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Clear and Concise Writing for Scientific Journals Kristen D. Folsom Karna, LLC for Community Guide Branch Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Presentation on theme: "Clear and Concise Writing for Scientific Journals Kristen D. Folsom Karna, LLC for Community Guide Branch Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."— Presentation transcript:

1 Clear and Concise Writing for Scientific Journals Kristen D. Folsom Karna, LLC for Community Guide Branch Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

2 To communicate most effectively in scientific writing, always use as few words as possible to convey your meaning.

3 Imagine you have to pay $1 for each word of your manuscript. Total cost to submit your manuscript: $12,714. Your budget: $4,000

4 This training module focuses on: Decreasing Word Count Improving Clarity

5 Tips for Achieving Clarity and Conciseness in Scientific Writing Delete unnecessary words Avoid prepositional phrases Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly Prefer simple words over more complex ones Limit noun strings

6 Use active verbs when possible Avoid nominalizations Use active instead of passive voice Avoid figures of speech Keep subjects near verbs Tips for Achieving Clarity and Conciseness in Scientific Writing (cont.)

7 Deleting Unnecessary Words Instead of saying…Just say… It is likely that Likely In the vicinity of Near It must first be established that First Due to the fact that Because It is apparent that Apparently In the state of North Carolina In North Carolina Was found to be Was In order to To A large majority of Most In the event that If Instead of saying…Just say… It is likely that Likely In the vicinity of Near It must first be established that First Due to the fact that Because It is apparent that Apparently In the state of North Carolina In North Carolina Was found to be Was In order to To A large majority of Most In the event that If

8 Revision Exercise 1: Rephrase to delete as many unnnecessary words as possible. Original: Due to the fact that the interventions for childhood obesity were only implemented among students in the state of California, it is likely that applicability findings are overstated. Revised: Because childhood obesity interventions were only implemented among California students, applicability findings are likely overstated.

9 Avoid Prepositional Phrases When Possible Too many prepositional phrases in a single sentence, especially when used to show possession, can obscure the main subject and action.

10 Revision Exercise 2: Rephrase to avoid prepositional phrases. Original: It is a matter of the gravest possible importance to the health of anyone with a history of a problem with disease of the heart that he or she should avoid the sort of foods with a high percentage of saturated fats. Revised: Anyone with a history of heart disease should avoid saturated fats. Source: The University of Wisconsin Madison. (2013). The writer’s handbook: clear, concise sentences. Retrieved November 4, 2013, from

11 Use Adjectives and Adverbs Sparingly Adverbs are often ambiguous and should be avoided to make your writing clear and concise. For example, what constitutes several, few, many, large, or small to one reader is something different to another reader. Very and extremely are rarely ever needed. Deleting them will not change the meaning of a sentence. Likewise, generally and in general add little value.

12 Revision Exercise 3: Rephrase to delete adjectives and adverbs. Original: The stunning gains in human life expectancy that accelerated in the mid-1800s and continued during the following century often are attributed primarily to improvements in medicine. Revised: Gains in life expectancy that accelerated in the mid-1800s and continued during the following century are attributable to improvements in medicine. Source: National Research Council (US) Panel on a Research Agenda and New Data for an Aging World. Preparing for an Aging World: The Case for Cross-National Research. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); , Our Aging World. Available from:

13 Never use a complex word when a simple word will do. Examples of complex or vague words that convey simple ideas (and their alternatives): utilize (use) methodology (method) etiology (cause) elucidate (show) plethora (abundance) putative (just delete this word altogether!) Prefer Simple Words

14 Revision Exercise 4: Rephrase to delete vague words. Original: Economists utilize specific methodologies to facilitate the mechanisms by which they calculate disability adjusted life years. Revised: Economists use specific methods to calculate disability adjusted life years. Source: Duke Graduate School. (2013). Scientific Writing Resource. Retrieved November 29, 2013, from https://cgi.duke.edu/web/sciwriting/index.php?action=lesson3.https://cgi.duke.edu/web/sciwriting/index.php?action=lesson3

15 Limit Noun Strings (Nouns Modifying Nouns) Unless readers are familiar with your terminology (or jargon), avoid using phrases with many consecutive nouns (noun strings).

16 Revision Exercise 5: Rephrase to delete noun strings. Original: Community information feedback mechanisms are important if governments want scientists to explain how they spend taxpayers’ money. Revised: Governments should create effective mechanisms for scientists to explain how they spend taxpayers’ money. Source: Westbrook, G., & Cooper, L. (2013). Techniques for clear scientific writing and editing. Journal of Neuroscience. Retrieved October 9, 2013, from

17 Using passive verbs (i.e., being verbs — is, am, are, was, were ) almost always results in more words than necessary being used. Use Active Verbs When Possible

18 Revision Exercise 6: Rephrase to assign action to the verb: Original: The establishment of a different approach on the part of healthcare professionals is necessary. Revised: Healthcare professionals should establish a different approach.

