"Transcription of the 5S RNA genes in the egg extract is TFIIIA-dependent. This is surprising, because the concentration of TFIIIA is the same as in the oocyte nuclear extract. The other transcription factors and RNA polymerase III are presumed to be in excess over available TFIIIA, because tRNA genes are transcribed in the egg extract. The addition of egg extract to the oocyte nuclear extract has two effects on transcription efficiency. First, there is a general inhibition of transcription that can be alleviated in part by supplementation with high concentrations of RNA polymerase III. Second, egg extract destabilizes transcription complexes formed with oocyte but not somatic 5S RNA genes. "
Of the many problems with this paragraph, one of the most apparent is that its exact subject is unclear. Is it TFIIIA? Egg extract? Gene transcription? Every sentence implies something new, and further, we lack crucial clues that might help us identify which of all these potential subjects is the most important. According to Gopen and Swan, readers most often look for such clues in the verb, giving us our last reader expectation:
"Readers expect the action of a sentence to be articulated by the verb."
In this passage, pinpointing the action taking place in the text might help us to untangle the story the paragraph is trying to tell. Unfortunately, we have some decidedly unhelpful verbs, among which, "is" (three times), "are presumed to be", "has", and "can be alleviated". The verbs "are transcribed" and "destabilizes" are slightly more informative, but we still lack sufficient information to help us make more than an educated guess at the meaning of the passage. From the observation that "egg extract" and "TFIIA" are mentioned the most frequently in the text, Gopen and Swan make an assumption that these are the subjects and provide the following rewrite, relying more heavily on active verbs to tell the story:
"In the egg extract, the availability of TFIIIA limits transcription of the 5S RNA genes. This is surprising because the same concentration of TFIIIA does not limit transcription in the oocyte nuclear extract. In the egg extract, transcription is not limited by RNA polymerase or other factors because transcription of tRNA genes indicates that these factors are in excess over available TFIIIA. When added to the nuclear extract, the egg extract affected the efficiency of transcription in two ways. First, it inhibited transcription generally; this inhibition could be alleviated in part by supplementing the mixture with high concentrations of RNA polymerase III. Second, the egg extract destabilized transcription complexes formed by oocyte but not by somatic 5S genes."
Even after the rewrite, there are still many unexplained connections in the text, particularly those between TFIIIA as the limiting factor for transcription in the egg extract and the egg extract as an inhibitor of transcription in the nuclear extract. Because the verbs now describe the action of the paragraph more clearly, we have a better idea of what the original authors actually did. However, we're still left guessing as to what their hypotheses were and whether these results support or refute them. As scientific readers, however, this is the information we're most interested in! Unfortunately, at this point, we don't have any more information in this paragraph to help us, and we're left wondering about what should be the most important message of the entire text.
In summary, in all of the passages we've looked at (taken, you'll recall, from actual published papers), we've seen how poor writing hampers the flow of ideas from the authors to the readers. In some cases, the authors' central messages were reasonably obvious, and we were able to decipher the meaning of the passage with only a little extra work. In others, however, the meaning of the text remained obscure despite our best efforts to illuminate it.
It is important to put what we have learned in the context of real-life science. As we read these passages in the course of these blog posts (and re-read them, debated their meaning, re-structured them, and then thought about them some more), we engaged in an academic exercise in text analysis. However, in real life, harried researchers are unlikely to spend much time interpreting muddled writing, and journal editors even less so. There is often a tendency to say, "Well, the quality of the data matter more than the quality of the writing." Given the competition to publish, this statement is far from true. The quality of your writing will either highlight or obscure the quality of your data. The burden is on the writer to clarify his or her thoughts as much as possible, so that the reader can sit back and enjoy the story. Skilled, accomplished writers use Gopen and Swan's guidelines subconsciously to help their readers understand exactly what they are meant to understand, but the rest of us can learn to do so too!
As promised, here's a recap of Gopen and Swan's advice based on their studies of reader expectations:
"1. Follow a grammatical subject as soon as possible with its verb.
2. Place in the stress position the "new information" you want the reader to emphasize.
3. Place the person or thing whose "story" a sentence is telling at the beginning of the sentence, in the topic position.
4. Place appropriate "old information" (material already stated in the discourse) in the topic position for linkage backward and contextualization forward.
5. Articulate the action of every clause or sentence in its verb.
6. In general, provide context for your reader before asking that reader to consider anything new.
7. In general, try to ensure that the relative emphases of the substance coincide with the relative expectations for emphasis generated by the structure."
The next time you sit down to write a journal article, grant proposal, or even a presentation, glance at this list every once in a while and try to take its advice. It may not be easy at first, but little by little, the "story" of your text will emerge in a way that all readers will appreciate. In time, you'll find that you've internalized these guidelines so thoroughly that writing to fulfill your readers' expectations will become natural. Your readers (and editors) will thank you!
Gopen, G. and J. Shaw. "The Science of Scientific Writing." American Scientist. Nov-Dec. 1990. Accessed from http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/pub/the-science-of-scientific-writing/.