Getting What You Want from Your Science Writing IV: Rescue the Verb!
When I wrote for my courses in college and in graduate school, my target audience was my professor, so I wrote to impress. To sound “smart” I nominalized verbs, used passive voice and as much jargon as possible. This is the kind of writing that complex scientific topics require. Right?
The Problem with Writing to Sound Smart
The problem with writing to sound smart is that I would often create sentences that required the reader to perform a great deal of mental gymnastics in order to understand what I wrote. I made the reader work too hard when such work wasn’t necessary. Discourse on complex scientific topics does not require impenetrable writing. Science can be written both clearly and accurately. Now when I write, I strive to create clear sentences that convey their message on the FIRST read for the reader. Writing with the reader in mind is more work for me, but it’s worth it because a reader is more likely to stick with me all the way through my piece.
Nominalizatons: How Verbs Get Hidden
In this part of our science writing series, I want to spend some time on nominalizations. Nominalizations, nouns made from verbs, dominate scholarly writing, and they are often associated with awkward passive constructions. Looking at the nominalizations in a sentence and “rescuing” the verbs can do a lot to make writing more understandable on a first-read.
Consider the following examples:
- “Often, the challenge is selection of the best assay for inclusion into the secondary screening program.”
“Selection” and “lnclusion” are both nouns created from verbs.
Suggested rewrite: “Often, the challenge is selecting the best assay to include in the secondary screening program.”
- “A luminometer is therefore required for measurement of luciferase and subsequent establishment of ATP levels.”
This sentence was part of a set of instructions, so in addition to rescuing the verbs “measure” and “establish”, I edited it to speak directly to the reader (imperative voice). I also corrected an error of meaning introduced by the passive voice and nominalized verbs. The luminometer does not measure luciferase or establish ATP levels; it measures luminescence, which is indicative of luciferase activity. The researcher performs calculations to establish ATP levels.
Suggested rewrite: “Using a luminometer, measure luminescence to assess luciferase activity, and use the data obtained to establish ATP levels.”
- “Indeed a major impediment to the interpretability of microarray data is the current lack of comparability from laboratory to laboratory, resulting in the inability to independently verify published data.”
The verbs “interpret” and “compare” are almost screaming at the reader, “rescue me”.
Suggested rewrite: “Because microarray data from different laboratories often cannot be compared directly, independently verifying published microarray data is difficult.”
Some nominalizations, like “drug discovery” are so much a part of the vernacular of a field that they should be left alone. However, writing often benefits from looking at nominalizations and “rescuing” the verb.
Note: If I was not the author of the example sentences presented above, I asked the author if my rewrite maintained the original intended meaning of the sentence.
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The same goes for the “old” rules of punctuation. While learning the correct use of commas, hyphens and apostrophes may seem tedious, having all of those little marks in their right places make reading an article so easy.
Quote: “Discourse on complex scientific topics does not require impenetrable writing. Science can be written both clearly and accurately. ”
Bravo Ms. Arduengo!
I work for a state natural resource agency. I commonly edit reports and other documents written by both scientific and administrative staff. In over ten years, I have not read a single report or white paper that is not laden with superfluous modifiers and muddled writing. Too many of my colleagues think technical writing must be passive and dense.
Thank you for your kind words and support of clear writing.
..very interesting, Michele. Being a lover of words, I often used too many words in my papers. I did not necessarily write to impress my professors. I wrote to impress myself :-). When I wrote the first draft of my dissertation, I thought it was beautifully written. After all, creativity should be celebrated, right? Wrong! My major professor quickly corrected that notion.
…enjoyed reading your article.
I’m glad that you enjoyed the article. I too was rather pleased with the first draft of my dissertation. Now when I look at the FINISHED product, I cringe.