Scientific writing is obsessed with other scientific writing1 and itself.
Phrases like ‘this paper‘ and ‘this study‘ are everywhere in scientific writing2—which is not a problem per se. Used well, these phrases concisely differentiate the current study from others. Used poorly, these phrases fill the word count without adding value to the reader.
Never, for example, start a Conclusion with ‘In this paper, we showed . . .’ or ‘The main conclusions of this paper are . . .“. The first few words of a Conclusion (any section, in fact) are precious. Don’t waste them reminding me that I’m reading a paper in which you’ve shown or concluded something. Tell me something profound—something about your science.
“In this paper, we showed . . .” is a signpost (aka metadiscourse). It’s writing about the writing. And it’s a main reason that so much of science writing, like any academic writing, is so boring.
There are good and bad ways to signpost:
|Bad signposting||Good signposting|
|Several papers have shown . . .||. . . (Smith 2017, Jones 2019)|
|This paper is laid out as follows . . .||. . . (Section 2) . . . (Section 3) . . .|
|In Section 5, we show . . .||. . . (Section 5)|
|Figure 3 shows . . .||. . . (Figure 3)|
|As previously mentioned, . . .||. . .|
|We now address the question of . . .||What . . . ?|
The science your readers care about about goes in place of the ellipsis (. . .). Which column emphasises said science by placing it at the start of the sentences? Which column relegates said science by preceding it with generic signposting?
Even if they’re not the greatest prose, the bad signposting examples seem innocent enough. But it’s a slippery slope. Take the phrase “conclusions are given in the final section”. It’s unnecessary and meaningless. And yet this exact phrase gives 2000 results on Google scholar.
I’ll admit, this unnecessary phrase is a special case. In some scientific fields, it’s customary for the final paragraph of an Introduction to be an overview of the paper. And such paragraphs are often full of dull, boilerplate writing. But they aren’t the only place you’ll see unnecessary phrases once you start looking.
Unnecessary phrases connecting sections
You should aim for writing that flows smoothly. But you should not rely on signposting to make this happen. Take the paragraph starter “As I argued in the previous section, . . .“. Needing to invoke such a phrase can be a sign that you didn’t argue your point well enough for your reader to remember it. Reminding the reader of your what you’ve already said is only a band-aid solution.
Unnecessary phrases in figure captions
I complain about figure captions often. In part because they’re full of unnecessary phrases. Phrases like “Plot of . . .”, “Photograph of . . .”, “The legend indicates . . .”. Get rid of these and more: Figure captions need not be half a page.
Unnecessary phrases to motivate research
Professional narcissism is the term Stephen Pinker gives to the confusion between the things an academic studies (what should be emphasised) and the world of their profession (what they end up emphasising instead). Here’s the example excerpt he gives when the focus is on the profession:
In recent years, an increasing number of psychologists and linguists have turned their attention to the problem of child language acquisition. In this article, recent research on this process will be reviewed.
Here’s his succinct version when the focus is on the science itself:
All children acquire the ability to speak a language without explicit lessons. How do they accomplish this feat?
Get rid of happy talk
“Certain kinds of writing tend to be particularly prone to excess” – Steve Krug. Surprisingly, Krug wasn’t referring to scientific writing, but rather web content. Nevertheless, as scientists, let’s heed one of his suggestions: get rid of happy talk.
If, while reading text, you find the voice in the back of your head saying blah blah blah . . ., then you’re reading what Krug calls happy talk. It’s “small talk—content-free, basically just a way to be sociable.” Just as he argues that most web users don’t have time for small talk, neither do scientists. Get to the point.
Get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what’s left – Krug’s third law of usability. Now, cutting 75% of text isn’t feasible in scientific writing. But set yourself a realistic goal of, say, 10%. When you force yourself to cull words, you’ll begin to notice just how many of them are unnecessary.
1The opening to this post was adapted from Agnes Callard: “academic writing is obsessed with other academic writing—with finding a “gap in the literature” as opposed to answering a straightforwardly interesting or important question.“
2Across 360 scientific papers, I searched for the phrases “this paper” and “this study”. They arose a combined 1100 times, or an average of three times per paper.