Scientific writing is different from other types of writing, with the major themes being concision, precision, and translation. I see these issues all the time in my editing and writing work; I just started reviewing for another Medline journal, and I also just rejected a major paper submitted to our journal IJHNFM:
Concision: Keep the article as short as possible; make each word count. Articles that are too wordy don't get read because the readers realize that either/both: 1) the author does not understand the material sufficiently to make the message clear, and/or 2) their time would be better used reading something else. In either of these situations, the article (same with presentations) itself is wasted time and effort because it is not creating any effect.
Precision: Every statement has to be accurate; each word carefully chosen. Don't mix fact and opinion. Use proper grammar to make the sentences clear and powerful and direct; for example, don't say:
"There are..." This leaves the reader wondering where? What is the real subject of this sentence? "There" and "It" are very weak subjects for sentences, especially in scientific writing, akin to the nonattributed social use of "They say..." Who is/are "they"?
"It appears that... What is "it"--your idea, your opinion, the data, the consensus? Just say it or don't say it, but make the subject and object and conclusions clear.
Words like "affects" and "modulates" are overused and provide very little information. For example, if I say "Dietary intake modulates gastrointestinal flora and affects immune function" then I have not said anything other than vaguely introducing a concept, which needs to be backed up by hard data and clear statements. Rarely, these words are appropriate if the situation is indeed vague, such as with cytokine actions that can vary per context, but even then -- what is the point of the conversation if not to deliver something that is actionable?
Translation: The major thrust of biomedical research is translation: converting information into action. What are people going to do with what you're talking about? What should they see, think, do differently? Tell them what the evidence shows and what it does not show; then tell them what you think they should do with that sum total of information. What I notice especially from nonclinicians is that they talk about ideas without reaching an actionable conclusion: generally the goal of writing is to change behavior by expanding conceptualizations or changing perceptions so that "something" changes: action, testing, treatment, policy, perception/acceptance. Clinicians are typically 1) busy and therefore 2) selective with their time investments and 3) always thinking in terms of action: what can I do in terms of testing and especially treatment to help my clients/patients and therefore have a more successful practice and experience?
How to become a better science writer?
Read as much research as possible, so you will develop the rhythm and tempo of scientific writing.
Read about writing: Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing
Read complex works by philosophers and great writers, especially those who clarified major obscurities; Thoreau produced some good and accessible writing, while Nietzsche is my personal favorite for taking on massive topics in his works such as Beyond Good and Evil, On the Genealogy of Morals, Twilight of the Idols, and Zarathustra: all highly complex and abstract works with practical implications.
“Read poetry every day of your life. ...
Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition."
― Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing
How many people have noticed what is missing? What have I intentionally excluded from this list of 4 items? You'll find out in an upcoming post.
About the author—Dr Alex Vasquez: Dr Alex Vasquez holds three doctoral degrees as a graduate of University of Western States (Doctor of Chiropractic, 1996), Bastyr University (Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine, 1999), and University of North Texas Health Science Center, Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, 2010). A Fellow of the American College of Nutrition, Dr Vasquez is the author of many textbooks, including Integrative Orthopedics (2004/2012), Integrative Rheumatology (2006/2014), Musculoskeletal Pain: Expanded Clinical Strategies (published by the Institute for Functional Medicine, 2008), Chiropractic and Naturopathic Mastery of Common Clinical Disorders (2009), Integrative Medicine and Functional Medicine for Chronic Hypertension (2011), Fibromyalgia in a Nutshell (2012), Migraine Headaches, Hypothyroidism, and Fibromyalgia (2012), Mitochondrial Nutrition and Mitochondrial Medicine for Primary Care Conditions (2014), and Dysbiosis in Human Disease (2014), which is also an excerpt from Functional Inflammology / Inflammation Mastery: Volume 1. "DrV" has also written more than 110 letters and articles for professional magazines and medical journals such as British Medical Journal (BMJ), TheLancet.com, Annals of Pharmacotherapy, Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, Journal of the American Osteopathic Association (JAOA), Nutritional Perspectives, Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics (JMPT), Current Allergy and Asthma Reports, Integrative Medicine, Nature Reviews Rheumatology, and Arthritis & Rheumatism, the Official Journal of the American College of Rheumatology. Dr Vasquez has lectured worldwide to healthcare professionals and provides expert consultations to physicians and patients internationally. All of DrV's books are available on Amazon.com with videos at Vimeo.com/DrVasquez and audio recordings of lectures at iTunes.
About the International College of Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine (ICHNFM): International College of Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine was founded by a group of internationally-located world-class experts to provide higher-level training in nutrition and functional medicine to students and clinicians worldwide in Spanish, English, Portuguese, Catalan, and other languages. Originally founded in North America (Portland Oregon USA) and launched with the tremendously successful 2013 International Conference on Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine (described at ICHNFM.ORG with select videos available at Vimeo.com/ICHNFM), the organization is also now established in Europe (Spain) with several important publications also generated from in South America (Colombia). Dr Vasquez and his colleagues at ICHNFM provide educational courses, videos, written materials, and mentoring for students and clinicians to promote the expert-level application of clinical nutrition and functional medicine. Via forums and live interactive online classes, professors and students are able to interact, network, and share important insights, clinical experiences and case reports, effective doses of nutrients and prescription medicines, additional citations to research, important clinical pearls, and expanded discussions on various topics as the research and clinical practice of human nutrition and functional medicine continuously advance. International College of Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine ®, International Journal of Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine ® (IntJHumNutrFunctMed.ORG), and International Conference on Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine ® are all registered trademarks™ legally held and internationally protected by the International College of Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine.