Avoiding the official style

Nobody turns into a good writer over night. Writing well takes a lot of dedicated practice, as well as mastery of many different topics, including grammar, punctuation, word choice, and document organization. However, if I had to name one single skill that likely makes the biggest difference in a person’s ability to write well, I would point to recognizing and avoiding the official style. This style, named so by professor of rhetoric Richard Lanham [1], makes heavy use of passive voice, prepositional phrases, and complex, wordy expressions with little content. And it permeates the scientific literature.

To give you a concrete example of this style, consider the following excerpt. It comes from a paper describing the function of the gene exon0 in a baculovirus [2]:

The TEM results provide evidence that EXON0 is required for the efficient egress of nucleocapsids from the nucleus to the cytoplasm. The conservation of EXON0 in all lepidopteran nucleopolyhedroviruses suggests that it may play a role in facilitating a common transport pathway for nucleocapsid egress for this group of baculoviruses. However, exon0 is not strictly essential for the production of BV, since a few nucleocapsids in the cells transfected with exon0 KO virus did pass through the nuclear membrane, followed by transport through the cytoplasm and budding at the plasma membrane. Two possible explanations are that the EXON0-facilitated nucleocapsid transport process can be bypassed and that other viral and cellular proteins can replace EXON0, although extremely inefficiently.

In this excerpt, we can identify all the major elements of the official style. First, we see extensive use of passive voice, such as “EXON0 is required,” “exon0 is not . . . essential,” and “the . . . nucleocapsid transport process can be bypassed.” Second, we see long strings of prepositional phrases, as in “. . . required for the efficient egress of nucleocapsids from the nucleus to the cytoplasm.” Third, we see wordy expressions with little content, as in “. . . suggests that it may play a role in facilitating. . .”

So what can we do to avoid this style? A set of five simple editing guidelines provides a handy toolkit for writing more pleasant, less official-sounding prose:

  1. Locate prepositions and is forms.
  2. Identify the action and put it into a simple verb.
  3. Get to the point quickly.
  4. Read the passage aloud—does it flow?
  5. Vary the sentence length.

By following these guidelines, anyone can turn a dry, official-sounding document into a much more engaging piece of text. I have based these guidelines loosely on those presented in Lanham’s book [1], though none of them are particularly novel for experienced copy writers or editors.

1. Locate prepositions and is forms

The official style makes heavy use of long strings of prepositional phrases. Prepositions are short words such as in, on, or until that express relationships between objects, persons, times, or places (Figure 1). They are tremendously useful. But, when used in excess, they lead to boring, cumbersome, and frequently imprecise prose. Consider the following example. (I have highlighted the is form and the prepositions.)

The cells were lysed with 1% Triton X-100 after 20 minutes incubation in rich media prepared under standard conditions with continuous stirring of the flask.

I am sure you recognize this as a standard sentence you might find in the methods section of any molecular biology paper. If you have read many such papers, you may even find this sentence sufficiently clear. But is it really? Were the cells incubated or lysed in rich media? Were the cells incubated with continuous stirring of the flask, or was the stirring instead part of the media preparation? Or was maybe the flask stirred during the lysing of the cells? We don’t really know. The prepositions cannot precisely convey the relationships of the involved objects.

The above example contains six prepositions. In general, three prepositions in a row cause problems, and four or more prepositions usually guarantee disaster. As the first order of business, therefore, we shorten and/or remove, as much as possible, any strings of prepositional phrases.

At this point, some readers might want to defend the use of prepositional phrases. They might say:

Prepositional phrases are perfectly clear. A preposition connects the object, time, or place that immediately precedes it with the one that immediately follows it. As long as all the prepositional phrases are in the right order, everything is perfectly clear.

I disagree. Try to find the correct location for “with continuous stirring of the flask” if the flask was stirred during incubation. If you write “after 20 minutes incubation with continuous stirring of the flask in rich media,” then you are saying that the flask was in the media, when almost certainly the opposite was the case. If you write “after 20 minutes incubation in rich media with continuous stirring of the flask prepared under standard conditions,” then “prepared under standard conditions” seems to apply to the flask rather than the media. In addition, we often want to express that one thing is related to multiple others. In the above example, for instance, the authors might have meant to say that they carried out both lysing and incubation under standard conditions. The prepositions cannot unambiguously convey this meaning.

