Be clear and brief

Editors of journals all say that the most important thing when writing is: be clear. You should keep this idea in your head as you prepare, as you write, and especially as you rewrite a paper. Always remember the reader will be seeing your results for the first time, so you should make it as easy as possible for them to understand.

The first step towards being clear is to be brief. You should use the minimum number of words to make your points.

Avoid giving too much introductory material; all references to other work should be directly relevant to your results. Do not repeat descriptions of results or ideas. By careful organisation you can avoid unnecessary repetition of text in different sections. Many phrases can be replaced by a single word, and many commonly used phrases can simply be deleted. Use of the active voice is usually shorter and clearer.

This course aims to give many simple examples of how to make your writing clearer and more scientific.

Albert Einstein once said: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”.This is a great guiding principle for anyone writing a biomedical paper.

1. Avoid long phrases that may be better said with one or two words:

avoid better
in view of the foregoing
are found to be in agreement agree
has the capability of can
in an adequate manner adequately,

2. Avoid tautology:

avoid better
consensus of opinion consensus
fewer in number fewer
exact duplicate duplicate

Be objective and accurate.

Scientific English must be objective. It is ok to present an argument or make recommendations based upon your results, but scientific writing must be unbiased and honest. As you present your own ideas or conclusions, you must also consider different or opposing points of view. If you argue well and if your results clearly support the conclusions, then the acknowledgment of other theories will only strengthen your own arguments.

As a general rule, minimize your use of personal pronouns (e.g. we, our), since these can reduce the objectivity of a scientific paper. The reader already knows who has done the work. Only when it is unclear who performed the work described, such as at the end of the introduction (where you go from quoting other studies to describing your present study), should you use personal pronouns. They can usually be easily replaced:

avoid   “From our analysis, we found that activation led to cell death.”
better “This analysis showed that activation led to cell death.”
avoid “We could detect the 40-kD protein…”
better “The 40-kD protein was detected…”

Your results must be accurate and complete, and must be accurately interpreted. The results should include all relevant data that you obtained, not just the results that support your conclusions. If your results are important, someone is likely to repeat your experiments, so it is better to state any problems with the data now. If your data are incomplete, e.g. if the sample was too small for comprehensive statistical analysis, state this in the text. If few or no conclusions can be drawn, make this clear.

You must not mislead the reader with inaccurate or incomplete results or misleading interpretations of the data.

Everything in your paper must be consistent. Check the tables and figures repeatedly to ensure that the data is correct. Check that the text matches the figures and tables that it describes. Also check that the referencing in the text matches the bibliography, and that the abbreviations are correctly cited.

Also avoid the use of casual or imprecise language, as this can make a paper less objective, and less accurate.

avoid better
nowadays presently, currently
despite the fact that although
goes under the name of is called
on the contrary in contrast
(up) until now to date
be that as it may however

See also Section 5, Correct Usage of English, for more examples of how to keep your writing brief and concise.