How To Write Any Paper

What is writing?

I have some thoughts in my head. When you read what I've written down, you should understand those thoughts.

It sounds so simple when I say it like that. In practice, well, maybe it is and maybe it isn't. Let's find out.

Any textbook of English grammar will teach you the rules of writing clear correct English.

  1. Choose the correct word
  2. Prefer the simple word to the pompous one
  3. Prefer the single word to the circumlocution
  4. Prefer the short word to the long
  5. Use the active rather than the passive voice

These rules apply regardless of whether you're writing about medicine, engineering, law, education, travel, dating, or even a good old-fashioned novel. Meanwhile, you've probably read a lot of published articles, journals, and entire textbooks that manage to regularly violate all five of those rules in a single paragraph.

I like the word "circumlocution," by the way. Locution is writing or speaking, from the same root word as locomotion. Circum means circular, from the same root as circumference. So circumlocution is not to say what you mean, but just to talk around it. That's a nice long word that I'll use because it's packed with info.

In 1953, Watson and Crick wrote a letter to Nature magazine. It described the structure of DNA. Perhaps you've heard of DNA's double helix. They won a Nobel prize for that discovery. They wrote about it in under 900 words. No circumlocution required.

I want to quote something that was published in 1977, just to show you how little things have changed. When you write your paper, you'll cite existing literature, right? I'm citing THORNE'S BETTER MEDICAL WRITING by S. Lock, Pitman Medical Publishing, © 1977.

"Scientific writers are rarely literate. If a colleague tells a scientist that his latest article is difficult to understand, the writer is more likely to assume that his colleague is unintelligent than that his article is unintelligible. Such writers believe that discussions about style, choice of words, length of sentences, active and passive voice, subjunctives, and the like, are for nonscientific second-rate minds with nothing original to say, and are irrelevant for serious scientific workers. Unfortunately, this argument can be supported by reference to published accounts of important work, many of which are badly written. No editor will reject first class research because it is in poor English, and few journals have enough staff to rewrite all the articles they publish.

"So why does style matter?

"Simplicity and clarity are the features of good scientific writing. Nobody is asking you to write great literature, but the meaning must be readily understood. Good points to remember are that doctors not working in the subject should be able to understand the article, clear thought can be expressed clearly, and a man with something of value to say has no need to pad it out just to bore editors (who are likely to reject them) and bore their readers (who are unlikely to finish them).

"In other words, most writers are failing to communicate, which is the object of writing in the first place."

Scientific writers are rarely literate? That’s bold. It got your attention, didn’t it?

Remember those.

Updated February 23, 2018
© Copyright 2000-2018, Michael LaRocca
Durham, North Carolina 27707