We can only eliminate strings of prepositional phrases if we can identify them. Therefore, Guideline 1 simply asks us to identify all prepositions and all is forms in each sentence [3]. The subsequent guidelines will help us with rephrasing.

Figure 1: Common prepositions in the English language.

across, after, at, behind, by, during, from, for, in, in front of, into, of, off, on, onto, out, out of, to, under, until

2. Identify the action and put it into a simple verb

With the exception of definitions—a chair is a piece of furniture to sit on—most sentences convey actions. Lots of them. Even the boring sentences in the methods sections of scientific papers. Actions are conveyed by verbs. Yet the most common verbs you will find in scientific texts are variants of to be. The actions instead hide behind nouns and in prepositions. Consider the cell-lysation example. This example contains the following actions:

  • to lyse
  • to incubate
  • to stir
  • to prepare

Yet none of these verbs actually occur in their active form in the example sentence. Instead they occur as participles or gerunds, that is, in the form of adjectives or nouns.

Let’s consider a second example:

Animals are housed on individually ventilated cages stacked in multiple layers with HEPA-filtered air provided to each cage.

This example contains the following actions, again hidden in the form of participles or gerunds:

  • to house
  • to ventilate
  • to stack
  • to filter
  • to provide

Once you have identified the relevant actions in a sentence, you can then express them in simple verbs. To provide you with some examples, Figure 2 shows several long-winded is statements alongside their shorter, verb-based form.

Figure 2: Equivalent long and short expressions of the same action.

Long expression   Short and simple form
is causing the removal of   removes
is causing the modification of        modifies/alters
results in the elimination of   eliminates
effects the increase of   increases
is 57 words in length   contains 57 words
is 100 meters long   spans 100 meters
is greater than   exceeds
is resulting in   yields

3. Get to the point quickly

Under Guideline 2, you have learned how to identify the action in a sentence and put it into a simple verb. Guideline 3 instructs you to get to the point quickly. Your readers have only so much attention—don’t squander it by writing long-winded phrases with little content. As an example of long-winded text, consider the following abstract of a paper investigating the inhibitory role of the protein NifL on the protein NifA [4]:

. . . we localized inhibition by NifL to its carboxy (C)-terminal domain . . . The first line of evidence for this is that internal deletions of NifL containing an intact C-terminal domain were able to inhibit transcriptional activation by NifA in a coupled transcription-translation system. The second line of evidence is that the isolated C-terminal domain of NifL (assayed as a fusion to the soluble maltose-binding protein [MBP]) was sufficient to inhibit transcriptional activation by the central domain of NifA in a purified transcription system. The final line of evidence is that an MBP fusion to the C-terminal domain of NifL inhibited transcriptional activation by NifA in vivo. (104 words)

This abstract contains the phrase “the . . . line of evidence . . . is that” three times, for a total of 23 words, 20% of the total text, with essentially no content. We can delete almost all these words without any loss of clarity or content:

. . . we localized inhibition by NifL to its carboxy (C)-terminal domain . . . First, internal deletions of NifL containing an intact C-terminal domain were able to inhibit transcriptional activation by NifA in a coupled transcription-translation system. Second, the isolated C-terminal domain of NifL (assayed as a fusion to the soluble maltose-binding protein [MBP]) was sufficient to inhibit transcriptional activation by the central domain of NifA in a purified transcription system. Third, an MBP fusion to the C-terminal domain of NifL inhibited transcriptional activation by NifA in vivo. (84 words)

As a simple editing rule, eliminate all phrases of the form “something something is that” (Figure 3). In most cases, these phrases don’t contain any content anyways. And even if they do, there will usually be better ways to provide this content. For example, consider the opening of this abstract [5]:

