Most young scientists have no clue how to organise their writing, let alone how to get it done. And when they finally do write a sentence, they immediately rewrite it. This struggle continues for months until they end up with a piece of writing that does not make them happy. For many scientists, the adventure of creating new knowledge starts and ends in the nightmare. And that is not a surprise. You did not choose to become a scientist because you liked writing so much. But writing is the endpoint of your research, and it all begins with reading.
Sentences are great because they,
- produce images in our mind (a)
- have natural rhythm (n)
- make us curious (a/i)
- are short and varied in length (n)
- affect our emotion (i)
- are clear (n)
- are intriguing (a/i)
- spark your imagination (a)
- seem to lead somewhere (i)
- use simple everyday words (n)
- are easy to read (n)
- are active (n/a)
Love to have a smoke. ordinary
Love to have a smoke, he sighed prose
Love is smoke, made with the fume of sighs poetry
From smoking to Shakespeare in two simple steps, with exaggeration as the means to get there. This is all very nice, but how to apply this to your own writing and develop your skills at the sentence level?
- The first step is to make sure to write natural sentences. To achieve that, you need to know which aspects of your writing tend to become unnatural.
- The second step is to make your sentences more activating by improving the texture of your writing.
This can be done by subtly exaggerating the nature of your sentences. If your sentence is questioning, it works to make it even more questioning. If the main quality is clarity, it is better to make it even clearer.
They are clear and direct because they,
- convey the message as simple as possible
- present one idea or one comparison
- avoid excessive use of subclauses
- avoid excessive length
- only provide necessary information
- potentially enhance the structure*
They are natural, so they,
- have commas to help the reader breathe
- have natural rhythm
- with regular beats
- avoiding obnoxious beginnings
- avoiding excessive ending
- avoiding irregular staccato beats
- avoiding mid-sentence endings
- use simpler words if possible
- use an active voice rather than a passive voice
- have a clear message
- have their verb and subject not too far apart
They exaggerate the natural qualities so they,
- essentially read like somebody is talking to you
- continuously draw the attention of the reader*
- make you see the picture behind the words*
- are easy to read out loud
[Original]. The evolution of a spatially structured population composed of genetically different species is given by the frequency of a specific species in space and time, that is the fraction of the number of individuals of that species over the total number of individuals.
[Better]. A spatially structured population composed of genetically different species evolves over space and time. This evolution we can quantify by the frequency of a specific species. This quantity is the fraction of the number of individuals of that species over the total number of individuals.
[Original]. From a preventive perspective, it is crucial to identify proactively which persons or population segments run a high risk, and under what conditions, to go through the full pathological trajectory, or to identify such a risk in those who are already suffering.
[Better]. It is crucial to identify persons, patients or segments of the population who run a high risk for going through the full pathologic trajectory. From a preventive perspective, we need to do this in a pro-active way.
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The end of the subclause should then allow the reader to have a natural pause before the original sentence continues with movement again. This example shows how it’s done:
This sentence comes to a halt, and that provides the space for a subclause, (pause) after which we can easily get back to the original sentence.
Remember two things:
- You will never be able to write everything down, so you need to be selective anyway.
- The fact that what you write is true does not mean it should be included. Only write what you really need in order to tell the story.
some rules of thumb:
- A sentence is the expression of a single idea.
- You really need a good reason to make a sentence longer than a line and a half.
- If you can’t read it out loud in a single breath, it is probably too long.
[Original]. Studying the dynamics and fluctuations of pesticide concentrations in lettuce and more specifically the leaves of the lettuce plant that was grown under increased light and UV radiation we found that…
[Better]. Studying the dynamics of pesticide concentrations in lettuce leaves, grown under increased light and UV radiation we found that…
[Original]. You can measure the density using an optical probe or a density sensor.
[Better]. You can measure the density using either an optical probe or a density sensor.
either ... or
Common uses of commas:
- Near the start of the sentence, often after an adverb or adverbial phrase (“However, it is still the best option” “By the way, let me know when you’re finished”)
- To ‘subordinate’, to indicate part of a sentence that is not grammatically necessary, but adds to the meaning, often making a comment on it. (“Everyone turned up, which was great, and was very happy, which was even better”)
- To separate two halves of a sentence (“If you want to go, I will stay here”)
8.1 Obnoxious beginnings & excessive endings
[Original]. L-arabinose and D-xylose are the most abundant monosaccharides in nature after D-glucose, being major constituents of the hemicelluloses xylan and xyloglucan, and of pectin.
[Better]. The most abundant monosaccharides in nature after D-glucose are L-arabinose and D- xylose. They are the major consti-tuents of the hemicel-luloses xylan and xylo-glucan, and of xylan and xyloglucan, and of pectin.
[Original]. Xylitol is the first common intermediate of the inter-connected L-arabinose and D-xylose fungal catabo-lism.
[Better]. The chemical compound Xylitol is the first common intermediate of the inter-comnected L- arabinose and D-xylose fungal catabolism.
8.2 Staccato Writing
In spoken language emphasis is used in a regular way. In writing, this regularity can be disturbed, which leads to unnatural rhythm and difficult reading. The steps to tackle this problem are:
- Find the points where you trip over the text by reading it out loud.
