Writing: 5 steps toward constructing a better sentence

But if one understands that a sentence is a structure of logical relationships and that the number of relationships involved is finite, one understands too that there is only one error to worry about, the error of being illogical, and only one rule to follow: make sure that every component of your sentences is related to the other components in a way that is clear and unambiguous (unless ambiguity is what you are aiming at).   Stanley Fish, How to Write a Sentence, and How to Read One

One may argue that words are the building blocks of all writing, and that any writing program aimed at helping you produce a two page NSF Pre-Doc proposal in two months might well begin with a discussion of vocabulary. But by now you have most of the words you will ever need to convey even the most complex idea. To write well, the words are all there, you just have to get them in the right order.

In a lovely book celebrating the construction and reading of sentences, Stanley Fish lays out the notion that good sentences are paragons of tight, unassailable logic. Like great music, as Leonard Bernstein once observed, good sentences have a sense of inevitability to them–you cannot imagine  it written any other way.

When you write a good sentence you are literally creating reality in the heads of your reader. Again, in Fish’s words…

Language is not a handmaiden to perception; it is perception; it gives shape to what would otherwise be inert and dead.

In the construction of a sentence you find yourself grappling with two monumental tasks for any creative person: discovering what is it you mean, and crafting words to convey that meaning. We will talk about the former some other day, now a few ways to improve upon the latter.

  1. Ask yourself, is there a simpler way to say this?  Simple often means short. Replace long words with shorter words  (“use” for “utilize”, “use” for “utilization”). Make a game of shortening a sentence just up to the point where you risk being vague.
  2. Write with muscle. Action verbs give life to sentences, especially scientific prose where “is’s” and “was’s” proliferate like boring weeds.
  3. Pay attention to the writing, not just the message, when you read. What sentences are clear and what sentences are not? Ask yourself “Why is this sentence not clear?”. Don’t always blame yourself. A lot of bad writing escapes the editor’s notice. A lot of editors, frankly, are pretty bad writers.
  4. Read widely. While it is possible to find good science writing by scientists, it is not, let us say, the most efficient way to hone your own craft. Check out the Reading Lists in the menu bar for examples of popular writers who you would do well to emulate. Magazines like The New Yorker, The Atlantic, or Sports Illustrated are justifiably proud of their writing staff.
  5. Take pride in your every day writing. Everything you write is practice toward becoming a better writer. Every email, facebook entry, and twitter is an opportunity to impress an audience with your clarity and panache. And, frankly, since every virtual scribble in the public sphere is being catalogued forever by at least three different pan global agencies, making sure your tweets are well written is the equivalent of always making sure you leave the house wearing clean underwear. You just never know.
Pay particular attention to the quality of writing in your science reading this week. Share with the GTDA community a a particularly  atrocious piece of writing, and then supply your rewrite. It is not necessary to list the perpetrator (I mean, c’mon, cut, paste into Google scholar, how hard can that be for the curious?).  Just supply a “before” and “after”. Then use the drop down menu at the right labeled “select category” and peruse previous posts on “writing”.

 

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11 Responses to Writing: 5 steps toward constructing a better sentence

  1. Grant Loney says:

    Before:
    The condition we adopt as a demonstration that the “handicap” principle works is whether there is an evolutionary equilibrium at which females are paying a fitness cost for choice. We consider this to be a most important criterion not only because mate preference is likely to be subject to direct selection but also because many observations strongly suggest that indeed costly mate choice has evolved.

    After:
    If there is an evolutionary equilibrium where female choice is costly, this demonstrates that the “handicap” principle works. This is an important criterion because mate preference is likely directly selected and observations suggest costly mate choice has evolved.

  2. Diane says:

    Before:
    “Pursuit of flying insects requires high maoeuvrability (ability to make swift rolls and tight turns) and often slow and enduring flight. The purpose of this investigation is to compare insectivorous bird and bat species that catch their prey in flight. Some of them fly continuously, either in open spaces or partly among vegetation, whereas others make only shorter flights, often among vegetation. The different foraging strategies require different wing designs.”

    After:
    “Foraging on aerial insects requires both maneuverability and slow, enduring flight. I compared wing morphology of bird and bat species that use different foraging strategies to capture insects in flight. Some of these species engage in continuous flights among open spaces or scattered vegetation, while others fly in short bursts among vegetation.”

