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Writing interestingly

February 2, 2013

Try not to write “Interestingly, …”.

Some authors pepper their bland academic prose with such words in an attempt to spice it up: “interestingly”, notably”, “surprisingly”, “strikingly”, “remarkably”, “importantly”. I have even seen “astonishingly” and “noteworthily”.

What do these words mean?  Essentially, the authors are saying to the reader “We know we have just bored you senseless with a page and a half of utterly trivial and inconclusive details, but pay attention because finally we are about to say something that is worth reading!”.

Here is a sentence taken, more or less verbatim, from a manuscript I once read.

Interestingly, the results of a Shimodaira and Hasegawa (S-H) test (Shimodaira and Hasegawa, 1999) comparing the topologies of the 16S and nodD phylogenies showed that the nodD phylogeny was significantly (P<0.01) different from the 16S phylogeny.

This sentence is lifeless, and adorning it with “interestingly” is merely painting lipstick on a corpse.  What was the cause of death?  The first obstacle that readers face is an impenetrable thicket of Japanese polysyllabicism (Fullupia japonica).  Having hacked their way to the centre of the sentence, readers find a complex and repetitive statement that needs some careful deconstruction.

Can we bring this sentence back to life?  Here are three strategies.

  1.  Start a sentence with the most important part, unless you have a good reason to do differently.
  2. Get the technical details out of the sentence altogether.  Scientific papers have a Methods section, which nobody expects to be fun to read.  This is the place to dump the important but cumbersome details.
  3. Write as simply and briefly as you can.

How about this:

The nodD and 16S phylogenies are significantly incongruent (P<0.01, S-H test, see Methods).

Even the busiest readers will have time to read and understand that, and they can decide for themselves whether it is interesting*.  Let us assume that the authors have used the Introduction to prepare readers to expect congruence in this particular situation, so they are shocked and interested to read about the incongruence.

There is just one more issue, and that is to make sure the readers actually read our interesting sentence.  What about the page and a half of tedious stuff they had to skim through first?  Why not just delete it?  What!  I know you spent weeks running your data through complex software and many hours transcribing the output into the manuscript, but if the results do not tell a compelling and convincing story, why inflict them on the reader?  As with a sentence, it is best to start with the most important message.  Continue for as long as you have interesting things to say.  Then stop.

Try not to write “Interestingly, …”.

Try to write interestingly.

 

 

* Actually, at first sight it does not seem very interesting.  Dozens of studies over decades have found that nodulation genes do not have the same phylogeny as core genes, presumably as a result of gene transfer.  We first demonstrated the mismatch in a Rhizobium leguminosarum population (Young & Wexler 1988).  These days, it is more surprising if symbiosis genes do have a similar phylogeny to core genes, as observed for Burkholderia in Brazil (Bontemps et al, 2010).

Young, J.P.W., and Wexler, M. (1988) Sym plasmid and chromosomal genotypes are correlated in field populations of Rhizobium leguminosarum. Journal of General Microbiology 134: 2731-2739. http://dx.doi.org/10.1099/00221287-134-10-2731

Bontemps, C., Elliott, G.N., Simon, M.F., dos Reis Júnior, F.B., Gross, E., Lawton, R.C. et al. (2010) Burkholderia species are ancient symbionts of legumes. Molecular Ecology 19: 44-52. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-294X.2009.04458.x

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