19 Avoid Noun Forms of Verbs (Nominalizations) Nominalizations are verbs that have been made into nouns by adding “-tion.” Use action verbs instead. The word “nominalization” is a nominalization of the verb “to nominalize.” Source: Sheffield, N. Scientific Writing: Clarity, Conciseness & Cohesion. Durham, NC: Duke University Writing Studio. Retrieved October 9, 2013, from https://cgi.duke.edu/web/sciwriting/resources/201108_DukeScientificWritingWorkshop.pdf. https://cgi.duke.edu/web/sciwriting/resources/201108_DukeScientificWritingWorkshop.pdf

20 Revision Exercise 7: Rephrase to remove the nominalizations. Original: An evaluation of the intervention should be performed in order to determine whether implementation is useful. Revised: The intervention should be evaluated to determine whether it should be implemented.

21 Use Active Instead of Passive Voice Source: The University of Wisconsin Madison. (2013). The writer’s handbook: clear, concise sentences. Retrieved November 4, 2013, from For sentences written in the active voice, the subject performs the action. For sentences written in the passive voice, the subject receives the action. Active voice is usually (but not always) clearer.

22 Revision Exercise 8: Rephrase to incorporate active voice. Original: It is believed by some physicians that all heart attack symptoms are not reported by patients. Revised: Some physicians believe that patients do not report all heart attack symptoms.

23 Avoid Figures of Speech Avoid colloquialisms, cliches, idioms, metaphors, etc. Readers whose first language is not English will better understand your message when you use words with the most precise meaning.

24 Revision Exercise 9: Rephrase to avoid figures of speech: Original: At the end of the day, policy makers and community leaders will have to pony up the cash to implement the environmental changes that are needed to get the health of community members back on track. Revised: Policy makers and community leaders will ultimately be responsible for money needed to implement environmental changes intended to improve heath.

25 Readers look for two primary pieces of information: 1.) Who is the sentence about? 2.) What are they doing? In scientific writing, sentences with long, complex subjects often confuse readers. Keep Subjects Near Verbs

26 Revision Exercise 10: Rephrase to place the verb closer to the subject of the sentence: Original: Incidence of asthma and allergies in large cities that have traffic congestion, an abundance of manufacturing plants, and other common gaseous pollutants like carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxides, and chlorofluorocarbons, is higher among children. Revised: Incidence of asthma and allergies is higher among children who live in cities that have…

27 Other tips for scientific writing: In scientific literature, the word significant is reserved for use with statistics only. Using Risk For vs. Risk Of: The correct expressing is risk for because the phrase means “risk for acquiring the illness.” Among vs. In: Use among when referring to groups or populations, and in when referring to an individual patient. Compared With vs. Compared To: Compared with is the preferred terminology in medical literature because compared to means "to regard as similar," and compare with means "to examine similarities or differences." Comprised vs. composed of: The whole comprises the parts (e.g., a book comprises chapters) or the whole is composed of its parts (e.g., the book is composed of chapters). Comprised of should never be used.

28 In scientific writing, al is deleted from terms whenever possible (e.g., epidemiologic versus epidemiological or biologic versus biological). Deleting The: To make your writing more concise, delete the whenever possible, especially before abbreviations and acronyms. Ensure vs. Assure: Use ensure when you mean to make certain; assure means to provide comfort to someone, typically through verbal communication. Fewer versus less: Use fewer to modify items that can be counted (e.g., fewer participants), and use less for items that cannot be counted (e.g., less water). Past versus previous: Past implies the immediate past. Use previous to connote a more remote period than the current discussion. Suggests versus indicates/demonstrates: Suggests weakens your message. Try indicates, recommends, demonstrates, reveals, or provides evidence that, instead.

29 Extra Credit Revision Exercise How can we rephrase the following sentence for better clarity? A member of the bovine subspecies leapt vertically upward, in the pattern of an arc, above the celestial lunar body, then back groundward toward its point of origin. Extra Credit Revision Exercise How can we rephrase the following sentence for better clarity? A member of the bovine subspecies leapt vertically upward, in the pattern of an arc, above the celestial lunar body, then back groundward toward its point of origin.

30 The cow jumped over the moon!

31 Questions? Comments?


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