08 September 2013

My appreciation for anyone who has ever written a research paper has skyrocketed during the past few weeks. I had to begin writing my own article to realize how mind-numbingly hard it is. Sometimes I feel like words refuse to leave my brain unless I force them with a corkscrew. Other times I stumble over booby-trapped paragraphs that kill whatever train of thought I had going.

Whenever I manage to write something coherent is because I take it one paragraph at a time, and when that doesn’t work, one sentence at a time. In his article on scientific writing, George Gopen and Judith Swan share some of the most eye-opening insights I have ever read for crafting understandable sentences. I have spent a couple of hours poring over it and distilled it into two main guidelines:

1. Use strong verbs, and place them close to their subjects

This is a sentence from one of the articles I cite in my paper:

While current infectious disease diagnostics rely on pathogen-based detection, the development of reproducible means for extracting RNA from whole blood coupled with advanced statistical methods for analysis of complex data sets now allows the possibility of classifying infections based on host gene expression profiling that reveals pathogen-specific signatures of disease.

Sentences like this one show up everywhere. It’s not obvious that allows is the crucial verb that comes after the comma because it is not a noticeable verb and also because it comes 23 words later, all jumbled up with statistical methods. Here’s my attempt at improving it:

Current infectious disease diagnostics rely on pathogen-based detection, but an alternative method has recently become possible. Thanks to the development of reproducible means for extracting RNA from whole blood and the application of statistical methods to analyze complex data sets, infections can now be classified using pathogen-specific signatures of disease extracted from host gene expression profiles.

I split the first sentence into two to make the connection between the “While…” and the “now allows…” more explicit. I also added “extracted” to highlight the contrast between “pathogen-based” and “host gene expression profiles”.

2. Begin sentences by introducing familiar topics and end them with emphasis-worthy information

The reworked sentence above starts by talking about a familiar topic (the current diagnostics) and ends on emphasis-worthy information (there is an alternative method). The next sentence describes the previous developments that led to the new method and ends on the new method’s key idea (using host gene expression profiles). An additional sentence could begin by describing how signatures of disease can be extracted from host gene expression profiles and end on why this is important (emphasis-worthy).

Going through the examples in the article helped me lay out my ideas a sentence at a time. I have found that arranging sentences into familiar topics and emphasis-worthy information helps me isolate ideas much more effectively and I no longer have to fret over fixing messy paragraphs.

Unfortunately, I’m still not done writing, argh. Back to work!

See you tomorrow.