What’s in a paper?

The purpose of any written piece is communication between the author and the reader. Whether it’s a recipe, novel, or journal publication, the writer of the paper hopes to relate something of importance to the reader. To best accomplish this information transfer, three elements need to be present in any written work: clarity, conciseness, and context.

Written work does not have the benefit of vocal inflection or the ability to answer follow up questions so the information must be clearly presented in a way that leaves the reader with the intended understanding. A logical organization and natural flow of ideas is critical to creating a clear and understandable piece. This is one of the reason most people benefit from the creation of an outline before starting a paper.

Conciseness describes writing that is tight and to the point. Sentences without extraneous embellishment are usually the best practice, especially in a technical publication. Don’t use two words if one will do. Use the active voice. Avoid hyperbole. If you’re writing poetry, elegant and voluminous prose is laudable (as are big words), in a technical piece, let your science be elegant and your words simple.
Finally, context is an extremely important element to understanding. As a novelist must describe the setting, so must a scientist give sufficient description of the background to his own work so the reader can understand where the research fits into the overall picture and why it matters. While this may seem at odds with conciseness, the fact is that providing context to the reader is an essential component to understanding.
I will explore each of these elements deeper in future posts. Good writing is a learned skill, not something only for a gifted few, or worse, a throwaway not worth one’s time. By applying just a few principles, anyone can become a better writer.

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