How to energise and condense your writing [Book Review]

In this post, you will learn how to energise and condense your writing according to Joshua Schimmel’s Writing Science. His advice really isn’t secret or particularly mind-blowing but I’m making all those mistakes on a regularl basis. Sometimes it’s good to have the rules spelled out.

To energise your writing, remove passive voice, nominalizations and weak verbs

Avoid the passive voice

In the chapter “Energizing Writing,” Schimmel stresses that you should only resort to using the passive voice very deliberately, for very good reasons. In science writing, there actually can be good reasons for using the passive voice sometimes. For instance, when you say “we collected data samples” and we would be taken to refer to the authors, but, as it is often the case in science, that would not be true. Maybe someone who is not mentioned on the paper did the actual collecting. Then “data samples were collected” is exactly what you want to say and thus, an okay time to use the passive voice.

Remove weak verbs

Conversely, Schimmel advises against relying on weak verbs. They’re unspecific and ambiguous. Weak verbs are verbs that say something happened, but they don’t express exactly how it happened. So they leave you with more questions than answers. Here, it would be better to explain more clearly, such as certain effects modulate certain values. Use action verbs that energize your writing while at the same time making it clearer. I’m not sure I’m doing Schimmel justice with this bad explanation. Just buy the book!

The worst place for a fuzzy verb is in a hypothesis, such as “x is controlled by y”. This is not a falsifiable statement, and it’s also very unclear in, for example, how this controlling works. It’s an example combining both the passive voice a weak verb. In this case, Schimmel would say something like “x/y is the single strongest predictor of”, i.e. use “is”, an action verb. This makes it falsifiable and more of a hypothesis that you can work with rather than the fuzzy “is controlled by” that makes everything less clearer and also obscures which processes are actually happening on in the background.

People use fuzzy weak verbs when they’re afraid to be challenged. However, because of their weak verbs, they often end up with banal truisms rather than analytical statements (I’m definitely a culprit! This has been criticised in many a peer review I received…).

Stay away from nominalisations

Nominalisations are energy thieves, too. They tell, not show (but the writer’s holy grail is that you should show, not tell!). Nominalisation means hiding the action in an obscure noun and adding a weak, fuzzy and often passive verb that is virtually meaningless, obscure and maybe even less precise because it lacks concreteness. Don’t nominalize adverbs and adjectives either.

Nominalisations serve purposes sometimes: they encapsulate complex mental schemas in a single word, which can be a powerful tool if used well and in moderation. However, they require readers to hold the same mental schema or it results in indecipherable cryptic jargon, which comes off as arrogant.

Place them in the stress position of the sentence (as the object), where they come off less jargony. Still, overusing them will make your writing opaque and heavy.

How to tell if it’s an appropriate technical term or jargon

Words can be either jargon, if undefined, or appropriate technical terms, depending on the schemas your audience holds. Use difficult words only deliberately if there’s an obvious advantage over a simpler term. Local stress at the end of a sentence emphasises terms and sounds like a definition. Which is good but may annoy experts if it sounds patronising. At the beginning of a sentence you may say sth like “the idea that… i.e. XY theory”, which sneaks in a mini-definition in case readers weren’t familiar with the term or theory but doesn’t offend experts. Err on the side of over-defining to be sure that you don’t exclude novices or non-experts. But try to make it sound more like a gentle reminder that even experts may find useful. After all, the writer’s job is to make the reader’s job easy.

An indirect but explicit definition of any terms used towards the beginning of your paper may also help you later on if disagreements over these definitions arise during the review process (happens to me all the time). If you’re using a term that somebody else coined, look up exactly how they defined it and include that as a direct quotation in a footnote or even the main text. That saves you from reviewers (and yourself) misremembering how the term was actually defined and ending up stumbling over your own big words. If you use the term differently, you should actually discuss that and make it part of your argument. Believe me, I’ve learned this the hard way 😉

In case you’re deliberately using a term slightly differently to everybody else, there may be an important argument or unique contribution there – don’t bury it! Aside from that, believe me that it never works just using a term slightly differently than usual (or your predecessor Dr. XY) and thinking it will make sense to your readers, it won’t.

Definition reminders in parentheses are also handy to achieve a similar effect. Undefined abbreviations and acronyms are the worst kind of jargon. Define them at the first appearance in parentheses. First, your readers shouldn’t have to Google terms you’re using and also, many acronyms are ambiguous. Papers should be self-contained, thus include everything a reader needs to understand it and make their job easy.

Common words engage stronger schemas, i.e. they’re easier to understand (even for experts). They allow you to communicate instead of showing off. If nuance is important, you may use a fancy term from Latin but be careful if that nuance is really what you wanted to convey and the word is actually better than the simpler version.

Keep it simple stupid: Use simple words when you can. Papers that get cited are not decryption contests. They get cited because people immediately get that this paper is relevant for them.

Prefer “reaction rate” over “rate of reaction”, except if too long or for stress reasons (learn more about stress and topic in the chapter on sentences).

Condensing your writing

To condense, the first step is not to get rid of words. It’s to get rid of unnecessary story elements. Thus, to condense you first have to define your paper’s simple story. Then you get rid of anything that doesn’t do work to support it (such as distractions in content, words that don’t contribute meaning, redundancy, filler words, obvious things, adjectives and adverbs, things implicitly said by sth else or elsewhere).

You don’t condense by saying the same amount of stuff in lesser words or pages, but by getting rid of extraneous content first. Only then you get to the word level.

For instance, think about how a qualifier doesn’t make a weak word strong. A strong word doesn’t need a qualifier. Get rid of unnecessary qualifiers, for example those that could have been part of the verb or the noun.

Conclusion

In the final stages of editing, remove passive voice, nominalizations and weak verbs whereever there isn’t a strong reason to keep them. Define your terms, abbrevitions and acronyms. Prefer simple words over jargon whenever technical terms don’t add anything. Put difficult words in the sentence’s stress position (object) rather than the beginning (subject/topic position). Ensure that your paper is self-contained by explaining all necessary concepts, terms, and abbreviations and make the reader’s job easy.

Also, maybe you, too, have noticed: But actually ChatGPT is really big on all those issues, introducing jargony terms, nominalised, in passive voice and accompanied by weak works all the time. At least that’s what it does to me often when it knows I’m trying to write academic English. I have instructions trying to bait it away from doing that but they don’t always work. At least ChatGPT makes the same writing mistakes as I do 😉

Keep writing,
S



Cite this blog post
Sarah Lang (2024, May 13). How to energise and condense your writing [Book Review]. Epigrammetry. Retrieved June 19, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/11nvh

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