Published Writing That Sucks
"Thus it would seem reasonable that shortening of 10 cm at skeletal maturity or predicted shortening of this amount when the child reaches adulthood would be sufficient to consider Syme amputation."
That was published. What does it mean? Well, you have to stop and think about it, don't you? Break it up into phrases. Shift some things around in your mind. Presumably you'll reach a conclusion similar to:
"A Syme amputation should be considered for a shortening or predicted shortening of 10 cm at skeletal maturity."
Meanwhile, I don't think the reader should have to work that hard.
"If the organism demonstrates to be a staph on the gram stain, one may consider drilling the femoral neck for prophylactic decompression as this may be secondary to a metaphyseal osteomyelitis."
That's nice. Say it three times fast. Basically, it's a little if...then statement. Very useful to the medical profession. If you see this symptom, then you do that procedure. Why make that so hard to figure out?
"If the gram stain shows staphylococci, consider drilling the femoral neck to drain the metaphyseal abscess."
Nathaniel Hawthorne never did any scientific writing that I know about, but do you know what he did write? "Easy reading is damn hard writing." I like that better than I do his novels and short stories. Here's something Hawthorne didn't write:
"It has been suggested that the utilization of surgical intervention be deferred until attenuation of the infectious symptomatology."
It has been suggested that...? I call those "weasel words." Delete them. Always.
Also, teach your word processor how to replace "utilize" with "use."
"LaRocca recommends that surgery be delayed if the patient has an infection."
That's better. Or if you'd rather not dump the responsibility on your good buddy LaRocca because the patient died, try "Surgery should be delayed if the patient has an infection." That'll work.
George Orwell noted that good writing is like a window pane. Here's an author who needs a big shot of Windex:
"It is common for the need to voluntarily evacuate the pouch to occur on one occasion nightly; more frequent defecation interfering with the patient's sleep has not been encountered in our continent patients."
Thirty-three words. That's bad.
"Patients who are continent need only empty their stomach pouches once each night."
Thirteen words. That's good.
I refer to long-winded passive-voice writing that leaves readers wondering What does that mean? as speed bumps. You're cruising along at a nice steady pace, reading something, and BAM you've got to stop or slow down. Double back. Sort out the meaning that the author hid because of laziness, incompetence, or unclear thinking.
In writing, speed bumps are bad. Will the reader start reading again, or will he put down your article and go do something else?
Does this author even care? Is he even trying? Make an Acquisitions Editor wonder that enough times and you won't have a reader, because you won't get published at all.
It bugs me that these were actually published, by the way. We've got a bad case of don't-care-itis to treat. Here's another symptom:
"The study confirmed the hypothesis that clinical instructors of undergraduate medical students would choose instructional techniques, limiting active student involvement in patient care activities when faced with problematical situations."
When I gave this lecture to undergraduate medical students in Thailand, they should've all known what that sentence meant because they were experiencing it. But I didn't always give them time to "translate" the bad English into good English before I blurted out the answer.
"Medical teachers of undergraduates tend not to let students look after difficult patients."
Yeah, my examples lean heavily toward medicine, because I lectured for so long at Chiang Mai University's teaching hospital. But my examples and my message apply to all scientific writing.
If you read your writing aloud, you'll automatically simplify the sentences as you go. That's good.
Finally, let's visit the US government. The Plain Writing Act of 2010 requires that government documents are written in "plain language" which is defined as "writing that is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience."
So what I'm teaching you here isn't just a good idea. It's the law.
From the Department of Health and Human Services:
"The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends a half hour or more of moderate physical activity on most days, preferably every day. The activity can include brisk walking, calisthenics, home care, gardening, moderate sports exercise, and dancing."
That was changed to:
"Do at least 30 minutes of exercise, like brisk walking, most days of the week."
A few examples were sacrificed, but the meaning is the same and it's certainly easier to understand.
"After notification of NMFS, this final rule requires all CA/OR DGN vessel operators to have attended one Skipper Education Workshop after all workshops have been convened by NMFS in September."
That's nice. I wonder what it means.
"Vessel operators must attend a skipper education workshop before commencing fishing."
Updated June 21, 2017
© Copyright 2000-2017, Michael LaRocca
Durham, North Carolina 27707