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Scientific writing in English as an Additional Language (EAL): Presenting your ideas more clearly

Communicating the significance of your results to the wider scientific community can be a challenge. It can be difficult to strike a balance between using the right technical and specific language, maintaining the flow of ideas and keeping the reader’s interest. All of this is of course much more difficult if you’re not writing in your first language. This article presents some simple ways for you to make your writing clearer and more accessible by breaking up your ideas, specifically when writing in English as an Additional Language (EAL).

Use shorter sentences

The first and perhaps most significant way to improve the clarity of your writing is to make sure you construct sentences that don’t try to express too much at once. A common mistake is to write sentences that span several lines and include several ideas. Consider this sentence, for example:

The measurement system used for obtaining the results in both groups of experiments had three sections and was constructed from stainless steel with components that were machined to a diameter tolerance of ±1 mm.

While this broadly follows the appropriate rules of grammar, it’s a lot to take in at once. Consider this version instead:

The same measurement system was used for obtaining the results in both groups of experiments. This system had three sections, which were constructed from stainless steel. Its components were machined to a diameter tolerance of ±1 mm.

The second version gives essentially the same information, but it’s much easier to take in: the three main ideas are now given in three sentences. Rather than using one long sentence, you can usually convey complex ideas much more clearly using a series of shorter sentences.

Use commas and semicolons

Often, it’s quite appropriate to express two closely related ideas in a fairly short sentence. This can help to maintain the flow of the text. Have another look at the middle sentence in the above example:

This system had three sections, which were constructed from stainless steel.

There are two ideas here, but they’re closely related. However, this is still easy to read because the two clauses are constructed such that they can be separated by a comma; a comma used in this way often indicates a slight change of direction.

Now, you may have noted that the (explanatory) sentence you’ve just read above contains a semicolon (;). This is a very useful way to connect two slightly more complicated ideas. A semicolon links two grammatically complete but related sentences; it can be used to indicate that the ideas they present have similar importance. (The preceding sentence is another example.) It’s best not to overuse semicolons, but they can be a very useful tool for breaking up an otherwise unwieldy set of ideas.

Use one paragraph to express one thought

Once your individual points are expressed in concise sentences, you should consider how you might break up your broader themes. Generally, a paragraph should discuss only one subject. There are no fixed rules for how long a paragraph should be, but there is usually at least one paragraph break on each page of text in a scientific paper, and there are often many breaks. If there are no paragraph breaks at all on a page, this can be very discouraging for the reader.

But what exactly is a paragraph? In brief, it should be a collection of sentences that introduce and develop a single topic. If you’ve filled half a page with one paragraph, there’s a good chance that you have wandered away from its original theme. This can be a particular problem in literature reviews and introductions, and there can be a danger of them becoming just a semi-random list of previous works.

Writing in paragraphs can help you to think logically. For example, in an introduction, if there are many previous works that need to be referenced, think about how they might be grouped together. There’s usually a way to group previous publications, for example by their approaches to a subject, the methods used or the results they obtained. Each of these groups can then be presented in its own paragraph that will introduce, develop and possibly conclude a distinct part of a subject.

Summary

A paper full of long, complex sentences with very few paragraph breaks can be tiring to read and difficult to follow. To avoid this, try to remember the following points.

  • If a sentence contains more than one core idea, it should probably be broken into shorter sentences.
  • If you’re expressing more than one related idea in a sentence, construct it so that the clauses can be separated by a comma.
  • If you want to show that two ideas are connected and are similarly important, consider using a semicolon to join two grammatically complete sentences.
  • Break your text up into paragraphs. Each paragraph should present and develop a single theme or concept.

 

Read next (fifth/final) in series: Scientific writing in English as an Additional Language (EAL): Avoiding Common Confusions

Read previous (third) in series: Scientific writing in English as an Additional Language (EAL): Avoiding Repetition

 

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