Our office view

We are enjoying Day 1 of my research group’s semi-annual writing retreat, this year at the visually inspiring Wildflower house at the Sundance Resort.  Besides finally getting all the papers done we have been meaning to do all year, the retreat also gives us an opportunity to do some group professional development with an outside expert.

This evening, that expert was my spouse and science journalist Genevive Bjorn, who led us through a discussion of the Nature article “Initial sequencing and analysis of the human genome” (Lander et al., 2001, Nature, 409, 860-921).  This is the famous “first human genome” paper produced as part of the Human Genome Project.  As a group of astronomers dissecting the 62-page foundational article of the field of genomics, we experienced the frequent perspective of scientists outside our field trying to understand our work.

Genevive led us through a few key sections of the paper (thankfully not the whole thing), directing us to circle verbs, underline clauses, and comment on the flow of the text and our own attention spans.  Our discussions touched on style issues, grammatical “dos and don’ts”, and the still unanswered question of who actually wrote the article (it has roughly 100 primary authors). Several key revelations emerged from these discussions, points that will hopefully enrich our writing in the future:

Jargon: It is well known that jargon can be confusing to a non-expert, yet is rampant in scientific writing as a sort of “shorthand” for complex concepts, methods and equipment. Yet in addition to reader confusion, jargon can also be a sign of unclear thinking on the part of the writer.  Rewriting heavily jargoned sentences into normal terms can result in a more readable text.  If you can’t do this, you may not actually understand what you are writing about.

Short and long sentences: This is a personal issue for me, as I tend to rewrite some labyrinthine and unparsable phrases in my papers.  My graduate student Jackie Faherty made the point that you should be able to read a sentence out loud in one breath.  Sometimes long sentences are unavoidable, however; listing a series of steps or a detailed train of logic can become lengthy.  These long sentences will almost always be skimmed, so its useful to inset short sentences around them to snap the reader back to focus.  Are you back in focus?  In general, variance in sentence length and rhythm makes for more readable writing.

Subjective and objective clauses: Some long sentences are a combination of a subjective clause (incomplete sentence) followed by an objective clause (complete sentence), sometimes married with a conjunction like “however”.  This combination has the effect of making the subject of the subjective clause less important.  Such a tactic is generally not useful, and it is best to just convey two points on equal footing.  An example of this in the human genome article was the following (subjective clause in red, objective clause in blue):

Because the genome sequence has been released on a daily basis over the past four years, however, we can already cite many direct applications.

Both of these points may be important, but the first clause seems less so and is quickly forgotten  (in addition, the combination of “because” and “however” is a bit odd).  A reworking of this sentence, without change of meaning, might be:

The genome sequence has been released on a daily basis over the past four years, so we can already cite many direct applications.

Now both points are clear and come across as equally relevant.

Active verbs: Genevive commented that scientific papers are frequently written almost entirely in a passive tense.  We scientists think this reflects impartiality in our writing, but it really makes for boring reading.  The human genome article had plenty of good active verb forms: “The genomic landscape shows marked variation”, “Five lines of evidence point to an increase”, etc.  They don’t all have to be in present tense, but they should be about nouns doing something, not nouns having something done to them.

To be or not to be: Definitely not “to be”. The verbs “is”, “are”, “was”, “were”, “will be”, “can be”, etc.  are extremely weak, and should be replaced with more specific and engaging verbs.   In one particularly compelling paragraph there were 11 verbs – “arose”, “emerged”, “take”, “accelerate”, “allowing”, “attack”, “creation”, “require”, “attempted”, “helped”, and “crystallize” – and not a single example of “to be”.  Choose interesting, clear and appropriate verbs whenever possible.

However…: Do you use “however” at the beginning, middle or end of the sentence?   Genevive explained that using “however” at the beginning of a sentence sends a strong message of distinction, useful when one wants to turn the flow of an argument.  The middle “however” is softer, and plays down differences that may not be as relevant to the discussion, or are necessary only for completeness.  Never use “however” at the end of the sentence, however. (oops!)

The “speculative” tense: In the section “Applications to medicine and biology”, the human genome article takes on a very different tone, with phrases such as

…a researcher wishing to perform positional cloning had to generate genetic markers…perform chromosonal walking to obtain genomic DNA…

The use of infinitive verbs creates a sense of detachment by the author from the actions s/he describes.  In this case it works well, as the section describes work that has been done by others as a result of the Human Genome Project.  It can also be used to when speculating about a possible consequence of one’s research, or suggesting future directions (“to boldly go…”).

For me, the take home message from this mini-workshop was to pay attention to verbs, clauses and rhythm. An active voice, with simple sentence construction that varies in tone and length makes more compelling writing – and hopefully more citations to our research!