Clear, accurate, concise writing

I’m writing this post following a very interesting talk of Jean-luc Doumont on “clear, accurate, concise writing”. This was an updated version of his previous talk on effective written documents.

I strongly advise you to review the following notes available on principiae.

I also took some notes during the talk and here is a summary of the three parts: paragraphs, sentences, and words. Jean-luc introduced this structure following a logic of constraints, i.e. the choices made for the paragraph have an influence on the sentences, etc.

At the end of this post, I’m suggesting a strategy for writing more efficiently. Don’t hesitate to drop me a line about what you think.

1. Paragraphs

The best analogy I got during the talk is between a paragraph and an efficient slide. The first sentence of the paragraph should be like the message of the slide in the title area. By announcing upfront what the paragraph is about, it prepares the reader to what comes next. It should help the reader answers these two questions: “Do I care?” and “Do I need more?”.

When a paragraph is about a list, the best way to prepare the readers is to announce the number of items and then to use the keywords “First”, “Second”, …, “Finally”:

The method has four advantages: speed, accuracy, cost, and elegance. First, the speed is... Second, the accuracy is... Third, the cost... Finally, its elegance ...

When using figures to illustrate your work, the best way to write your text is as if you don’t have them in your manuscript. Let’s take the following example often seen in papers to illustrate this point: “Figure 4 shows the results of the experiments. These results are in good agreement with the model of Eq.5.” When reading the first sentence, the reader will have a look at the figure and then come back to read the rest. After the second sentence, he will ask himself if there is indeed a good agreement and will go back to the figure. To avoid this inefficiency, we should write instead: “The experimental results agree with the model of Eq.5 (Figure 4).”

When beginning a section, we shouldn’t assume that the reader has the title of the section in mind. Therefore, we shouldn’t write the following

Section 2.3 The method of reduction

This method is XXX

Instead, we should repeat the full name of the method. The reason is that someone who reads the entire text generally don’t bother reading the section titles. Never received an e-mail where the sender begins the body referring to the object?

From: Prof. Smith
Object: Conference in Paris

Do you think we should go?

As explained in the handout of Jean-luc, there is an important concept about how to connect the sentences: either in parallel or serial.  Parallel is great when you talk repeatedly about something, for example to list advantages. Serial is easier to use when starting a paragraph or to introduce an idea with what people knows.

The creativity in a paragraph should be introduced through the verbs. The thesaurus will be useful for this but here are some examples.

  • describe: characterize, define, detail, illustrate, outline, specify;
  • present: introduce, show, display, give;
  • demonstrate: determine, establish, indicate, prove, validate.

2. Sentences

The general idea of aiming for short sentences is wrong. A nice counter example is “Dick, who, when Jane arrived, left, returns.”

Always keep the main idea in the main clause, and the secondary idea in the secondary clause.

Avoid sentences like “It can be seen that the value is increasing due to XXX”, “It is clear that,” (replace by Clearly, ), or “It is worth mentioning that” .

The subject of the sentence should be what we talk about. Selecting the subject in this way often simplifies the sentence and avoid long and cumbersome constructions.

Except if the authors are important for the understanding, it is preferable to put the name for a reference next to it: The previous set of experiments were deemed not conclusive by Smith et al. [2].

The aim when writing a paper is to bring the interest of a large audience. All the members of this audience don’t have the same understanding of the topic. It is therefore important to include pieces of information so that both extremes (experts and non-specialists) are able to follow. For example, details can be added for the experts while adjectives characterising the results would be for a non-specialist: “The polymer was able to sustain a high temperature (up to 110°C) without any deformation.”

3. Words

In the serial form, when referring to the previous sentence, it is more accurate to repeat what we are talking about:

In most experiments, the pressure didn't affect the prediction of the model. This model is derived for ...

You probably often hear from colleagues or professors that the “we” or “I” are forbidden in your text. Some might tell you that it shows modesty, others that it is irrelevant for the sentence. The second reason makes definitely more sense and the “we” shouldn’t be used in the following two examples

In this section, we review ... => This section reviews
As we can see in Fig. 4, ... => ... (Fig. 4).

However, always use “we” or “I” whenever it is relevant and to avoid ambiguity in a choice or the origin of a result. When these words are really problematic, an alternative is “our observations suggest …”

Conciseness is probably the final objective. Words that do not add information should be considered as noise and removed.

Efficient strategy when writing

On top of the advises taken from the handout of Jean-luc and the notes above, I think that going through the following 5 steps is a very efficient way to write a text. Depending on your experience, these steps can be performed in any number of iterations.

  1. List the main messages of a section. These messages will be the first sentences of each paragraph. Make sure each paragraph express one idea.
  2. Check that the subjects of the sentences are what we talk about. Change the non-efficient indirect structures often used in papers (see above).
  3. Make sure you have nice parallel and serial structures (repeating what you refer to after the this or these).
  4. Remove any unnecessary words, aim for conciseness.
  5. To make sure the flow is good in your texts, read it out loud.

Of course, there are no magic recipes and a big part of the success comes from the training. Applying the steps above should help you improving more rapidly.

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