Fixed It For You

Revision is tough, but it's the polish that lets your ideas shine.

When it comes to revision, one of my favorite activities is line editing, which my clients and I call “wordsmithing.” These edits come at the sentence- and paragraph-level, and they are focused on streamlining and clarification. Often sentences become much clearer for a reader simply through rearrangement and omission of extra words. You can think of this as a polishing stage in writing. Line editing comes after the hard work of fixing the structural issues in a paper; instead, in this stage, we’re making small cuts and sanding away the excess to let the ideas shine.

Wordsmithing, in my experience, is not intuitive for many scientists. The writing style of journal articles is often bloated and unnecessarily complicated. So to help you recognize some of the techniques I use, I’m going to give some revision examples here and explain my reasoning. Today’s examples are all taken from Anne Greene’s Writing Science in Plain English, which I reviewed previously.

Example 1

Photographs from space taken by satellites are indicators of urbanization and just one of the demonstrations of the human footprint. (20 words)

This sentence is overly long and it uses a weak verb (“are”) instead of the stronger ones that are hiding as nouns (“indicators” and “demonstrations”). Here’s one possible revision:

Satellite images indicate how urban areas spread and demonstrate the human footprint. (12 words)

Notice how the revision is shorter and easier to read. It also carries more of a punch because the point is not hidden with unnecessary words.

Example 2

For example, expansion of the extent of the winter range by continued pioneering of segments of the northern Yellowstone elk herd northward from the park boundary and extensive use of these more northerly areas by greater numbers of elk have been coincident with acquisition and conversion of rangelands from livestock production to elk winter range. (55 words)

Woof. If you’re like me, you probably had to read that sentence several times to have any idea what the author is saying. It’s got plenty of big words with Latin roots (“expansion”, “extensive”, “coincident” and “acquisition”) and that, along with some odd ordering of concepts, makes the sentence incredibly difficult to parse. Try this revision, though:

As ranchland north of Yellowstone’s boundary was bought and added to the winter range, elk herds moved northward to fill it. (21 words)

I’ve moved the idea that land got added from the end of the sentence to the beginning, which makes the elks’ northern expansion more logical to follow. I also simplified the language (“bought” versus “acquisition”; “moved” versus “expansion”) and cut down the long, hard-to-follow phrases. I changed the main part of the sentence (“elk herds moved”) into active voice, but the introductory clause (“ranchland […] was bought and added”) remains in passive voice because I don’t know who to attribute that action to. If I did, I might revise the sentence like so:

As the Yellowstone Acquisition Project bought ranchland and added it to the winter range, elk herds moved northward to fill it. (21 words)

That’s the same length as the prior revision, but sentences in active voice are generally easier for readers to grasp. Since I want readers to understand right away, I prefer using active voice where possible.

Example 3

Antimicrobial resistance genes allow a microorganism to expand its ecological niche, allowing its proliferation in the presence of certain noxious compounds. From this standpoint, it is not surprising that antibiotic resistance genes are associated with highly mobile genetic elements, because the benefit to a microorganism derived from antibiotic resistance is transient, owing to the temporal and spatial heterogeneity of antibiotic-bearing environments (61 words)

This excerpt strikes me as pretty typical for a journal article. It requires a couple of readings to unwind, especially for someone who isn’t a part of the subfield. Here’s how I would revise it:

Microbes can proliferate even in noxious environments if they have antibiotic resistance genes. These antibiotic resistance genes are associated with highly mobile genetic elements that help microbes adapt to fast-changing antibiotic environments. (32 words)

That revision cuts the length almost in half — without removing any key scientific ideas. It’s easier to read and easier to understand right away. Remember that, even in academia, your readers appreciate when they can quickly and easily get your point. Just think of grant proposal reviewers. The easier you make it on them, the more likely they are to fund you!

Example 4

Students majoring in science often believe they can escape the intensive writing and presentations that their peers in the humanities and social sciences must do. However, science is a collective human endeavor whose success hinges upon effective communication, both written and oral. Even if findings are ground breaking, they are potentially worthless if they can’t be shared with others in a clear and engaging way. Teaching undergraduate science students to effectively communicate is therefore an essential goal. (77 words)

It’s true that I couldn’t resist including this one, given the sentiment. Even though the author’s point is clear here, we can still polish this one:

Science majors often believe they can escape the intensive writing and presentations of their peers in humanities and social sciences. But the success of science as a collective human endeavor hinges on effective written and oral communication. Even ground-breaking findings are worthless if they can’t be shared. Therefore, teaching undergraduate science students to communicate effectively is essential. (57 words)

In my revision I trimmed down some extra phrases (“both written and oral”, “with others in a clear and engaging way”) that were bogging down the end of the sentences. The shorter sentences pack more of a punch without losing essential information.

Bottom Line

Sentence-level revisions can make a world of difference in scientific writing. Shorter, clearer sentences help readers follow your argument. They keep up the momentum, carrying you and your happy audience toward the conclusion. Making these changes is tough when looking at a document as a whole, though; instead, it’s helpful to tackle a sentence or two at a time. Practicing with short exercises like these (and the others found in Writing Science in Plain English) helps you sharpen your revision skills.

What do you think? Is it helpful to see revisions like these? I’m happy to make “Fixed It For You” a regular bit if you find it useful. Let me know in the comments below!

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(Image credit: Monstera; pre-revision examples from Anne Greene’s Writing Science in Plain English)

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