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  • Print publication year: 2014
  • Online publication date: September 2014

5 - Guidelines to clearer writing

Summary

The first (and rarest) quality is brevity: short words, short sentences. Why is it that intelligent people (among whom I include doctors) become imbued with verbosity the moment they put pen to paper?

(A. Paton. How to do it: 1. BMJ 1985; 291: 207–11.)

Watson and Crick show how it’s done

In 1953, Watson and Crick wrote a letter to Nature that must be one of the most important publications in the biological sciences. It occupied just over one page of the journal, including the references and acknowledgements. It is a good example of clear scientific writing, and many of the principles of clear writing are well-illustrated by their opening paragraph.

We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest.

Why is this a good example?

It is direct. ‘We wish to suggest . . .’ not In this communication is made a suggestion . . . .

It comes straight to the point. They could have started with a general statement about DNA: Deoxyribose nucleic acid is a nucleotide that has been isolated from many species. We wish to suggest . . . . To write this would have reduced the impact.

They make two simple statements in two short sentences. They could have linked the sentences: We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of DNA that has novel features that are of considerable biological interest. This version is more clumsy and also ambiguous: it is not clear now whether it is the suggested structure, or the salt of DNA itself, that has the novel features.

They are not afraid of using the same word, structure, twice. Many writers would have started the second sentence with a pronoun, such as It . . ., or used a synonym, such as This configuration . . .; neither device would have been as effective as repeating structure (see that and which).…