Measurements of toxicity based on individuals . . . and effects on reproduction are used extensively in determining ecological risk . . . . An underlying assumption is that individual-based toxicity metrics for one species can be directly compared with that for another species. However, this assumption overlooks the fact that different species have different life-history strategies and variables, such as lifespan, time to first reproduction, and number of offspring produced over a lifetime. Using a simple model and laboratory-derived parameter values, we tested the impact of differences in life-history traits on predicted responses to stress. (89 words)

This abstract contains the phrases “an underlying assumption is that” and “however, this assumption overlooks the fact that.” We would like to delete both. The resulting text might read:

Measurements of toxicity based on individuals . . . and effects on reproduction are used extensively in determining ecological risk . . . . Such risk assessments directly compare individual-based toxicity metrics for different species. But species differ in life-history strategies and variables, such as lifespan, time to first reproduction, and number of offspring produced over a lifetime. Using a simple model and laboratory-derived parameter values, we tested the impact of differences in life-history traits on predicted responses to stress. (73 words)

This version is quite a bit shorter, but it requires the reader to understand that life-history strategies and variables may affect the toxicity metrics and therefore may confound the comparison. This information was present in the original version of the abstract, if in a somewhat indirect way (“this assumption overlooks”). Therefore, in this particular case, I would opt for a slightly longer version. For example:

Measurements of toxicity based on individuals . . . and effects on reproduction are used extensively in determining ecological risk . . . . Such risk assessments directly compare individual-based toxicity metrics for different species. But toxicity metrics may not be directly comparable, because species differ in life-history strategies and variables, such as lifespan, time to first reproduction, and number of offspring produced over a lifetime. Here, we tested the impact of differences in life-history traits on predicted responses to stress, using a simple model and laboratory-derived parameter values. (84 words)

This version is almost as long as the original one. However, I believe it flows better and is easier to understand.

Figure 3: Phrases of the form “something something is that.” These phrases generally convey no information and should be deleted.

The fact of the matter is that . . .
The reasoning behind this statement is that . . .
The general consensus is that . . .
What most researchers believe is that . . .
It is this fact that is . . .
The conclusion is that . . .
The result of this experiment was that . . .

4. Read the passage aloud—does it flow?

When we are composing and/or editing a piece of text, we often spend so much time on small segments, inidividual sentences or phrases, that we lose track of the big picture. After half an hour of tinkering, we may have a paragraph whose every individual sentence is fine, but in combination the sentences don’t work. Fortunately, there is an easy way to identify these cases. Take a clean printout of your manuscript, sit down in a comfortable chair or sofa, and read the entire piece—aloud [6]. (If you are working on a long manuscript, such as a book or a thesis, you may want to do this exercise separately for individual chapters or major sections.) While you are reading, pay special attention to the sound of your prose. Does it flow easily, or does it feel like a tongue-twister? Do the sentences connect nicely to each other? Do you always know where a sentence is going, or do you sometimes have to backtrack half a sentence because you thought it would finish differently than it actually did? Mark any issues that you see, but don’t fix them immediately. The purpose of this exercise is to get a sense of the larger structure of the text. If you immediately start tinkering with the text, you will lose that sense.

After you have read your document carefully multiple times and marked all issues, go ahead and carry out the required edits.

5. Vary the sentence length

The last guideline addresses sentence length. Consider the following paragraph from a paper on a new influenza treatment [7]. Read this paragraph aloud, and note what you experience while doing so:

Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) virus H5N1 strains are currently causing major morbidity and mortality in poultry populations across Asia, Europe, and Africa and have caused 385 confirmed human infections, with a fatality rate of 63.11%. Preventive and therapeutic measures against circulating H5N1 strains have received a lot of interest and effort globally to prevent another pandemic outbreak. Influenza A virus poses a challenge because it rapidly alters its appearance to the immune system by antigenic drift (mutating) and antigenic shift (exchanging its components). The current strategies to combat influenza include vaccination and antiviral drug treatment, with vaccination being the preferred option. The annual influenza vaccine aims to stimulate the generation of anti-hemagglutinin (anti-HA) neutralizing antibodies, which confer protection against homologous strains. Current vaccines have met with various degrees of success. The facts that these strategies target the highly variable HA determinant and that predicting the major HA types that pose the next epidemic threat is difficult are significant limitations to the current antiviral strategy. In the absence of an effective vaccine, therapy is the mainstay of control of influenza virus infection.

