How sentence structure can make a paper incomprehensible: choosing a main character

Even a simple idea can be completely buried by a tangled sentence. Here is an example from Williams and Colomb’s excellent book on clear writing, Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace:

Once upon a time, as a walk through the woods was taking place on the part of Little Red Riding Hood, the Wolf’s jump out from behind a tree occurred, causing her fright.

This indirect writing style seems ridiculous when telling a story about Little Red Riding Hood, but we seem to accept it much more willingly when the story is about species, genomes, cells, or proteins.

During the first 24 hours of development, as migration through the ectoderm is taking place on the part of neural crest cells, the activation of expression of yfg1 occurs, causing their guidance towards the anterior.

After a few sentences in a row like that, readers will be either lost or asleep. The reason why these sentences are terrible is their indirect structure. Take a look at how Williams and Colomb rescue Little Red Riding Hood:

Once upon a time, Little Red Riding Hood was walking through the woods, when the Wolf jumped out from behind a tree and frightened her.

And how we can untangle our analogous sentence:

During the first 24 hours of development, as neural crest cells migrate through the ectoderm, yfg1 expression is activated, which guides them towards the anterior.

Two major things have changed in the revised versions: we have put the real actors in the grammatical subject, and the real actions in the grammatical verb. Both of these things makes for clearer, more concise sentences. The next few posts will focus on characters and subjects, with actions and verbs to come over the next few weeks.

Whose story are you telling?

People often think grammar means saying things “correctly”. This simplistic view dismisses the big impact that language structure has on how we interpret what a text means. The first sentence above on endoderm is grammatically correct, but still sounds like “blahblahblah…zzzzzz” when we read it. How we structure our writing at the level of a sentence can make the difference between making a concise point and sending the reviewers running for their coffee machines.

It's better if reviewers don't require caffeine and sugar to get through your paper.

It’s better if reviewers don’t require caffeine and sugar to get through your paper.

As readers, even when the topic is specialized and technical, we want to see a story ABOUT someone or something. We prefer texts that have a real main character. Unlike fiction, your main character won’t be a person, but instead, your favourite protein, species, cell, molecule, etc. This is what gives a paper a sense of focus. Whose story are you telling?

A text is most clear when the author chooses a point of view and sticks with it most of the time. Your main character is generally the most important part of your topic, and it should often (not always, but often) arrive at the beginning of sentences, as the grammatical subject of the sentence.

Take a look at this example paragraph:

Fe limitation is a major factor controlling phytoplankton growth in the large perennially high-nutrient low-chlorophyll regions of the contemporary ocean. Phaeodactylum tricornutum is known to be highly tolerant to Fe limitation which is potentially a great advantage in competition against other phytoplankton species. Through a combination of non-targeted transcriptomics and metabolomics approaches, the biochemical strategies employed by P. tricornutum at growth-limiting levels of dissolved Fe have been explored.

Are the authors really trying to say something about iron limitation? Or is their focus this particular species of phytoplankton? Or maybe the paper is really about new ‘omics’ approaches with an impact on numerous aspects of marine biology? It’s not clear, because we switch points of view: iron, phytoplankton, and the ‘omics’ all occupy the grammatical subject over the paragraph. The reader therefore is less sure of whose story this is, and therefore it’s less clear what to expect in terms of big-picture importance and impact.

Let’s say that we’re really concerned about iron in the oceans, and its broad effects. By putting iron more frequently in the position of subject, we can revise to make the text more focused:

Fe limitation is a major factor controlling phytoplankton growth in the large, perennially high-nutrient low-chlorophyll regions of the contemporary ocean. Low Fe levels are well-tolerated by the marine phytoplankton Phaeodactylum tricornutum, which is potentially a great advantage in competition against other phytoplankton species. When in growth-limiting levels of dissolved Fe, P. tricornutum  uses unique biochemical strategies, which we have explored through a combination of non-targeted transcriptomics and metabolomics approaches.

Maybe not as compelling as Hamlet, but not so bad as a main character. Photo credit: United States Geological Survey and Mineral Information Institute

Maybe not as compelling as Hamlet, but not so bad as a main character.
Photo credit: US Geological Survey/Mineral Information Institute

On the other hand, what if we really want to tell a story about this phytoplankton species, and iron is just one of the things we look at? This version focuses on phytoplankton as the main character in the grammatical subject:

Phytoplankton growth is strongly limited by Fe in the large, perennially high-nutrient low-chlorophyll regions of the contemporary ocean. The marine phytoplankton Phaeodactylum tricornutum is known to be highly tolerant to Fe limitation, which is potentially a great advantage in competition against other phytoplankton species. The advantageous biochemical strategies that P. tricornutum employs at growth-limiting levels of dissolved Fe have been explored through a combination of non-targeted transcriptomics and metabolomics approaches.

Enter protagonist from stage left: Phaeodactylum tricornutum  (Photo courtesy PLoS One)

Enter protagonist from stage left: Phaeodactylum tricornutum
(Photo courtesy PLoS One)

In this version, we more clearly get a sense that the phytoplankton themselves are the focus of this paper.

Changing the point of view significantly changes the focus of the text. Define whose story you’re telling: it will make your text more focused and moving in one direction. Choosing and sticking with a main character has the added bonus of relocating your topic to the beginning of sentences (where the context should be), which also helps your writing become more coherent and easier to follow.

Patricia Gongal works with researchers to improve the structure, clarity, flow, and style of their scientific writing, and has lots of opinions about science and academia.

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