3 writing mistakes I make

Last week my university hosted Dr. Joshua Schimel, microbiologist and author of Writing Science, who led a half-day writing workshop for graduate students. To be honest, I didn’t expect my writing to improve after a 4-hour workshop, but I learned a lot of great tips and tricks. Talking with the other graduate students, I realized many of us were making the same 3 common style mistakes:

1) Nominalization

Verb nominalization is turning a verb into a noun. Take the following examples:

“We conducted an analysis using the morphological data…”

versus

“We analyzed the morphological data…”

and

“There was a difference in the two strains of E. coli…”

versus

“The two strains of E. coli differ…”

All of these sentences are grammatically sound, but the second versions are tighter and stronger. By moving the action in the sentence to a noun (“analysis” or “difference”), rather than a verb (“analyze” or “differ”), we rob energy from our writing.

Slightly different from verb nominalization, adjective nominalization is another common problem that steals color and energy from writing. Take this example from Dr. Schimel’s book:

“The characteristics of this condition are the oxidation of membrane lipids, the denaturation of proteins, and a reduction in growth rates.”

versus

“This condition is characterized by oxidized membrane lipids, denatured proteins, and reduced growth rates.”

The second sentence is shorter, sharper, and more colorful.

2) Fuzzy verbs

fuzzy worm

Fuzzy WORDS, not fuzzy worms! Image from Wikimedia Commons

Science writing has a reputation for being dull (or worse, confusing), and fuzzy verbs are often the culprit. For example:

“Treatment X affected protein expression…”

versus

“Treatment X increased protein expression…”

The top sentence doesn’t actually tell us much (only that there was some effect), whereas the bottom sentence tells us how Treatment X affected protein expression. It may seem obvious, but this is an exceptionally common mistake. Some fuzzy verbs I’ve used are “affect”, “perform”, “facilitate”, and “mediate.” It all comes down to this: Say what you mean, then stop!

In the same vein, it’s almost always better to use short, direct words. “Utilize” is one that my advisor drilled into my head long ago: why say “utilize” when you can say “use”? Some other examples are “duration”=”time”, “demonstrate”=”show”, and “initiate”=”start”. Our science will always be somewhat confusing, but our writing doesn’t have to be.

3) Undermining myself

Maybe it’s because I’m a graduate student (and am therefore prone to imposter syndrome), but I have a terrible habit of watering down or undermining my own conclusions. I can fix some of that by cutting out phrases like “the results suggest” and “it’s possible that…” But sometimes I need to give whole paragraphs a facelift. For example, the last paragraph in my manuscripts often goes something like this:

“Our amazing results could benefit future researchers! … However, because we did not do simulation tests, the full benefits of this method remain to be established.”

The simple solution to this problem is to flip the paragraph on its head:

“While further tests are necessary to establish the full benefits of this method, our data show X, Y, and Z… This method may be a powerful tool for future researchers.”

Conclusion

As Dr. Shimel says: “As a scientist, you are a professional writer.” The sciencey parts (fieldwork, lab work, and analyses) are great, but until we have communicated that science, our job isn’t done.

If you think your own writing could be better (I think that’s true for all of us), I recommend Dr. Schimel’s book, Writing Science: How to Write Papers that Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded. And if you have a favorite writing tip or trick, post in the comments below!

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About Katie Everson

I'm a PhD candidate at the University of Alaska Museum studying the evolution of Madagascar's tenrecs. Alaska is really far from Madagascar -- that's why I love museum collections! My core research interests are phylogeography and species delimitation.
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  • Sammy Matsaw jr

    The over usage of ‘this’ and ‘that’ especially when not connected to an obvious relationship with the previous thought for ‘this’ or prior thought for ‘that’. Or worse yet, the mis-use of ‘these’ and ‘those’ as the plural for ‘this’ and ‘that’. Arg! The demonstratives as taught from a patient philosophy instructor, Mellissa Norton.

  • Andrew Veale

    Almost always it is a bad idea to start a sentence, or any independent clause, with “it”. Starting a sentence with “it” often hides the subject of the sentence – a bad thing to do. “It is believed. ..” who believes this and why?

    • Agreed! A common example is: “It has been shown that treatment X causes Y (citation).”

      Instead we can say: “Treatment X causes Y (citation).” No “it” necessary!

  • Peter Apps

    I (nearly) always go through a draft asking whether deleting a word really changes a sentence. If it doesn’t, the word gets deleted.

    A pet hate of mine is when biologists refer to “the” animal as if there is only one of them. As in “The elephant is an unselective browser” – which particular elephant are we talking about ? Why not write “Elephants are unselective browsers”.