Tips to Improve Your Writing

Writing Approach

Scientific writing, which often must convey complex technical information, can be as clear and concise as any other kind of writing. Even the reader who doesn’t consciously notice the writing style will sense the writer’s control over the material.

Fewer Words is Usually Better

If you can cut three words down to two, do so. A lot of editing consists of going through the text (more than once), deleting unnecessary words.

Bad: “Led analysis efforts of the collected data.” Better: “Led the data analysis.” Ninety-nine percent of the time, the word “efforts” adds nothing. And “collected data”? What other kind can you analyze?

Bad: “Three different types of treatment.” Better: “Three types of treatment.” Types are by definition different from one another.

Bad: “A number of different models.” Better: “Various models” or “numerous models.”

Bad: “Results of the tests.” Better: “Test results.”

Avoid Unnecessary Adverbs and Adjectives

Most adverbs are unnecessary. “Very” rarely adds anything to the meaning. A “very high hill” is usually a “high hill”. Many adjectives are also unnecessary. There is no need to refer to a “thorough investigation.” The reader of a study should assume that any investigation was thorough.

Avoid Jargon

Choose short, plain words over longer ones or jargon. For example, “use” is almost always preferable to “employ” or “utilize.” Many websites contain lists of plain English alternatives for jargon.

Stay Consistent

Do not use different words to mean the same thing, for the sake of making your writing more “interesting.” It doesn’t make it more interesting, merely less clear. If a researcher evaluated the efficacy of a drug, there is no reason to suddenly switch to “assess.” A common error in many fields is to use model, theory, and hypothesis interchangeably. They are not the same thing.

Example: A researcher writing about patient compliance with recommended treatment said that one group initiated treatment, while another group received treatment. This raises questions: Perhaps the first group dropped out and the second group completed treatment. In response to a query, the researcher said that he varied the terminology “for literary interest.”

Make Structure and Lists Logical

A writer should have a logical reason for every aspect of a piece of writing—from the overall structure of the piece down to the order in which items are listed. Take, for example, a list of cities: Barcelona, Fargo, Hong Kong, Amsterdam, New York, Tokyo, and Minneapolis. For a U.S.-centric text, you might write Fargo, Minneapolis, New York, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Hong Kong, and Tokyo (U.S., Europe, and Asia, alphabetical within each group). Or, you could make the entire list alphabetical: Amsterdam, Barcelona, Fargo, Hong Kong, Minneapolis, New York, and Tokyo.

In writing a sequence, whether of paragraphs or items, it is also important to maintain the same level. A list of health issues would not include diet, sleep, exercise, and the best treatment for lice. A diner would not have a sign in its window saying, “We serve breakfast, lunch, and roasted chicken.”

Stay Gender Neutral

All language that does not refer specifically to males or females should be gender neutral. The old explanation that the term “man” refers to both men and women is no longer credible. Many gender-neutral alternatives are more descriptive than the male nouns they replace. Examples include letter carrier instead of mailman and firefighter instead of fireman. In some cases, women and men now use terms formerly considered male, e.g., actor and waiter. This works because the words “actor” and “waiter” do not include the word “man.” Sometimes the “man” can be simply dropped. Use “Chair,” for example, instead of “chairman” or “chairperson.” In those few cases where no elegant solution is at hand, use “person,” e.g., “foreperson” instead of “foreman.”

Many sentences can easily be rewritten to avoid the awkwardness of he/she. The most common solution is to go from singular to plural. For example, “A doctor should try not to keep her patients waiting” can be changed to, “Doctors should try not to keep their patients waiting.” This also avoids the ungrammatical, “A doctor should try not to keep their patients waiting.” Instead of “mankind” and “man-made,” use “humankind” and “human-made.” Before you protest about “human-made,” you should know that National Geographic and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service use it on their websites.

Avoid Long Noun Strings

A New York Times article on education included the following quotation: “Discussion and instruction on the subject matter involving family diversity will continue in compliance with state core curriculum content standards mandates.” “State core curriculum content standards mandates” is a noun string. Even if the gobbledygook is necessary, it would be better to say, “state-mandated core curriculum standards” or the less concise “state-mandated standards for core curriculum.”

Beware of the “Misplaced Only”

The word "only" will change the meaning of a sentence depending on where it's placed.

Incorrect: The researchers only published the paper after many experiments. Correct: The researchers published the paper only after many experiments.

Incorrect: They only drove on Thursday. Correct: Depends on what you mean—that’s the beauty of a correctly placed “only”! They only drove (but never walked) on Thursday. They drove only on Thursday (and no other day).

Watch Your Upper Case and Lower Case

Many in medicine and health care suffer from capitalizationitis. Use uppercase letters sparingly. Students can learn as much from associate professors as from Associate Professors and as much about the human body from a study of anatomy as from Anatomy. Visit our capitalization page for some basic rules that apply to medical and academic writing.

Use Active Voice

The passive voice is overused by many writers. Use the active voice whenever possible.

Bad: “An evaluation of the study protocol was performed by the researchers.” Better: “The researchers evaluated the study protocol.”

That said, there is no hard and fast rule as to when to use the passive voice. At times it is preferable to use the passive voice, e.g., when the object of the action is the focus of attention.

Example: A story on hospital architecture might say, “The new hospital wing is surrounded by urban plazas.” A story on urban design, however, might say, “Urban plazas surround the new hospital wing.”

Avoid Redundancy

Bad: “They share the same genes.” Better: “They share genes.”

Bad: “The instrument components were connected together.” Better: “The instrument components were connected.”

Bad: “Currently, the researchers are now preparing for clinical trials.” Better: “The researchers are now preparing for clinical trials.”

Use "Includes" Properly

The word “includes” suggests that a list does not include all possible items, e.g., “famous scientists discussed in class included Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman” implies that the class discussed other scientists, as well. If you write about the lead author of a study, do not say at the end, “The other authors include …” and then list all of the remaining authors. Say instead, “The other authors are …” Likewise, in discussing a three-member consortium, instead of “members of the consortium include Columbia, Harvard, and Yale,” say “the members of the consortium are Columbia, Harvard, and Yale.”

“Compared With” or “Compared To”?

Many research studies involve making comparisons. To determine how items differ, one compares them with each other, e.g., “She compared the average score of the fourth-graders with that of the fifth-graders.” To compare one item to another is to say that they are similar, e.g., “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

"Absolute Risk" or "Relative Risk"?

When writing about risk, specify whether you are referring to relative or absolute risk. If the risk is doubled, that is a relative risk. If the risk increased from 2 percent to 4 percent, that is absolute risk. Include specific numbers, so readers have sufficient data to make their own judgments.

"Titled" or "Entitled"?

A book or article is titled, not entitled, e.g., The book is titled, “How to Practice Medicine.” The author is entitled to royalties.

Disclose Funding Sources and Conflict of Interest

News releases and other communications should include disclosure of funding sources and any potential financial or other conflict of interest.