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Suggestion for authors who write good papers

  1. Feb 9, 2017 #1
    Dear the people of Physics Forums,

    I want to improve my English writing skills. I would like some suggestions on authors or papers that I can refer to for writing good, understandable, and concise academic papers. At the same time, I want them to be accurate and natural as English. It would be better if it's about chemistry.

    I am a Japanese Ph.D. candidate in a Japanese college but used to live in the US from 1st to 8th grade. I am currently writing an academic paper. My advisor, who admits that he is nowhere close to being proficient in English, said my paper was difficult to read but cannot teach me because he doesn't know English more than I do.

    I don't plan to win Nobel Prize in literature. That's not the type of English I want to develop. I just want to be good at English that is suitable for writing papers.

    Thank you,
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 9, 2017 #2


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    Funny thing is I find your post - which I assume is a sample of your writing style - quite clear and well written.
  4. Feb 9, 2017 #3


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    Get a copy of Fowlers Modern English Usage .
  5. Feb 9, 2017 #4
    Thank you, Borek. Well, my advisor would probably tell me that the following sentence:
    is hard to read. He claims that inserting an adjective clause is hard to read in general. He constantly tells me that my writing style, including my word choice, is more suitable as a British novel and less suitable as an academic paper. As a matter of fact, most of the sentences I have written here is probably hard to read for my advisor. He insists on splitting compound sentences into two or more simple sentences. I instead find his writing hard to read because each of the short sentences must be clarified with extra words to be consistent with what it is trying to say as a whole.

    Unfortunately, I don't know who is right. There is no real way of judging if this is fine as a paper or not because I don't have anyone with sufficient English skills to teach me.

    Thank you for the suggestion.
  6. Feb 9, 2017 #5


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    Personally, I abhor this kind of writing for exactly the same reasons you listed and more.
  7. Feb 9, 2017 #6
    Drakkith, what does "this" refer to? My post itself or what my advisor said? If it's my post, then I would like to know how it can be improved (like how you would write it). I would also appreciate if you can tell me about this other reason you think of.
  8. Feb 9, 2017 #7


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    You'll probably find that what constitutes "good" academic writing is highly subjective. In my opinion, good writing is where you, as a reader, don't have to put a lot of effort into deciphering what the authors did, what their results were, why they are important and why they did the work in the first place. Unfortunately I find it difficult to point to something that I would consider an example of good writing though. That's not because it isn't out there. I just don't keep track of articles by that criteria.

    That said I could offer some tips on how to improve your academic writing...

    1. Read a lot. The more you read, the more you'll develop an eye for what flows well. And different fields have different styles, so read a lot in your own field.
    2. Write a lot. Writing is a skill that is honed with practice.
    3. Practice with feedback. Try to take opportunities to get other people to read your work, and be willing to repay the favor.
    4. Revise. Revise. Revise. I know, eventually it has to go out there, but journal editors and referees should not be seeing your first draft. Nor should your supervisor.
    5. Start with a specific plan. What do you want to communicate? What format are you required to put it in?
    6. Identify the specific information you intend to convey. A lot of students fall into the trap of trying to regurgitate every little note in their lab book. Unfortunately this can distract from point of the work when presented to others.
    7. People tend to read academic work differently than they do novels. Often, people will skim through the article because something in the abstract caught their eyes, and they'll be looking for very specific details. This is why it's more important to organize the article in such a way as to make it easy to find such information, rather than progress with a stream-of-thought narrative.
  9. Feb 9, 2017 #8
    Thank you for the detailed suggestion, Choppy. However, I am at the level where I did all that, and I think my paper is fine. My advisor does not feel the same way and unless he is satisfied, he will not accept my paper.

    I have so far "fixed" my papers the way my advisor told me to, but I was always unsatisfied because I thought he made it worse by using awkward expressions, a very restricted vocabulary, and overly short sentences that sometimes make the entire paragraph sound ambiguous. And so I thought it was about time I tell him my honest opinion. As a result, he said my English should be difficult to read for most people but cannot teach me because he says his English skills are no better than mine.

    I'm trying to be humble. I read many papers until now but maybe the ones that I consider "good" are biased. Maybe my advisor was right all along. That is why I wanted to know what you guys consider are "good" examples of English papers.
  10. Feb 9, 2017 #9


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    I was referring to what your advisor said.
  11. Feb 17, 2017 #10


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    The Elements of Style by Strunk and White is a short book
    that encapsulates the most important tenets of good writing.
    The main rule is to minimize the number of words. That
    makes the writing pleasant to read. One should write as they
    speak. That is, pretend you were speaking to your friend and
    transcribe those words onto the paper.* In your posts in this
    thread, you do that.

    *After you transcribe the initial thoughts, then you ruthlessly
    prune needless words.

    I can't think of academic papers that struck me as well
    written. I don't read a lot of fiction, but Michael Crichton's
    Jurassic Park is pretty well written.

    Part of the time it takes to read
    things depends on how long the "sounds of the words echo in
    one's head".

    The purpose of writing is to communicate an idea. Why take 3
    seconds to communicate an idea, if the idea can be accurately
    communicated in 2? One must make judgment calls as to how many
    words to prune vs. how clear to communicate the idea.

    Your advisor might be confusing conciseness with
    short sentences. He might be trying to get you to eliminate
    more words, but then gets confused and thinks long sentences
    are just as bad as too many words. Natural speech (and thus
    natural writing) contains a mix of short and long sentences.
    Natural speech includes a variety of structures,
    including adjective clauses and compound sentences. It also
    uses a varied vocabulary.
  12. Feb 17, 2017 #11


    Staff: Mentor

    I agree with your advisor about compound sentences to some extent, as long sentences might be harder to understand. On the other hand, if a sentence contains a dependent clause, breaking it out into a separate sentence detracts from the meaning.

