Posted by: Jill | March 12, 2012

Writing clearly in science

These days, I am doing a little bit of work in the field (aloha!), a little bit of work in the lab, and a LOT of sitting at a computer and writing. Crafting clear, simple sentences to explain ideas is one of the trickiest things in science. Some people are very good at it, but a lot of people write terribly, and this is one reason that scientists have such a bad reputation for using jargon that no one can understand and that makes us sound boring.

Rearranging sentences to put the interesting part at the beginning is a great tip that I learned from a professor. Yes, sometimes this means you must write in the passive voice, but it also helps readers focus on what you are actually trying to say. See what I did in the first sentence of this paragraph? I could have written, “A great tip I learned from a professor is to rearrange sentences to put the interesting part at the beginning.” But that emphasizes the fact that I learned a tip from a professor; the tip itself seems less important. Instead, I wanted to emphasize the content of the tip; the fact that I learned it from a professor is less important (because if I had learned it from a book, wouldn’t the tip still be useful?).

Here is what I’m working on right now. I want to emphasize that PRIMNM* coral reefs are similar to other reefs. What version is best?

  1. PRIMNM reefs have similar cover of corals and algae compared to other remote reefs in the Pacific and worldwide.
  2. PRIMNM reefs are similar to other remote reefs in the Pacific and worldwide in their cover of corals and algae.
  3. The cover of corals and algae on the PRIMNM reefs is similar to other remote reefs in the Pacific and worldwide.

*PRIMNM = Pacific Remote Island Marine National Monument, a gigantic new (2009) marine reserve covering 7 remote islands and atolls.

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