“If you can‘t explain it simply, you don‘t understand it well enough.” -Albert Einstein
I edit so many research papers in which the writers take the most convoluted and circuitous routes to get a simple point across. Instead of being impressive and scholarly, it is just confusing. Your writing is more effective—and your reader can actually understand it—when you use plain language.
The “Dizzy Awards” have been given out by the Texas Heart Institute Journal for the past 30 years for excellence in “unintentionally comical, bewildering, or downright terrible” medical writing (they don’t name names). Check out this gem that was published in a prominent medical journal:
“The development of Goodpasture’s disease may be considered an autoimmune ‘conformeropathy’ that involves perturbation of the quaternary structure of the A345NC1 hexamer, inducing a pathogenic conformational change in the A3NC1 and a5NC1 subunits, which in turn elicits an autoimmune response.” (2012 Dizzy Award Winner)
If the reader has to re-read each paragraph multiple times to understand your point, you have lost them. Writing in plain language is not a “dumbing down” of your work—it is ensuring that your reader will understand it the first time that they read it.
Writing in plain language is a lot harder than it sounds. You may have heard this quote: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” It is actually quite difficult to write in plain language. But I am here to give you some tips and tricks!
Use short sentences
A general rule of thumb is to keep your sentences to an average of 20 words or fewer with one idea per sentence. This is especially true for the lead sentence in a paragraph. If your sentences are running multiple lines with many commas and/or semicolons, break them up into smaller sentences. Longer sentences are not forbidden—just try to keep most short for easier reading. Below is an example of the type of sentences I see all the time (shiver!). This one should have been a short sentence and a concise table:
“The greater pain caused by larger-size tubes was the result of increased pain during the insertion of the tube and pain while the tube was in situ, with no pain difference during tube removal (insertion: size < 10F, MPS 2 [IQR 1–2]; size 10–14F, MPS 2 [IQR 1–3]; size 15–20F, MPS 2 [IQR 1–3]; size > 20F, MPS 2 [IQR 2–3]; χ2, 3 df = 8.12, P = .044, Kruskal-Wallis; χ2 trend, 1 df = 7.2, P =.009. in situ: size < 10F, MPS 2 [IQR 1–3]; size 10–14F, MPS 2 [IQR 1–2]; size 15–20F, MPS 2 [IQR 2–3]; size > 20F, MPS 2 [IQR 2–3]; χ2, 3 df = 11.75, P = .008, Kruskal-Wallis; χ2 trend, 1 df = 6.2, P = .015. removal: size < 10F, MPS 2 [IQR 1–2]; size 10–14F, MPS 1 [IQR 1–2]; size 15–20F, MPS 2 [IQR 1–2]; size > 20F, MPS 1 [IQR 1–2]; χ2, 3 df = 2.7, P= .44, Kruskal-Wallis; χ2 trend, 1 df = 1.0, P = .31 (Fig 2).” (2010 Dizzy Award Winner)
Use the active versus the passive voice
In the active voice, the subject does the acting; in the passive voice, the subject is acted on. For example, “constipation is reported in over 33 million adults…” (2009 Dizzy Award Winner) should be “33 million adults reported constipation…” (and reports can’t appear in patients!).
Use common, everyday words
Basically, use the simplest word for the job. For example, use “use” versus “utilize.” Technical terms are fine, but be aware that your reading audience may come from different research areas or other countries that use different technical terms. Rule number two in George Orwell’s Six Rules for Writers is “never use a long word where a short one will do” and number five is “never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.” Listen to George, he knows what he is talking about.
Define all of your abbreviations or acronyms on first use
Sure, it may be a common abbreviation used by everyone in your nuclear physics lab, but be aware that people from outside your lab or from other countries may use different ones. People from other specialties may use the same acronym for an entirely different term. In medicine, “CA” is the abbreviation for cancer, cardiac arrest, chronologic age, contrast angiography, and others. Avoid confusion and define your terms. And remember to define on first use in both the abstract and the body of the paper.
Avoid using abbreviations or acronyms for convenience
Many authors will devise their own sets of abbreviations or acronyms for use in a single paper. These ones are not in common use and are devised by the author so that they do not have to write certain phrases over and over again (lazy!). For clarity, keep the terms expanded. The exception to this is in tables where space is at a premium. Even then, the abbreviation(s) should be clearly defined in the caption or in a footnote. For example, in “Because it is both a common and serious condition, elderly nursing home (NH) residents are…” (2010 Dizzy Award Winner), nursing home should be left expanded—and being a resident is not a common and serious condition to top it off.
Write in the positive versus the negative
Each negative term used obscures the clarity of your message exponentially. Look at these examples:
Avoid redundant and ambiguous words
Phrases such as fewer in number, future plans, and sum total are all redundant (i.e., both words mean the same thing). An example of redundancy is the “one solitary” used in this sentence (and is there an Alcoholic Skeletal Myopathy Journal for this to be described in?):
“Except for one solitary case, acute cardiac dysfunction has not been described previously in alcoholic skeletal myopathy.” (2010 Dizzy Award Winner)
Finally, your spellchecker is your friend. Don’t forget to use it. There are also a number of other programs and macros that can be used to spot and correct problems, but that is another adventure.