    Consider the sentence "This is the house where I grew up." Here "where I grew up" is a dependent adjectival clause. Breaking this sentence into two parts ("This is the house. I grew up there.") seems very cumbersome and clunky to me.

    Here's an example of an adverbial dependent clause: "When he was in New York, he went to the Guggenheim Museum." We might split this into two sentences, as "He was in New York. He went to the Guggenheim Museum." This construction is not an improvement.

    Minor point: You have one grammatical error in the paragraph above: "... most of the sentences ... is are hard to read..." I would also write this as "most of my writing is hard for my advisor to read."

    I would write the last sentence above as "Instead, I find his writing hard to read because the shorter sentences require additional words for clarification."
  13. Feb 17, 2017 #12


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    You break up compound sentences when you feel that it is getting to be too long or cumbersome and you start realize that you have been rambling on and on until the readers that you are targeting forget or lose-track of the central point of that tedious sentence.

    See what I did there?

    Here's the thing about writing a paper and editing it. We all have our own styles. Still there are good strategies to follow, and in some cases, these are specific to writing technical/scientific papers. The main thing is the consideration on whether the points you want to convey are being understood. That is why you give a draft of the manuscript to someone else to critique.

    Your advisor/supervisor may have a particular style that he/she likes. If you think some parts of your manuscript became more confusing after his/her edits, ask directly, or get another opinion. Make your arguments clearly, and suggest another way to write it. If he/she has published before, then ultimately, you have to defer to him/her. Otherwise, we only have your side of the story to go on without seeing his/her point of view.

  14. Feb 18, 2017 #13
    This is exactly what my advisor tells me to do: unnecessarily split sentences. It just makes it hard to read.
    Thanks. My bad.

    My advisor insists on refraining from using this style. He explained that by using "Instead, ...", "Therefore, ...", "However, ...", etc. he thinks that it makes the paper sound argumentative and "too logical". I have no idea what he means by this. He says that I should limit the use of this style to five times in the entire paper. I don't know where this number comes from, either.

    Thank you for the suggestions.
  15. Feb 18, 2017 #14


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    My suggestion would be to ask your advisor, if your particular writing style isn't particularly acceptable, to point to a journal article (or articles) which shows the type of writing style that he considers to be of good writing. After all, if your advisor isn't fond of your particular writing style, then it is up to the advisor to show you examples of "good" academic writing, at least until you complete your PhD.

    Of course, you should ask this in a patient, humble manner (as I know something about Japanese culture and how to approach authority figures in that country).
  16. Feb 18, 2017 #15

    Ben Niehoff

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    Your advisor has some good points, although perhaps he is too rigid about them. You should avoid too many "however", "instead", types of sentences because those sentences make it hard for the reader to follow the overall narrative arc. That is, you lead the reader in one direction, and then suddenly with a "however,", you're leading them in the opposite direction. Too many "however"s in too little space, and the reader is no longer sure what they should pay attention to. Instead, you should save them for the places where they are really needed to make an impact.

    "Therefore" is a little different, because it's trying to make a logical connection. But it often results in sloppy explanations, since it only expresses that (the author thinks) there is a logical connection, but not how that connection is made. A closely-related phrase is "It follows that". Just saying "A, therefore B" is not very helpful and doesn't express your reasoning for coming to that conclusion. Often in just a few extra words you can say how B follows from A, and then the reader isn't left guessing. Usually this amounts to filling in the missing line of a syllogism: instead of "x is an odd number; therefore x is not a multiple of 4", one could write "x is an odd number; since all multiples of 4 are even, x cannot be a multiple of 4". Think "since" or "because" or "by applying Lemma X" instead of "therefore". Of course, one must also think a bit about what might be too obvious to the reader, so there can be a fine line.

    I also agree that sentences should be short, but not too short. I've tried to maintain this style in this post.

    Oh, and one last bit: Never, ever say something like "obviously", "clearly", etc. Usually such a phrase indicates that the author can't come up with a good way to explain their point, and may not even understand themselves how they've reached a certain conclusion. It also tends to put the reader off if they don't agree that something is obvious or clear. It's much better to give a brief reason (similar to the "therefore" lesson above), or just omit the word "obviously" entirely.
  17. Feb 19, 2017 #16


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    Re-reading my post, I might be giving the impression that I am
    saying your posts in this thread are too wordy. Not at all! For example,
    your first post in this thread is a model of conciseness and clarity,
    i.e. perfect writing (as Borek basically said)
  18. Feb 19, 2017 #17


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    Your writing style seems quite good to me. I agree w/ one of the comments above that scientific writing often is NOT good at all and is not necessarily the best model to follow. I also agree w/ another of the comments above that you should write more or less as you speak, not in some stilted academic way that makes papers boring and hard to get through. Simple language is best, but breaking up slightly long sentences can, as has also been pointed out, be overly simplistic (your point of view, which I agree with) and jarringly choppy.
  19. Feb 19, 2017 #18

    jim hardy

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    When you run across an article that seems to you well written and easy to read yet communicates unambiguously the writer's intent,

    study how he did it.

    I found the writings of Eric Hoffer useful to that end, his economy of words belies the power of his short paragraphs. Try his "Passionate State of Mind" .
    He has a saying: "Any idea can be expressed in 500 words."

    Mark Twain said :
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