To me, the paragraph feels monotone. Only towards the end does it become a bit more lively. The feeling of monotonicity is created by two factors. First, most sentences contain approximately the same number of words. Second, none is very short. The one exception is sentence six, which contains only nine words:

Sentence Number of words
Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) virus . . . 36
Preventive and therapeutic measures . . . 22
Influenza A virus poses a challenge . . . 26
The current strategies to combat influenza . . . 18
The annual influenza vaccine aims . . . 20
Current vaccines have met with . . . 9
The facts that these strategies target . . . 34
In the absence of an effective vaccine, . . . 17

As an alternative, consider this excerpt from an article on the effect of human activity on species diversity [8]:

No one denies that population size influences speciation rate. However, the direction of its effect is in doubt. At one time, many evolutionists, led by Ernst Mayr, believed that small isolated populations provide the crucible for evolution. They believed that getting speciation started is a matter of breaking up coadapted complexes of genes in geographical isolates. If that is correct, small populations would speed up speciation by enhancing statistical sampling accidents. But an alternative view exists. Called “centrifugal speciation,” it claims that large populations speed up speciation. Centrifugal speciation also begins with geographical separation of sister populations. But after separation, the larger isolates—not the smaller ones—do the changing. The small ones remain as evolutionary relicts.

We notice immediately that sentences in this paragraph are much shorter than they are in the previous example. And sentence length is also more varied. The shortest sentence has only five words. The third and fourth sentences are the longest. But with 19 words, they are still not overly long. And there is a good mix of short, medium, and long sentences in this paragraph. For example, after three moderately long sentences of 19, 19, and 15 words, the author placed a very short sentence of only five words:

Sentence Number of words
No one denies that population size influences . . . 9
However, the direction of its effect is in doubt. 9
At one time, many evolutionists, led by Ernst . . . 19
They believed that getting speciation started . . . 19
If that is correct, small populations would . . . 15
But an alternative view exists. 5
Called “centrifugal speciation,” it claims that . . . 11
Centrifugal speciation also begins with . . . 10
But after separation, the larger isolates . . . 13
The small ones remain as evolutionary relicts. 7

Thus we arrive at our take-home message, both for this section and for the entire blog post: Be bold. Write short sentences. And then vary the sentence length. Your readers won’t mind a somewhat lengthy sentence, with multiple dependent clauses, if you wrote a few very short sentences just beforehand.

Notes

[1] R. L. Lanham. The Longman Guide to Revising Prose. Person Longman, New York, 2006.

[2] M. Fang, X. Dai, and D. A. Theilmann. Autographa californica multiple nucleopolyhedrovirus EXON0 (ORF141) is required for efficient egress of nucleocapsids from the nucleus. J. Virol., 81:9859–9869, 2007.

[3] We identify the is forms because prepositions and is forms go hand in hand. Sentences with long strings of prepositional phrases almost invariably sport an is form as the main verb.

[4] F. Narberhaus, H. S. Lee, R. A. Schmitz, L. He, and S. Kustu. The C-terminal domain of NifL is sufficient to inhibit NifA activity. J. Bacteriol., 177:5078–5087, 1995.

[5] J. D. Stark, J. E. Banks, and R. Vargas. How risky is risk assessment: The role that life history strategies play in susceptibility of species to stress. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 101:732–736, 2004.

[6] For a more systematic approach to text flow, take a look at my blog post on the topic and stress positions. However, this approach doesn’t eliminate the need for careful reading.

[7] N. Prabhu, M. Prabakaran, H.-T. Ho, S. Velumani, J. Qiang, M. Goutama, and J. Kwang. Monoclonal antibodies against the fusion peptide of hemagglutinin protect mice from lethal influenza A virus H5N1 infection. J. Virol., 83:2553–2562, 2009.

[8] M. L. Rosenzweig. Loss of speciation rate will impoverish future diversity. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 98:5404–5410, 2001.