Fixed It For You, Edition 2

Time for another round of "Fixed It For You."

Let’s do another round of wordsmithing to improve typical scientific writing. This time around, I’m using examples generated by OpenAI’s ChatGPT 3.5. I asked the language model to give me several definitions and descriptions related to surface tension, in the style of a graduate student writing for a scientific journal. From those transcripts, I’ve excised a few short examples as demonstrations.

Example 1

Surface tension refers to the inherent property of a liquid that results in the formation of a cohesive, elastic-like skin or interface at its outer surface. It arises due to the attractive forces between the molecules within the liquid itself. Specifically, it is the result of intermolecular forces, such as Van der Waals forces, hydrogen bonding, dipole-dipole interactions, and electrostatic forces, acting between adjacent liquid molecules. (66 words)

This explanation is technically correct, but parts of it are confusing to read because of extra phrases (“refers to the inherent property of a liquid”) and an odd ordering of information. Here’s a new version:

The property of surface tension arises from attractive forces between molecules in a liquid. It is responsible for the cohesive, elastic-like interface at a liquid’s outer surface. Specifically, surface tension occurs when adjacent liquid molecules interact through Van der Waals forces, hydrogen bonding, dipole-dipole interactions, and electrostatic forces. (48 words)

Much of what I’ve done here is reordering information. I swapped the focus of the first and second sentences to separate surface tension’s cause (“attractive forces”) from its effect (“elastic-like interface”). I also reordered the last sentence so that the list of intermolecular forces no longer interrupts the underlying idea that surface tension comes from adjacent molecules interacting.

Example 2

Surface tension also governs the rise or fall of liquids in capillary tubes, as described by the Young-Laplace equation, which relates the pressure difference across a curved liquid interface to the surface tension and curvature. (35 words)

This sentence jams ideas together in a weird way that gives readers the impression that the Young-Laplace equation is specifically for liquids in a capillary tube. It’s a much more generic equation than that. I would rearrange the sentence into something like:

Surface tension also governs the movement of liquids in capillary tubes, where the curved liquid meniscus can be related to surface tension and pressure difference through the Young-Laplace equation. (29 words)

This version still isn’t totally satisfactory, but how I would change it depends on the sentences before and after it. Ideally, this sentence acts as a transition from talking about applications of surface tension to talking about how the Young-Laplace equation gets used to relate curvature, surface tension, and pressure.

Example 3

Thin films and coatings are also influenced by surface tension, affecting their thickness, uniformity, and stability. (16 words)

This is another sentence where the ordering could confuse a reader. The list of properties (“thickness, uniformity, and stability”) refers to thin films and coatings, but its placement makes it sound like those properties belong to surface tension instead. Fortunately, it’s an easy fix:

Surface tension also influences thin films and coatings, affecting their thickness, uniformity and stability. (14 words)

Or, alternatively:

Surface tension affects the thickness, uniformity, and stability of thin films and coatings. (13 words)

Notice that both revisions put the list of properties closer to their associated nouns and they use stronger verbs (“are influenced by” versus “influences” and “affects”). Both of these factors increase readability.

Example 4

Understanding and manipulating surface tension is of great significance in various research fields, enabling advancements in materials science, drug delivery systems, surface coatings, and many other technological applications. (28 words)

This sort of sentence is incredibly common in scientific writing, but it’s also pretty cringeworthy. “Is of great significance?” How very awkward. Here’s a possible alternative:

Drug delivery systems, surface coatings, and many other technological applications rely on understanding and manipulating surface tension. (17 words)

Or, if you’re truly desperate to keep surface tension at the beginning of the sentence:

Understanding and manipulating surface tension is necessary in drug delivery systems, surface coatings, and many other applications. (17 words)

Just please, please avoid “is of great significance.”

Bottom Line

No reader wants to slog through a mess of jargon and poorly ordered ideas. Sentence- and paragraph-level revisions are critical to making your paper or proposal readable and easy-to-follow. Use the active voice where possible; keep your subjects and verbs close to one another; and make sure that your ideas flow logically at the sentence level. And if you have more ideas or examples for “Fixed It For You,” let me know!

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(Image credit: S. Johnson)

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