Circle the parts that carry substantial emphasis and look for local concentrations of emphases.
- Play with the order of words or add words that tend to speed up to make it more smooth.
8.3 Tail in the middle of the dog
It best avoided as it causes the latter part of the sentence to come across like an unimportant side remark. The solution is either to remove the last part, or turn it into a new sentence.
[Original]. Carbonyl sulphide is the most abundant sulphur containing trace gas in the atmosphere, with an average mixing of 500 parts per trillion.
[Better]. Carbonyl sulphide is the most abundant sulphur containing trace gas in the atmosphere. It has an average mixing of 500 parts per trillion.
find the lofty words and change them for simpler ones. Sometimes it helps to think of an image, example or metaphor for something to make clear what you are talking about.
The data were provided by the detector.
The electron density has been increasing over time.
The medicine was given to the patient every other day
The detector provided the data
The electron density increased over time
The patient got the medicine every other day
Phase 1: The exposition
In the Mr. Bean story the exposition starts at the beginning and goes to the point where he is eager to give a coin. (0:00-0:19 m:s)
Phase 2: Propelling moment
The propelling moment in Mr. Bean is less dramatic, but very effective. He wants to give a coin, but he only has a banknote! (0:19-0:22 m:s)
Phase 3: Divergent Action Phase
In the Mr. Bean clip the divergent action phase is of course much shorter. It consists of: being annoyed for not having a coin, trying to walk away, trying to find some change and finally getting stuck, because he has no options left. (0:22- 0:41 m:s)
Divergence cannot go on for ever of course. If we keep stacking on problems, the story would never end. To reach a solution we need something that changes divergence into convergence. Some kind of key to solve the problem.
Phase 4: Crucial Event
In Mr. Bean he gets an idea ‘maybe I can earn a coin myself’. In Romeo and Juliet it is the moment that Romeo does not get the letter.
Phase 5: Convergent Action Phase
Mr. Bean gets the next idea when he finds his handkerchief, performs his unforgettable dance, and is given a coin by a woman passing by (0:42-1:08 m:s). If you’ve watched the movie and I’d stop there, you’d feel the tension. You want the conflict to be resolved and your desire fulfilled. You know it is just about to happen. But if I do not give it, you will feel the tension because you just love to surrender yourself to a story.
Phase 6: Solution
This is the moment the conflict is resolved. The Mr. Bean story does have a happy end and he solves the conflict by giving his coin at 1:08 m:s.
Phase 7: Coda
As we had to deal with a lot of action, trouble and conflict we want to stabilise the situation. To give us time to let go of the tension, we are presented with a bit of nothing. Perhaps some comic relief or a futile conflict from the start that gets solved, leading to a glorious ‘That’s all
folks’. The Mr. Bean story does have a happy end and he solves the conflict by giving his coin at 1:08 m:s.
You can of course the beginning of your introduction.
In most cases you have an obstacle, otherwise you did not have to do all the work.
Divergent Action Phase
This feels a bit more tricky because we discovered it is about stacking problems, where the situation becomes more complicated and finally gets stuck. With your paper you need to realise that your divergent phase started in your introduction already. There is a default divergent quality in the part where you share what you are going to do, and which question and sub-questions you aim to answer, i.e. where you share an overview of your paper. The only challenge lies in writing the method section as it’s fairly dry. But there are enough divergent action options in your results and discussion section.
The only story feature you really need to turn the second half of your paper into a story is a crucial event. If you have a key insight, or an idea that leads you to solve the conflict, use it here.
Convergent Action Phase
Whatever comes after that, can serve as a convergent phase. If you secretly add speed by increasing the event density in this part of your results and discussion section, you can suggest the speed of a converging part while everybody reads a ‘normal’results and discussion section.
And finally you present your solution or conclusion to solve the conflict in your paper. Easy, as you do that in a paper anyway.
A look at possible future work is excellent material to build a coda with.
- What is a sketch? A sketch can consist of a drawing or a table of contents for that specific section. Whatever it is, you need to have a clear idea what to write before you start the actual writing.
- If you have that idea, you can do a warming up to clear the pathway from your mind to the page. The easiest warm up is to write about any subject like your neighbours’ dog or the weather.
- Please write for a set time, and make sure you do not stop writing. When the flow of words stops, you repeat writing the last word again and again until new words start to flow again. That allows you to open up the path from your thoughts to the page.
Once you’ve made a sketch and done your warm up, you write your text without correcting it. In the scheme it says ‘write crap’.
- To be clear, don’t write any crappier than you normally would. The point is to only focus on producing text and to accept anything that is not perfect. Imperfections are for the editing phase.
In the end there is not one generic plan that is the best for everybody, just as writing is not a linear process. You go back and forth many times and that is good, because you do not know what you will write until you write it down. And with every polishing step you become wiser. Whatever the steps are in reality, you will always find that you iterate between the following five phases:
- The write before you do anything phase
In which you make plans for your research. Writing will help you to make these plans concrete, tangible and clear enough to execute.
- The research phase
In which you do your research and collect material to write about. It is possible to go back to the first phase to change your plans if necessary.
- The sketching phase
In which you sketch your article in detail.
- The writing phase
In which you do the actual writing.
- The editing phase
In which you edit what you wrote.