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.