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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

How to write about science or technology clearly

Today, English is the international language of science and technology. People around the world read and write science or technical articles in English. A clear writing style helps to make your work easier to read, both for the colleague down the hall, and the one on the other side of the world.

One key to writing clearly is to use essential scientific or technical terms while minimizing other long words. (By long word, we mean a word with 3 syllables or more, not counting a 2-syllable word that becomes 3-syllables by adding, -s-es-d-ed, or -ing).

Part of working in any field is learning that field’s special terms. But that doesn’t mean writing an article is an occasion to show off every big word you ever learned. Instead, try to explain the subject using words familiar to your audience.

One method for revising your writing is to go through your draft and underline each long word. Which long words do you really need? (You may find that most long words are not at all scientific or technical, but just part of the narrative “glue” that holds your story together.) Then, try to brainstorm ways to say the same thing using a shorter word, or a few short words. For most long words, you can probably find a way to replace them with a shorter word, or a phrase that uses shorter words.

Once you’re done brainstorming, use your best judgment about how well each alternative works. Sometimes, the original long word works best; but, when you find that a shorter word works just as well, use it.

Which long words do you really need? We propose that an essential scientific or technical termis any long word that meets four tests:

  1. There is no plain English equivalent.
  2. You can’t paraphrase in a few short words.
  3. Experts use it consistently, and
  4. You can look it up in a standard reference.

An example of an essential medical term is atrial fibrillation

  1. There is no plain English equivalent.
  2. You can’t paraphrase it in a few short words.
  3. Doctors use it consistently.
  4. You can look it up in a medical dictionary.

By contrast, the word, pulmonary, does not meet all four tests:

  1. You can sometimes replace pulmonary with lung.
  2. You can sometimes paraphrase in a few short words, e.g., related to the lung. 
  3. Doctors don’t use pulmonary consistently. Instead, they tend to use various terms: pulmonary, lung, pneumonic, etc.
  4. You can look up pulmonary, lung and pneumonic in a medical dictionary.

Controlling long words goes a long way to improving reading ease and clarity. But, the key is to decide which ones you truly need. The more you can express your ideas in simple terms, the more people will understand and trust what you write.

Featured image: Writing with a fountain pen by Aaron Burden via Unsplash

Recent Comments

  1. Deborah S. Bosley

    Your list is quite helpful. The only flaw I see is that even if experts use a word consistently, the patient hearing or reading the word likely has no idea what it means.Atrial fibrillation? I would have no idea what it means. The language of experts is not the language of patients, users, customers, or the public in general.

  2. Nicole Watkins-Campbell

    I’m so glad people with academic and medical expertise are writing about how to clarify scientific and medical information. This trend will be useful for cross-disciplinary communication and communication with readers whose first language is not English. It will also aid knowledge transfer to science generalists and the public. Using shorter words is will make a scientific text more broadly accessible, but using shorter sentences reduces the memory work the brain must do to understand the text. It might be even more important as a plain language tactic. Looking forward to seeing more on this topic.

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