Clarity and Simple Language

Introduction

Despite needing to communicate at least some technical information to non-specific audiences when writing about science, you should always aim to be as concise and succinct as possible, and limit the use of complex language to ensure that your work is easy to understand.

One golden tip that you should try to put into practice is this: Read your sentences individually and ask yourself whether every single word is necessary. Then ask whether a friend with no science background could read your work without being confused. Often, when thinking like this, you will be able to reduce the length of your sentences and replace certain words to make things flow more smoothly.

When editing your work, you will often find that you can make things more concise by writing in the active voice (rather than the passive). For more information on this, see the Active versus Passive Voice resource on our site.

The Importance of Using Simple Words

One of the greatest misconceptions in writing is the idea that you need to use intellectual-sounding words to give your work a sense of power. Your only goal should be to write something that is easily understood by whoever reads it. The best way of achieving this is to write short sentences containing words used frequently by everybody.

So, instead of ‘elucidating a concept to change the views of your myopic readers’, why not just ‘explain a concept to change the views of you short-sighted readers?’ Similarly, why tell your audience that your invention will have ‘universal applications across the globe’ when they already know that ‘universal’ means that something will apply to every situation? Redundant qualifiers such as this should always be avoided, so, in the previous example, the author should simply have written: ‘universal applications.’

Eliminating Ambiguous Words

It is important to realize that different words can mean different things in certain contexts, and because science is a subject that inherently uses a lot of jargon, this can be a real problem. A word (or phrase) is ‘ambiguous’ if it could potentially mean different things to different people.

For example, the statement that ‘Male salmon grew frighteningly quickly’ could mean they grew much more quickly than expected, or that you were actually scared by their speed of growth. Similarly, the statement that ‘these males grew significantly faster than females’ is also potentially problematic because ‘significance’ means something different when it refers to a statistical comparison than when it is used to convey something noticeable; so, a scientific audience and a non-scientific audience might interpret the meaning very differently.

Some Examples

These examples are designed to highlight the importance of writing with clarity by contrasting short, simple, succinct sentences with long-winded, wordy, potentially ambiguous versions:


1A) Scientists recently used computer programs to show how some plant species become common when rabbits and deer are prevented from accessing forests.
1B) Scientists recently utilized computer models to highlight how certain angiosperms become dominant in frequency when mammalian herbivores are preferentially excluded from gaining access to forest habitats.
2A) The new electricity system will surprise its developers later this year when it is installed in many homes by increasing the inefficiency problem they designed it to solve.
2B) The novel electricity system will shock its proponents later this year when it is wheeled out to many residences, by exacerbating the inefficiency problem it was designed to dissolve.

Video Resource

For a recap and for some extra information about the importance of clarity (and using simple language) in your science writing, please watch Grammar Squirrel’s video on the UBC Science Writing YouTube channel.

We then suggest you complete the quick quiz (below) to see whether you have mastered some of the important skills relating to clarity in writing.

Clarity - Using Simple Language

  • 3) Which potential problem do the sentences in the paragraph below have in common?
    This new ice-based weapon is really chilling. But it isn’t as ground-breaking as the device that measures earthquakes more accurately than ever before. However, both of these products were announced by a PR company with a history of making relatively ineffective space travel inventions seem astronomically important.