Using the Right Words in Academic and Scientific Writing | Tips on How to Get Your Research Published
Mark Twain, in keeping with both his personality and his writing style, claimed that ‘the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.’ Now, maybe lightning is not an appropriate description of the effect most academics and scientists expect of their writing, but I suspect that very few scholars would choose to think of their research as a lightning bug. All academic and scientific writing can benefit from being presented in an exciting fashion, after all, but that is not really the substance of what Twain is saying.
His main point, I believe, is that the right word is precise and immediately effective whether it is used to express an exciting concept or not. The right word says exactly what was intended and strikes the author and the reader, in their different ways, with the illumination of its semantic power. The almost right word, on the other hand, bumbles along, slowly shedding a little light around the problem, but never really cutting through the darkness of confusion as the right word can. As authors aiming to communicate the processes and results of their advanced research, scholars are often in search of just the right words to describe subtle, complex and significant situations and phenomena. Unfortunately, finding them is not always an easy matter, but there are dependable ways in which to improve your vocabulary choices as you write.
Use a dictionary. It is a very old but not remotely outdated mode of expanding your vocabulary and sharpening your writing skills. Some dictionaries will provide a great deal of information about the many meanings and precise uses of words, and there are several good English dictionaries now available online. If you are unsure of the different meanings of a pair of words such as ‘modify’ and ‘qualify’ or ‘examine’ and ‘analyse,’ look each word up and compare the definitions. Only when you know exactly what each word communicates can you choose the one that will be most precise and act like lightning instead of that lightning bug. Consulting a dictionary to learn more about words before you use them can also keep you from using a completely incorrect or inappropriate word such as ‘accept’ for ‘except’ or ‘inclement’ for ‘implement.’
A dictionary can also be consulted when a word comes spontaneously to mind as the right one, probably because you heard or read it somewhere recently, but you are not quite sure of its exact meaning. Look it up and the result will often be that it is the lightning word for the context, though you might have bumbled on like that bug had you chosen to avoid the new term due to uncertainty. Using a dictionary as often as possible will help you vary your vocabulary and make your writing more engaging for readers. Do be aware, however, that key terms and phrases associated with the conditions and methods of advanced research are usually clearest for readers if they remain as constant as possible throughout the report of the research.
Remember that when you use the right word, modifiers such as adverbs and adjectives tend to be less necessary in many cases, and explanations can often be shorter. Using the right words rather than almost the right ones therefore makes your writing not only more concise, but also more likely to slip under publisher word limits.
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