  3. Aaron Tyler says:

    “As AOM coupled to denitrification is possible in theory, both thermodynamically and biochemically (through reverse methanogenesis15,16), such microorganisms might in fact exist and consequently our understanding of biogeochemical methane cycling might be incomplete.”

    “As AOM coupled to denitrification is possible both thermodynamically and biochemically (through reverse methanogenesis15,16), our current understanding of biogeochemical methane cycling might be incomplete.”

  4. Alex Barnard says:

    Before:
    These behaviors may take place either following insemination or while insemination is proceeding, the latter for example after copulation in insects such as Gryllus that copulate via spermatophores with long tubes through which the sperm pass during a period following the actual coupling.

    After:
    These behaviors may take place either after or during insemination, the latter for example in insects such as Gryllus that deliver spermatophores through long tubes after the actual coupling.

  5. Before:
    “There was apparently a progressive trend toward generally drier climate that developed over the western Pangean tropics in the North American and European plates, with mean annual precipitation values becoming <300 mm/yr, based upon the presence of paleosol morphologies that include evaporite minerals in Upper Lower Permian and Upper Permian strata of North American and Europe."

    After:
    "The presence of paleosol morphologies that include evaporite minerals in Upper Lower Permian and Upper Permian strata of North American and Europe suggest a progressive trend toward generally drier climate that developed over the western Pangean tropics in those regions, with mean annual precipitation values becoming <300 mm/yr."

  6. Jackson Helms says:

    Before: Every living animal will be affected in one way or another by climatic changes and insects being an integral biotic component of nearly all ecosystems are not an exemption. However, the various ways by which change will occur is yet to be determined by scientists. Insects being an integral biotic component of nearly all ecosystems will be affected by the change in a variety of ways not yet determined by scientists.

    After: Being an integral component of nearly all ecosystems, insects will be affected by climatic changes, although the various ways by which this will occur have yet to be determined.

  7. Jelena Bujan says:

    Before: Plotting running speed as a function of leg length controlled for the potentially non-linear scaling between body size and leg length, and running speed was determined to be a simple power function of hind leg length for all species examined, although this relationship was not significant for M. pergandei.

    After: Scaling of running speed to hind leg length controlled for the potentially non-linear scaling of body size and leg length (Fig.2a) shows that running speed is a simple power function of hind leg length. Of all species examined the relationship wasn’t significant only for M. pergandei.

  8. Zheng Shi says:

    Before: For the first of these characteristics, we have assumed that the Gaian world evolves through Darwinina natural selection, its goal being the maintenance of conditions favourable for life in all circumstances, including variations in output from the sun and from the planet’s own interior. We have in addition made the assumption that from its origin the human species has been as much a part of Gaia as have all other species and that like them it has acted unconsciously in the process of planetary homoeostasis.

    After: For the first of these characteristics, we have assumed that the Gaian world evolves through Darwinina natural selection. Its goal is to maintain the conditions favourable for life in all circumstances, including variations in output from the sun and from the planet’s own interior. In addition, we also assumed that human species has been from its origin a part of Gaia the same as all other species to unconsciously act in the process of planetary homoeostasis.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Before: ‘Hybrids between any of the Madeiran mouse races carrying robertsonian fusions would be sterile or infertile owing to the complex chromosomal configurations that would be produced at meiosis. Our results indicate not only that accelerated rates of radiation can occur without involving adaptive processes, but also that chromosomal evolution can be an efficient mechanism of isolation, as several reproductively isolated chromosomal races have appeared in less than 500 years.’

    After: Complex arrangements of chromosomes produced at meiosis contribute the sterility of hybrids between any of the Madeiran mouse races carrying robertsonian fusions. Results show accelerated rates of radiation can occur without adaptive processes and chromosomal evolution can be an efficient mechanism of isolation as evidenced by the appearance of reproductively isolated races of chromosomes in less than 500 years.

  10. Andy Harris says:

    Before – Controlled experiments are designed to reveal the causal relationship between 2 variables and to reduce the number of confounding factors experimentally by reducing the variance in confounding factors or by balanced group assignment. In carefully designed experiments, balanced or randomized group assignment allows the data to be analyzed with straightforward statistical tests like ANOVA, t-test, regression, or mixed models.

    After – Balanced or randomized group assignment techniques are commonly conducted to allow straightforward statistical analyses, including ANOVA, t-test, regression, and mixed models. These methods allow the examination of causal relationships while reducing the amount of confounding variation in the experiment.

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