Tags

By James Hartley & Guillaume Cabanac

It is commonly thought, although not necessarily true, that technical and academic texts are difficult to read. In this blog we outline three rules for simplifying such text. Our aim is to show that applying such rules makes it easier to write clearer prose.

The first rule is easy.

RULE 1: If a paragraph is too long split it in two.

A general guide about paragraphs is that they should convey one idea, usually expressed ih the topic sentence. But certainly paragraphs that run over a page of typescript are probably too long, and much can be achieved by breaking up the text. Here is an excerpt from an early draft of one of our papers:

Refereeing submissions for their suitability for inclusion in an academic journal can be a tortuous business for all concerned. As illustrated by Paglione, et al. (2015) debates about the problems inherent in managing peer review are leading to a growing number of initiatives to make the process easier. There are numerous discussions about the value of ‘open’ and ‘blind’ submissions, ‘open’ and ‘blind’ reviewing, ‘post-publication peer reviewing’ and training for referees. In this paper, we concentrate on describing the method of peer review used by the British Journal of Educational Technology (BJET), and how new technology allowed us to explore it systematically. BJET has an unusual review process as it uses “peer choice”. Here a panel of volunteer referees is maintained by sending regular requests for reviewers to join. Currently the reviewers on the panel come from all over the world, and typically take between 7-21 days to review a submission. ‘Peer-choice’ has an advantage for the editor in that he does not need to select different individual reviewers for every paper received, and an advantage for reviewers in that they choose to review papers on topics that they feel most comfortable with, or would indeed like to read.

Now consider what happens when we split this paragraph into more meaningful groups (as in the final version of our paper). Here we separate the first (introductory) part from the detail.

Refereeing submissions for their suitability for inclusion in an academic journal can be a tortuous business for all concerned. As illustrated by Paglione et al. (2015), debates about the problems inherent in managing peer review are leading to a growing number of initiatives to make the process easier. There are numerous discussions about the value of ‘open’ and ‘blind’ submissions, ‘open’ and ‘blind’ reviewing, ‘post-publication peer reviewing’ and training for referees. In this paper, we concentrate on describing the method of peer review used by the British Journal of Educational Technology (BJET), and how new technology allowed us to explore it systematically.

BJET has an unusual peer review process as it uses “peer choice”. A panel of volunteer referees is maintained by sending regular requests for reviewers to join. Currently the reviewers on the panel come from all over the world, and typically take between 7-21 days to review a submission. ‘Peer-choice’ has an advantage for the editor in that he does not need to select different individual reviewers for every paper received, and an advantage for reviewers in that they choose to review papers on topics that they feel most comfortable with, or would indeed like to read.

RULE 2: Long sentences can be split into two (or more)…

The same principle of conveying one idea at a time also applies at sentence level. Consider this sentence taken from a blog by Dunleavy, Bastow & Tinkler (2014), and reproduced here with permission of the authors.

Every social science must handle an inescapable tension between knowledge advanced by the reductionist tactic of focussing down on simple processes and the recognition that all social processes operate in complex, multi-causal environments where, in the latter case hundreds of thousands of influences interact with each other to shape any given social or behavioural outcome, and where the same outcome can eventuate through multiple diverse causal pathways.

An example of applying Rule 2 to this sentence leads to:

Every social science must handle an inescapable tension. Knowledge is often advanced by the reductionist tactic of focussing down on simple processes and the recognition that all social processes operate in complex, multi-causal environments. In the latter case hundreds of thousands of influences interact with each other to shape any given social or behavioural outcome, and where the same outcome can eventuate through multiple diverse causal pathways.

Rule 2 also makes the text easier to follow. The principle is similar to that of Rule 1: a sentence, too, should contain just one idea, and the more complex a sentence the more difficult it will be to read.

RULE 3: Examine each sentence in turn to see if you can delete two (or more) words from each one.

Next is an example of the application of Rule 3. This piece of text is taken from the initial draft of a recent article (Hartley, 2014). Now, when thinking about our third rule, we have printed in bold some of the words that might be removed:

Ten years ago I published a paper with virtually the same title as the one above in which I reviewed the findings of over 30 studies on structured abstracts. Here I wish to comment on the developments in the research since that time and the use of structured abstracts over the last ten years.

The term ‘structured abstracts’ has now become common-place, and there is now no real need to define what is meant by it. Such abstracts typically contain subheadings and sections – such as ‘background’, ‘aim(s)’, ‘method(s)’, ‘results’, and ‘conclusions’. Occasionally there are more subheadings – such as ‘sample’ and ‘limitations’ – and occasionally there are fewer.

Structured abstracts were introduced in to medical journals in the mid-1980s and since then, their growth has been phenomenal – they can now be found in several science and social science journals as well as medical ones. Furthermore, conference abstracts are now often submitted, distributed and published in a structured form.

These superfluous words in bold can be removed, making the text more succinct and easier to read.

Concluding remarks

These three examples have not been faked or chosen because the techniques happen to work. We have been surprised by the effectiveness of our simple rules. Removing overly long paragraphs, sentences and superfluous words makes text easier to read. Why? Well, applying these rules produces shorter sentences and clarifies what it is that we, as authors, wish to say.

Perhaps, dear reader, there are other techniques that you have found useful for making academic text easier to read? We would be grateful for your comments!

About the Authors

James Hartley is Emeritus Professor of Psychology in the School of Psychology, Keele University, UK. (j.hartley@keele.ac.uk) He is well-known for his book Academic Writing and Publishing: A Practical Guide (Routledge, 2008).

Guillaume Cabanac is Associate Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toulouse 3, France (Guillaume.cabanac@univ-tlse.fr). He and Prof. Hartley are frequent collaborators.

References

Dunleavy, P. Bastow, S. & Tinkler, J. (2014). The contemporary social sciences are now converging strongly with STEM disciplines in the study of ‘human-dominated’ systems’ and ‘human-influenced systems’. LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog, 20 January 2014. Short URL: http:/bit.ly/1mzJodJ

Hartley, J. (2014). Current findings from research on structured abstracts: An update. Journal of the Medical Library Association, 102, 3, 146-148.

Paglione, L. D. & Lawrence, R. N. (2015). Data exchange standards to support and acknowledge peer-review activity. Learned Publishing, 28, 309-316.

 

Advertisements