Logical Help for Clarifying Sentences in Academic and Scientific Writing
When a scholarly author receives the message from readers, whether they are colleagues, mentors or acquisitions editors, that his or her sentences simply are not communicating the research behind a document clearly and effectively, the first step for improving those sentences should be checking and correcting grammar, punctuation and spelling. Language errors can be notoriously confusing, after all, and academic and scientific writing that is clear, professional and of a high scholarly standard simply does not contain them. However, there is often something more than errors alone contributing to the problem. The logic with which sentences and the information contained within them are approached and presented can make an enormous difference as well. The following tips focus on effective strategies for presenting research material in a logical manner that will prove clear and engaging for readers.
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• Keep your readers and their needs in mind at all times. Remember that you know what you are thinking and what you are trying to communicate, but your reader does not. Ask yourself as you begin each new sentence what your targeted readers will need to know to understand the fresh information you will be presenting in that sentence. Has it been provided in the previous sentence or earlier in the document? If not, add it in an appropriate place, if necessary in an additional sentence.
• Try to follow the principle of moving from old or understood information to new or developing information. If you have just written a few sentences about something, use some of the information provided in those sentences in the first half of your new sentence to lead into the fresh material in the second half. This strategy will prove clearer, more logical and more engaging for readers than the opposite approach of offering new information before explaining how it is connected with what has gone before.
• Use effective transitional devices to link sentences and the information within them. This can mean using standard words for establishing logical connections such as ‘but,’ ‘however’ and ‘therefore,’ but it can also mean repeating key words and phrases of more specific content at the beginning of a new sentence to link the information in the previous sentence to the fresh material in the new sentence. Avoiding potentially vague pronouns as you start a new sentence and using concrete nouns instead will help.
• Create sentences that use parallel grammatical constructions. When you have a great deal of information to present, it can be helpful to divide it logically and arrange it in series. However, if the phrases or clauses that describe the items in series do not share the same grammatical structure, the efforts to clarify the material via logical division can ultimately prove unsuccessful. Adjusting your wording so that each item is explained in the same way as the others will increase clarity and reader comprehension. This list is an example, with the opening clause of each bulleted item using the same imperative structure.
• Use numbers or letters when presenting major points or long and complex series. Even when series are arranged logically and make good use of grammatical parallelism, they can be difficult to absorb when they are long or complex, and especially when they are embedded in a sentence rather than displayed in a vertical manner. Numbering or lettering the items can help clarify the logic of a series immensely, but be sure to place the numbers (1, 2, 3 etc.) or letters (a, b, c etc.) in parentheses to ensure clarity of division and hierarchy.
• Choose the active voice whenever possible unless the guidelines or conventions you are following demand the passive voice. The passive voice – as in ‘the paper was written’ – has its place when the subject is not known or ambiguity is desirable, but in most cases it is best to state the subject and use the active voice: ‘I wrote the paper.’ It tends to be clearer, more concise and easier to understand, especially when discussing complicated procedures and complex analyses.
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