Tips to be more concise in scientific writing: stop talking about yourself

There is one major principle of being concise: use mainly words that contribute meaning. This may seem obvious, but it’s easy to accumulate words that don’t really contribute to your point— just like empty verbs, these can escape our notice if we’re not paying attention. One reason texts can feel long-winded is that the authors spend a lot of time talking about themselves.

How many words in your text refer to your own actions?

Scientific texts can become easily bloated when we talk too much about ourselves rather than just getting to the point. We sometimes need to describe our own actions in a text to help the reader follow our experiments, but doing it too often adds bulk without adding real meaning. Consider the following example. Words that say something about the authors are underlined.

We have now characterized a novel set of transgenic mice that has allowed us to show, by in vivo lineage tracing, that the Notch1 receptor is expressed in multipotent stem cells in the intestine.

Notice that the underlined words don’t convey a lot of meaning about what’s happening in this sentence. Nearly one-third of the words here are spent describing the authors’ actions. If we cut most of this, we get this slimmer, more direct version:

Our novel set of transgenic mice shows, by in vivo lineage tracing, that the Notch1 receptor is expressed in multipotent stem cells in the intestine.

This version still makes it clear that they’re the author’s experiments, but cuts the bulk and shifts the focus to the results. The reader cares much more about what the Notch1 receptor is doing than what you’ve been able to show. In other words, scientific readers are more interested in the ideas or results than your actions, so that’s where you should spend most of your words.

For those who disagree with this principle

For those who disagree with this principle

Here’s another example of the authors talking a bit too much about themselves:

In this review, we briefly present the diversity of neural stem cells and intermediate progenitors in the developing central nervous system. We then draw a historic overview of the assumed causal relationship between spindle orientation and fate determination. We show how this prompted a search for regulators of spindle orientation, and present the current state of knowledge on the mechanism. Finally, we review data on the effect of defective spindle orientation and try to integrate conflicting observations by presenting alternative mechanisms that may regulate the choice between symmetric and asymmetric outcomes.

Having the authors as the subjects of every sentence puts the focus on them, and highlights their actions in writing the review, rather than the information itself. Here’s a revision of the first few sentences:

Neural stem cells and intermediate progenitors in the developing central nervous system are highly diverse. Historically, the relationship between spindle orientation and fate determination has been assumed to be causal, which prompted a search for regulators of spindle orientation.

See how this puts the focus on the real content, rather than what the authors are doing? Actually, let’s go one step further to cut the length of that second sentence, by putting the action in the verb:

Neural stem cells and intermediate progenitors in the developing central nervous system are highly diverse. Historically, it was assumed that spindle orientation determines cell fate, which prompted a search for regulators of spindle orientation.

In a review abstract, it’s of course acceptable to mention that it’s a review, but not in a way that distracts from the ideas. The last 2 sentences revised:

Here, we present the current state of knowledge on the mechanism and review data on the effect of defective spindle orientation. Conflicting observations may be explained by alternative mechanisms that may regulate the choice between symmetric and asymmetric outcomes.

I’ve removed excess words about the authors and in the last sentence, again put the action in the verb. The last sentence could be improved further– this revision reveals that the conceptual link between the last two sentences is bit fuzzy. Previously, the structure was “We do X and Y”. Writing from the point of view of the authors’ actions conceals this vague link between X and Y, which nevertheless creates a barrier for readers’ understanding.

Take a look at something you’ve written recently. How much time do you spend referring to yourself and your own actions?

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.

Share: Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInEmail this to someone

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *