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Cut The Clutter

Make your point clearly

· Writing tips

We are all familiar with clutter – too many things in too little space. Generally, we work efficiently in a tidy environment because we do not waste our time searching for the things we need. In much the same way, redundant information can get in the way of the important content in your manuscript.

No matter how thrilling your research is, your reader will quickly get bored if they have to wait to find out what you are trying to say. You need to choose your words and phrases wisely to communicate your message effectively. Eliminating words that create clutter will give your writing impact. But how can you tell the unnecessary clutter from the necessary content?

In this post, I will describe the common sources of clutter that I have come across when editing scientific manuscripts, and give you some tips on how to write concise sentences.

Don't repeat yourself

First things first: don’t create clutter by saying the same thing twice. You do not have to say the same thing again and again (see what I did there? You didn’t need telling twice). So where might you find yourself getting repetitive?

Unnecessary adjectives are a common culprit ─ for example, ‘past history, end result, advance planning.’ Adverbs can be repetitive too ─ ‘definitely proved, completely eliminate, may possibly, repeat again.’ Check whether your adjectives and adverbs really do give new information. If not, cut the clutter.

It’s great to be enthusiastic about your results, but emphasize with care. Only use intensifiers that add meaning. Consider the following: ‘exactly the same, absolutely essential, extremely significant, very unique.’ None of these intensifiers are necessary and actually sound a little desperate, don’t you think? Just say what you need to say; don’t go over the top.

Be careful with abbreviations. Most journal style guides will tell you to define an abbreviation on first use and then to use it consistently. Do this. If you feel that an abbreviation needs to be redefined because you haven’t used it in a while and you think the reader may have forgotten what it stands for, then consider whether you really need this abbreviation at all. Abbreviations make work for your reader; use them sparingly.

Word things better

Changing your wording can make your sentences more concise. For example, try using modifiers (‘the drug inhibitor’ instead of ‘the inhibitor of the drug’), and possessives (‘the enzyme’s active site was altered’ instead of ‘the active site of the enzyme was altered’).

Less is more. Wherever possible, try to use fewer words. For example, use ‘now’ instead of ‘at this point in time,’ ‘many’ instead of ‘a large number of,’ and ‘although’ instead of ‘in spite of the fact that.’ Fewer words will make your point faster and give your writing impact.

Watch out for longwinded passive clauses. Wherever you can, change the weak passive into the strong active tense (‘In this study, we identify novel mutations that increase the risk of breast cancer’ instead of ‘Novel mutations that increase the risk of breast cancer are identified in this study.’)

Avoid unnecessary phrases

Do not use words that you do not need. For example, you can cut out unnecessary noun phrases (‘gene expression increased’ has more impact than ‘the level of gene expression increased’). Many prepositional phrases (groups of words without subjects or verbs) can also be cut out. For example, ‘large’ instead of ‘large in size,’ ‘oval’ instead of ‘oval in shape,’ and ‘short’ instead of ‘short in duration.’

But be engaging

Removing redundant information improves the clarity of your text, but keep metadiscourse (how you organize your argument and engage your reader) in mind. Phrases such as ‘it has been shown that,’ ‘it is widely accepted that,’ and ‘it should be noted that,’ are often redundant, but are sometimes necessary to guide your reader through your evolving argument.

Get your red pen out!

Now you know how to find the clutter in your manuscript. When you finish the first draft of your next research paper, arm yourself with a red pen and start pruning. Cross out everything that does not contribute to your meaning or metadiscourse (this may require several passes). Tip: search for the word ‘by’ to track down your wordy passive constructions (‘the protein was activated by the enzyme’), then change them to stronger active sentences (‘the enzyme activated the protein’). When you are done, you will be surprised at how much better your words sound. And, believe me, your reader will appreciate it.

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How may words do you really need?

Claire Bacon is a former research scientist with professional qualifications in copy editing and medical editing. She edits manuscripts for non-native English-speaking scientists and works as a copy editor for a biomedical journal.