Dr Readability: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Pronoun

In academic writing, the current modus operandi seems to be: the more words the better. Why say “children” when we can say “individuals of pediatric age”? Why “time” when “period of time” sounds so much more substantial? Strunk and White1 would surely disapprove. Extraneous verbiage may make one’s writing sound lofty and important, but it can muddle one’s message. Writers should not use circuitous, rhetorical language to persuade their readers. Strong, clear writing, without extra baggage, creates a confident tone and allows the reader to more easily understand a work’s significance.

Here are a few ways to clean up one’s writing for easier reading:

Use the pronoun. Use it.

Writers often repeat nouns instead of using pronouns, as writers fear that readers won’t understand what the writers are saying. Not horrible, but is there confusion over what they refers to in this revised sentence: “Writers often repeat nouns instead of using pronouns, as they fear that readers won’t understand what they are saying”? Repeating the same word or phrase creates reading fatigue, like listening to someone beat on a drum over and over. Trust that your reader has a longer attention span than the time it takes to read half a sentence and there will be no need to use the same nouns over and over and over…

Here’s an example: “Because many people use vitamin therapy, we must determine the efficacy of vitamin therapy compared with other treatments.”

How about this instead: “Because many people use vitamin therapy, we must determine its efficacy compared with that of other treatments.”

Use the verb.

Editors are in agreement that “to be” constructions are weak and should be replaced with the actual verb. I agree!

Substituting “to be” constructions with actual verbs makes writing stronger and more confident. Researchers often use the phrase, “Our findings are indicative of…” See the “to be” hidden in there? How about “Our findings indicate…”? Were “patients in receipt of the drug” or did they “receive the drug”? Were participants “in attendance” or did they “attend”? The meaning is the same, but the writing sounds a whole lot better with the true verb.

This goes hand in hand with the passive voice. We’re not saying that the passive voice is wrong necessarily, it’s just that it is believed by some people that it is not as strong as it could be. Rather, some people believe that the passive voice is weak. In general, the active voice should be used over the passive voice, especially in cases when the “actor” is present. For example, “Patients were monitored by resident physicians” should be changed to “Resident physicians monitored the patients.”

This is another way to say: Use the delete button.

Close your eyes. Pretend you have a word limit. Now, pretend you have to follow it. Would you rather cut 100 words from the “Results” section or 100 words throughout a manuscript that add nothing of substance substantial? See what I did there?

Here are a few substitutions that reduce wordiness:

–“combined with” instead of “in combination with”
–“important” instead of “of importance”
–“most” instead of “the majority of”
–“can” instead of “is able to”
–“affect” instead of “to have an effect on”

Eliminating exaggerations can also trim one’s writing. How often is quite, very, or rather necessary (or accurate)? Writers should also avoid superlatives like profoundly and significantly when describing a study’s results.

These tips will help eliminate excess verbiage and heighten readability while preserving meaning. What is there to be afraid of fear?—Laura Adamczyk

[author’s note: Some of these ideas came from lectures by Northwestern University professor Bill Savage, PhD.]
1. Strunk W Jr, White EB. The Elements of Style. 4th ed. New York, NY: Longman; 1999.

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