Research article writing is a skill and, like any other skill, needs to be practiced and honed. No matter how elegant we think our prose, there is always room for improvement. But you may wonder: why do I need to improve my writing – I write perfectly well?
While we may write so WE can understand our own academic writing, there is always someone else who needs to read it. Most importantly, colleagues, journal reviewers, and grant committees. Confused writing can anger journal reviewers (and editors), leading to major revisions or even rejection.
The following are 10 tips for improving your research article writing, and your overall success as a researcher. If you cannot properly communicate your research, then you cannot get funded, published, or acknowledged.
1) Write Clearly
This point deserves re-emphasis: confused writing annoys readers. Read the following sentence (if you can):
Our study confirmed our hypothesis that understanding the underlying factors of exorbitant food consumption may lead to improved intervention mechanisms.
This sentence is a stereotypical example of ‘scholarly’ writing – and has no place in academic communication. We can more clearly write the sentence as:
We found that we could have better interventions for patients who eat too much if we understood why they did so.
Here, the meaning is not obscured.
2) Be Concise
While obscuring meaning can frustrate and confuse readers, equally notorious is writing long sentences. An easy way to shorten your sentences is to remove meaningless words. Consider the following examples:
Removing meaningless words not only conveys the same meaning, but does so quicker.
3) Use Active Voice
Using passive voice is probably the most common mistake of any writing, let alone academic writing. Writing in passive voice bores your readers, and again, confuses your writing. Consider the following example:
The inhibition of the growth of S. aureus was done by the decrease of the temperature to -10oC.
Did you make it through the whole sentence before nodding off? Here is an improved version:
We inhibited S. aureus growth by decreasing the temperature to -10oC.
We improved this sentence by swapping the weak verb (was) with a strong verb (inhibited).
4) Eliminate Normalization
Already strong sentences can become weak through normalization. Normalization weakens sentences by taking a strong verb and changing it into a weak noun. For example:
Weak sentences bore your readers. Avoid normalization and keep your sentences strong.
5) Use Numbers and Statistics
It may seem obvious, but including numbers and statistics are essential to good research writing. Consider the following example:
Drug A inhibited the release of hormone Z much more than drug B.
This comparison is ineffective. It lacks compelling numbers and statistics that would leave an impression on the reader. Here is a suggested improvement to the comparison:
Drug A decreased hormone Z release by 23.6% compared to drug B (p=0.003).
6) Use Examples
In addition to numbers and statistics, using examples in your research articles will help your readers understand your point. Text without examples will also bore your reader. It is easy (and lazy) to make a point such as “There is an expected future nursing shortage.” However, if we back up this point with an example, then the overall point is more strongly made.
There is an expected future nursing shortage. For example, Auerbach, Buerhaus, & Staiger (2011) estimated that by 2030 there will be 30% less nurses than required in the US.
7) Eliminate Jargon
Jargon is language specific to a profession or group. It is unfortunately pervasive in research articles. Examples of medical jargon include: BP, patient pathology, the patient refluxed, and emesis.
Authors may feel that their writing sounds more sophisticated by using jargon, however it confuses readers and could make them feel stupid. Not all readers will know the jargon of your field, especially not grant review committees who must review many proposals. Write in plain English.
8) Use the Right Word
Can you assure me that your policies ensure that your customers insure their property?
When writing a research article we want to be sure that readers understand our meaning. However, academic writing can be misinterpreted if we use the wrong words. A common mistake is to mix affect/effect.
Affect means to influence, while effect usually means the result of a cause.
Drug A affected (influenced) patient recovery time by 50%.
Patients recovered 50% quicker as an effect (result of a cause) of drug A.
Another common mistake is to use because, as, and since interchangeably. However, each has their own meaning and must be selected carefully.
We did not notice as (while) the room was dark.
We did not notice because (for the reason that) the room was dark.
We did not notice since (from the time that) the room was dark.
When proofreading, double check that you used the right word to convey your meaning.
9) Use Pronouns
There is an idea that pronouns (I, We, You) have no place in academic writing, which makes researchers hesitant to include them. Not using pronouns is bad practice because readers relate to pronouns. Consider the following examples:
Not only are the phrases on the right stronger because of the pronouns, but also readers will connect with them better.
10) Eliminate Hedges
When writing a research article, authors are often careful to draw the right conclusions. Without overwhelming evidence, it is difficult to write in a research article that “eating cucumbers reduces cancer.” Therefore, this statement can be hedged by stating that “our results suggest that eating cucumbers reduces cancer risk” or that eating cucumbers may reduce cancer risk.”
While one hedge is generally accepted, too many hedges conveys the message that you are unsure about your research. Consider the following sentence:
It is possible that our results suggest that daily exercise could, perhaps, reduce dementia, in certain circumstances.
Each hedge weakens the writing. Try to reduce your hedges to one or none, where appropriate.
Confused writing can anger journal reviewers (and editors), leading to major revisions or even rejection. Eliminate bad writing habits (jargon, hedges, normalization, passive voice, and long sentences) and practice good writing habits (pronouns, examples, data and statistics, clear writing, and the right words) to improve your chances of research publication success.
These tips are available for download as a printable cheat sheet.