to really enjoy the writing style of a paper ensures that we stick around for the whole story, rather than giving up before the end of the first paragraph. In Stephen Heard’s (@StephenBHeard) very recently published guide book on writing for scientists, he mentions* that spending all this time learning to write well is not just to make your readers life more enjoyable. From a purely selfish point of view, you don’t want your paper to be one of those that gets set aside because it is too hard-going. You are doing yourself a favour by writing prose that an editor, reviewers and peers enjoy, because then you are helping them see the point of your work without having to trudge through tedious text.
It’s all very well to want to learn to write better stories, but a fairly important part of this is actually sitting down and committing to doing the writing. One of the biggest impediments to writing is having a quiet space to think. Given that so many of us – particularly students – now work in large open plan offices – getting into the writing zone is becoming increasingly difficult. The constant buzz of activity around me and the poorly timed interruptions is certainly one of the reasons I ended up writing most of my PhD thesis from home.
So how then to find time and space to write?
For me, starting early in the morning is key to success, and usually from a very quiet space like my dining room table. Sometimes even a bustling cafe can be a great writing space, as long as you can zone out white noise. Sometimes I NEED to have music playing to relax and other times I need total silence. Just be open to exploring the best avenue for you and then once you figure it out, make sure you actually set aside writing time every day/week where you create that perfect environment. There’s always something more urgent to do, like sending off that email or making that new cake recipe you found**, but if you factor in writing time into your diary and stick with it, you are much more likely to have success!
If being confronted by a blank white page is what frightens you, try making a mind map or the figures for your paper first, as this may help to make a plan for your story. This was advice I heard in a talk by Gavin Lear a couple of years ago***. I sometimes follow the figures with an abstract, as a kind of elevator pitch that hits home what I want my main take-home message to be. Other times I simply start with a whole bunch of randomly placed bullet-points that I flesh out over time (this can be good if you have 20 minutes spare, here and there).
I also find spending a few days on writing retreats a great way to clear the head and focus on a piece of writing. A few of us from the ecology group at UoA recently spent a couple of days writing from the Forest & Bird lodge at Piha Beach, as a break from the city office. A lack of internet access is great for avoiding email and other commitments, and having a set amount of time to get something on paper can be a great way to be productive. Setting some ground rules for when it is ok to chat might be a good idea, and I’ve found a small number of similarly stressed people who need the quiet time as much as you do works well. A beach setting to provide much needed long walks to clear the head is imperative, as are several bottles of good wine or a well-placed pub.
Writing a blog (or some other form of creative outlet) is also really great for exercising the brain. My hope is that over time better writing will become natural, so that I eventually have to make less effort to make my scientific manuscripts more captivating. Today I submitted a manuscript that I worked really hard to shape into a nice piece of prose using Helen’s tips. I put it through the writers diet test with great results (it was fit & lean!) – fingers crossed the editor likes it.
*I must confess here that I am yet to get a hold of Stephen’s book. I have, however, had a cheeky read of the first chapter available on the publisher’s website, where I picked up the point made here about writing to improve your own chances of being read.
**Procastibaking became my favourite hobby during the final stages of my PhD. It was great to feel like I was doing something productive (like providing my lab mates with cake) while also avoiding the tortuous beast that was my thesis.