Most readers agree that much of the biomedical literature is badly written (Woodford, 1967). The problem with most biomedical research papers is that they lose the forest for the trees. The extreme example is a paper that gives overwhelming details about what others have found ("review of the literature"); exhaustive lists of variables measured (generally written as an alphabet soup of abbreviations); a blizzard of data in the form of means, standard errors, and P values; and a meandering "discussion" of the data. No story is told; no message emerges. But science is not data. Data are the raw material of science. It is what you do with data that is science—the interpretation you make, the story you tell.
The goal of this book is to show you how to marshal the details of a biomedical research paper into a comprehensible story that has a clear message. To achieve this goal, the book presents numerous specific principles of clear writing and illustrates each principle with examples of murky writing followed by revisions showing how the ideas can be written more clearly. The numerous specific principles and the examples followed by revisions are two special features of this book. Another special feature is the exercises in each chapter, coupled with one or more revisions at the end of the book. The exercises provide opportunities both to recognize appropriate and inappropriate application of the writing principles (reading exercises) and to put the principles into practice (writing exercises). The revisions of examples and of the writing exercises can be used as models for your own writing.
The reason for doing exercises is that application of the principles of writing requires judgment. There are few if any "rights" and "wrongs" in writing. Rather there are better and worse choices. The point, then, is to develop your judgment so that you can make better choices. To help develop your judgment in making these choices, you can compare your critiques of the reading exercises and your revised versions of the writing exercises with those given at the end of this book. Many of these revisions have been synthesized from a number of drafts and comments by students over several years. Bear in mind, however, that there is no such thing as a perfect paper. In fact, you may disagree with some choices made in the revisions. That is OK. The process of revision is endless. The revisions of the exercises in this book are therefore intended only as improvements, not as ultimate perfection.
Most examples and exercises in this book are taken from pre-publication drafts written by junior researchers who were in post-doctoral training positions in cardiovascular research. These examples are not intended to show the ultimate level of excellent writing but rather a reasonable level of clarity achievable by young researchers early in their careers. People interested in writing may want to try to ...