In part 1 of this post, I discussed some of the problems of the lack of clarity and of verbosity that are common in academic writing. What follows are some examples of typical constructions that can be greatly improved in clarity and simplified by applying Plain Language principles, with zero or negligible risk of changing the meaning. (Of course, if there is any risk of changing the author’s meaning, an author query should be raised.)
Long sentences and passive voice: An impenetrable combo
The participants were interviewed and their basic demographic characteristics were recorded by a trained practitioner.
A trained practitioner interviewed the participants and recorded their basic demographic characteristics.
The second sentence is shorter (12 vs 15 words) and, in this version, on the first reading it is easier to understand what was done. This is because the verbs come first and not at the end of each phrase and the performers of the action are identified as the subjects of the sentence.
The samples were incubated overnight in culture medium at room temperature, followed by centrifugation, after which the organic phase was separated out.
We incubated the samples overnight in culture medium at room temperature. We then centrifuged them and separated out the organic phase.
In the improved version, a long, complex sentence has been separated into two simpler ones, with subject, verb and object in the correct order. None of the jargon has been removed, but it is easier to understand what was done when (and by whom, and sometimes it is important to make that clear – context is key).
In part 3 of this blog, I will look at two more examples of how editors can improve wordy and unclear academic writing (as long as it is non-examinable text – making such changes to examinable text would be going beyond our remit).
Many thanks to John Linnegar for his help with improving the clarity and flow of this post.