Happy adventures in editing!
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Politics and the English Language (1946)
ed∙i∙tor \e-də-tər\ n (1649) 1. A person who prepares literary material for publication or public presentation
Editing is both a science and an art. It is a combination of training, experience, and natural ability. You should be comfortable with your editor and confident in her decisions. The following are characteristics that all good editors should have (and qualities I think I can bring to your project):
1. Broad knowledge base
A good editor has both wide-ranging and specialized knowledge to be able to pick up factual errors. She has to be a bit of a Renaissance person (or polymath)—and she is usually a really good Trivial Pursuit or QuizUp player.
A good editor has an almost infinite capacity for detail. She requires a great sense of quality and possesses high standards of accuracy. She questions everything and applies a critical eye to the tiniest detail in order to recognize patterns and locate inconsistencies. You could use the word obsessive, but I prefer meticulous.
3. Loves language
Not only must a good editor love the written word, but she must also have flawless knowledge of grammar and style. Or at least be able to look it up if she is not sure. She is often a bit of a grammar guerilla: tiny mistakes in the newspaper seem to immediately jump off the page. She has an appreciation for the Oxford comma and knows that despite what we were taught in school, it is not a mortal sin to leave a participle dangling. She also knows that when the right words are put together properly, they can be as beautiful as a work of art.
Telling an author that there is a major problem with the manuscript that they have devoted months or years of their life to creating is like telling a mother that her child is funny looking. Tact is vital. So is humility. A good editor acts as a coach to her writers. She is able to be encouraging while still pointing out the areas that need correction.
5. Able to meet deadlines
Publishing is rife with deadlines. If you are late in one stage of the process, it causes a chain reaction everywhere else down the line. A good editor has to be able to estimate timelines and meet deadlines. She also needs to be flexible because there will be an inevitable bump in the road with almost every project.
Don’t forget to check out my website.
Happy Adventures in Editing!
I am currently doing my Master of Science in Health Communication through Boston University. Through this program, I have been introduced to a whole new world: social media. Oh sure, I post up embarrassing photos of my kids to Facebook like everyone else, but who knew there were so many other tools out there!
I am a freelance editor here in Toronto. I have a Bachelor of Science in neuroscience and biology from the University of Toronto and a certificate in publishing from Ryerson University. I worked in sleep research at The Wellesley Hospital and St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto for many years. Once my kids came along, I worked from home as a freelance writer in mostly the health and science fields before studying publishing and moving into the field of editing. Although I do edit the full gamut of publications, I seem to have settled quite nicely into the medical and scientific editing niche, especially journal articles.
I have always seemed to have one foot in the publishing world and one foot in the science world. I won both the English and the Biology awards in high school. I had a regular column about high school life in the local newspaper during my high school years and I wrote for the campus newspaper during undergrad. It seems like destiny that I would be drawn to medical/scientific editing, which brings these two worlds together.
I am a member of the Editors’ Association of Canada, the Council of Science Editors, and the American Medical Writers Association. I have a very unnatural attachment to my AMA Manual of Style, CSE Scientific Style and Format, Chicago Manual of Style, as well as the dozen or so other style manuals on my shelf. I have five shelves in my office dedicated to dictionaries, style guides, editing books, handbooks, manuals, and so on. Oh, editors do collect and cherish their dictionaries and style guides!
What else have I done besides edit hundreds of journal articles? Let’s see…I was a judge and a chair for the Toronto Book Awards for three years. I started a book club where we are reading through the BBC’s Big Read Top 100 Books. We are more than halfway through the list! I volunteer at my kids’ schools and libraries as much as I can. I have chaired book fairs, organized author talks, coordinated a Reading Buddies outreach program where kids help younger kids to read, and designed a project using QR codes on library books and linking them to student video reviews. I try to do yoga a few times a week. But, really, my greatest accomplishment is my two boys. They are truly my pride and joy.
Why this jump into the world of blogging? After so many years of editing, I have managed to pick up a thing or two that may be of use to other editors or writers. Also, the world of editing today—and publishing in general—has become so detached because so many of us work freelance or telecommute. I have worked for years for a number of journals and have never actually met anyone there! It would be nice to have some “co-workers.” We may not physically work together, but let this blog be our watercooler.
So, welcome to my blog. I hope you learn something and I hope that you come back to visit often. Also, check out my website at www.kristinethornley.com.
Happy Adventures in Editing!
I am freelance copy editor, proofreader, and instructor based in Toronto. Enjoy my adventures in editing! (Note: I transferred my blog over and lost my comments along the way, unfortunately. Please add new ones.)