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The Most Common Mistakes in Technical and Scientific Writing — and Their Plain Language Solutions

The Most Common Mistakes in Technical and Scientific Writing — and Their Plain Language Solutions

July 23, 2020 By Romina Sparano

We all make mistakes when we write. It is part of the process. And, unlike speech, which is extemporaneous, ongoing and loosely structured, writing requires revision before you share your text as a product. Even texting, sometimes called “finger speech” for its fleeting nature, undergoes editing! (You may not think of it as editing, but, tell me, don’t you find yourself retyping or, at the very least, shouting at the autocorrect quite often?) 

In technical writing, mistakes often go unchecked because specialists would sooner hide behind the jargon than admit their writing needs work. In their defense, it is true that technical language is full of terms that have been carefully crafted to reflect granular layers of meaning, and that there is no real shorthand way to explain them —  often only an extended explanation will begin to express the nuances hidden in a technical term. But, technical writing is not just about technical terms and therein lies the challenge: No matter how technical your subject matter, you can always strive to produce an elegant text for your peers. 

That’s where plain language techniques can help. Plain language is the use of wording, structure and design to help your readers — whoever they may be and whichever level of expertise they may have — find, understand and use the information you present. It is not just for lay texts. The plain language movement is a call for cogent writing in technical arenas as well. 

It is true that plain language initiatives in the last few decades have gained traction as part of a movement to give ordinary citizens access to government information and services, and adapting text to a lay audience spread from government to private contexts. Think about all of the medical information about COVID-19 published in The Lancet, The New England Journal of Medicine, and the National Center for Biotechnology Information that was picked up and digested for the public by a whole range of publications, from The New York Times to your local paper. But adapting technical texts to lay readers is not all that plain language is about. 

Adapting texts to technical or non-technical readers is about adequacy — that is, making the text suitable to the situation and interlocutors at hand. Adequacy strategies include managing terminology, style and register, using media support for your content, and, of course, adjusting the level of detail of the information you share. Thus, there is lay adequacy and technical adequacy as well, and variants within lay and technical audiences that require special adaptations, such as writing about medicine for youth or the elderly, or about an innovation for peers or regulators. Plain language is also, and I’d say primarily, about textuality. Textuality involves using grammar, cohesion and coherence to make text more than a collection of random sentences and communicate information clearly — in any register or style.

So, when I edit technical text — whether for lay or expert readers — I always start with textuality. Without a clear message, you are hard pressed to edit efficiently for anything else. Here are five tips to help you fix the most common mistakes that make technical texts harder to read and trickier to understand.

1) Subject-Verb Agreement: Adding information before the verb, such as references in parenthesis or qualifiers about the subject (as in this very sentence), makes you forget what you were writing about in the first place. To check for agreement, drop the stuff in the middle and pair up the bare subject and the verb. Here the agreement is singular: “adding makes,” rather than “adding make,” adding being a nominalized gerund, that is, an “ing" that functions as a less formal nominalization.

2) Comma After the Subject: Commas NEVER separate a subject from its verb. The confusion comes because the subject may sometimes include qualifying or commentary information between commas. And it is precisely because of the qualifying information that the comma appears before the verb. The subject, in other words, is at the same logical level as the verb. Note that the last sentence is an example of such an occasion.

3) References and Referents: Be extra vigilant about pronouns and phrases that refer backward or forward (technically the two types of endophoras: anaphors and cataphors). Those referring phrases may not actually pick up the right referent, as in this passage: “Guilt and bitterness are destructive to you and your children. You must get rid of them.” Here's a more subtle example. "Few are the teachers who at the age of five can teach children how to read." Though you can learn tons from five-year olds, I bet you never had a five-year old teacher in school.

4) Parallel Structures: If you list elements in any way, even if only two, make sure they are structurally equivalent. For instance, if you talk about activities using “-ing” forms ("walking," "biking," "swimming"), don’t squeeze in a “to” form or a noun ("to jog" or "a hike"). The same goes for explanations. Compare the first sentence of the first tip with this (incorrect) version: “*Adding information before the verb, such as references in parenthesis or when you add qualifiers about the subject, makes you forget what you were writing about in the first place.” In the correct version at the beginning, “references” and “qualifiers” are both nouns. In the incorrect version here, the noun “references” is mixed up with a clause “when you add…”

5) Extra-long Sentences: When expressing complex ideas, consider using pronouns, nominalization or summarizing words (like “this,” “such + noun,” etc.) to pick up previous information in a new sentence. These strategies provide a welcome pause, allowing the reader to process the first chunk of information before plunging into the next.

In case you are wondering, yes, these strategies apply to lay texts too. You may just need to layer an adequacy strategy on top of your textuality strategy. Let’s say your technical version had a long sentence that you split into two using the nominalization strategy I mentioned earlier. Now all you have to do is adapt the technical terms in the two new cohesive and coherent sentences. For instance, if your first sentence includes the verb “resect” and your second sentence picks up the information with the nominalization “resection,” you can adapt those sentences using “take out” and “taking out.”

So, after your first draft, check for these five issues. Your readers will find your final version not only more readable, but more enjoyable. If you are curious about other common mistakes, contact me.

Header photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash. 

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