Asserting and assuming

When writing a paragraph, the discourse moves forward through a series of assertions: these are statements whose truth you can question. For example:

I love dogs (assertion)

Do I love dogs? (question)

The reader may decide that I am lying and I do not, in fact, love dogs. If I wish to state that I love dogs, but not allow the reader to question the fact, then I may include it as an assumption thus:

My love of dogs is why I keep a dog of my own.

If I wanted to question whether this sentence is true, I would have to say:

Is the reason why he keeps dogs because he loves them so much?

Not :

Does he love dogs? Or, in fact, Does he keep a dog of his own?

Because these assumptions are, as the name suggests, assumed to be true!

So, knowing that discourse moves forward from (safe) assumption to (safe) assumption by making (risky) assertions, the same way that a soldier might advance under fire by moving from cover to cover, you can protect your arguments by clever use of assertion. Compare:

Significant advances have been made in genetic analysis. Nowadays it is possible to identify people at risk of future illness. These people can be treated by modern medicine.

The significant advances made in genetic analysis allow us to identify people at risk of future illness and treat them by modern medicine.

Three assertions are made in the first passage and only one in the second, making it potentially more secure. Also, if your audience agrees that significant advances have been made in genetic analysis, you don’t need to persuade them: you don’t need to assert it again.  Alternatively, converting assumptions to a set of assertions can be a useful way to simplify a complicated section by changing a complicated noun phrase to a series of short sentences.

Agency

Agency is one of the most important considerations to bear in mind when writing a report, or when reading one. It will greatly influence the tone and the interpretation of the subject matter, and a good understanding of agency will really help when writing any type of document, not just academic ones. The agent is interpreted as “the thing that is doing the action in the sentence”, but it is not necessarily the grammatical subject. For example:

I walk my dog  – the agent is myself (or I)

The dog is walked by me – the agent is still myself (or me)

In addition, you can have sentences where something happens without any agent:

The sun rises. Ice melts.

The choice of agent is important when trying to cultivate an impersonal tone. For example, instead of writing :

We found this to be true

Change the agent to :

The results indicate this to be true.

Also, subtle differences in meaning can be created by  changing the agent of a verb. Compare:

The rate increased over time / The rate was increased over time.

Agency covers a very broad area of language, and is impossible to summarise in such a short space. However, it offers an valuable  insight into the perspective of the author and how they represent a topic.

Given – new principle

Compare the following passages

I have a house. There is a room in the house. There is a sofa in this room.

I have a house. In the house is a room. In this room is a sofa.

The second passage probably feels more natural, and this is because each sentence starts with an established position (i.e. given information) and adds new information to it. The first passage feels more like a zig zag – it introduces new information, moves back to refer to the previous sentence and then moves forward again to include new information.

Both approaches are ‘correct’ from a grammatical perspective, but the second places less strain on the reader and so is generally more desirable when dealing with complicated, dense texts. Importantly, given information doesn’t always have to derive from the previous sentence: it can also draw on the topic of the paragraph or commonly-understood beliefs.

Parallelism

Unlike other languages, English is not very highly inflected, and as such, the order of the words in a sentence is much more rigid. Paradoxically, while this can constrain the writer on one hand, it can also offer more room for invention when repeating similar sentences. For example,

Group A was found to have a mean content of 30g. The mean content of Group B, however, was found to be 40g. Finally, 50g was found to be contained within Group C.

While this is grammatically correct, its much harder to read than a set of parallel sentences:

Group A was found to have a mean content of 30g, while Group B had 40g and Group C 50g.

Because a frame is set by the first sentence, that is copied by the parallel second and third sentence, it’s possible to omit the similar words and only include the ones that are different. This way, the reader’s attention is focussed on them more quickly.

This highlights an important point about articles – they are not written to be read like a novel, i.e. starting with the abstract, developing through the Methods and Results and finally reaching an ending in the Discussion and Conclusion. Most parts of the article need to be written so that the reader can quickly identify relevant information – not so that they can be enjoyed as pieces of prose.

Generally then, particularly in the Results section , parallel structures can be used very effectively to organise sentences and clauses to draw the eye to new data items, and make lists easier to follow.

Impersonal tone

Academic articles are typically about abstract concepts interacting with observations, or other abstract concepts: the author does not play any role in the interaction, and the style of the language should reflect this. Hence, traditionally the role of the author in the study is downplayed by the use of an ‘impersonal tone’.

As the name suggests, this tone focusses on impersonal agents and obscures the ‘people’ involved in the research. For example, greater use is made of nominalisation and the passive voice. Compare:

  • 1) I added the solvent to the substance.
  • 2) The solvent was added to the substance.
  • 3) The solvent dissolved the substance.

Sentence (1) talks about you as a researcher, number (2) focusses what you did (while obscuring the fact it was you) , while number (3) says what happened – you played no role in the process. Generally, speaking in the hard sciences, you should try to favour the style in (2) or (3) – or rather, the second two styles should be favoured. Or the best choices are (2) and (3).

Considering the audience

Think of the last article you wrote for an international journal or conference materials. Now imagine how you would write the same article if the audience was made up of a group of intelligent children at high school level. Clearly, you would have to give more in-depth explanations of concepts, define more terms and take smaller steps as you move though through your arguments.

It’s quite easy to tell the difference between articles written by doctoral students and professors. One will spend half a paragraph describing the theoretical basis of PCR while the other will focus on the results. Either approach can be correct depending on the audience, and I can help decide which one is better.

Modes of persuasion

Not counting threats and torture, Aristotle first proposed that three “modes” can be used to persuade your audience: your status as an author (ethos), rational arguments (logos) and emotional arguments (pathos).  Generally speaking, classical oration would begin with ethos, develop with logos and end with pathos to give an emotional punch.

Scientific articles primarily use rational argument with experimental findings and statistics being used as support; however, there’s no harm in using some pathos in your conclusion.  A judicious use of metaphor or an earnest declaration of how your findings will benefit the subject area in general will elevate your paper above similar works.

Working with the author

I’m in the fortunate position that most of my work is with universities. Not only does this allow me to meet a lot of interesting people and review a wide range of interesting articles (one of the better parts of the job!) but it also means that I can always rely on payment. And because I can rely on payment, I can afford to have a much better relationship with the requestor.

There will always be some parts of an article that are hard to understand, exotic terminology might be used, and of course, it’s vital that the Methods and Results sections are interpreted correctly. In cases like these, I find it best to consult the author – I typically highlight any points of concern when preparing the draft version and return it to the author for their opinion. I can then take their suggestions and complete the work.

Of course, after completing the work, I’m always open to further comments and suggestions from the author.  My aim, after all, is to help get work published!

My philosophy

There are many ways to write an academic text; however, over the years, I’ve developed a fairly reliable approach to checking and improving scientific articles that results in publication maybe 90% of the time. The other 10% can be easily improved on revision by adapting the style slightly, and these invariably get published.

What is the secret? Well, firstly, an artist needs good clay to create a masterpiece! I’m lucky enough that most of the authors I work with have a lot of experience of publication and they usually prepare work that is coherent, focussed and rich in content. In these situations, my role is to add a little polish and smooth the edges of the work to help the article shine. Some authors may not have the same level of experience, but in this case I can work with them and maybe provide a sounding board for their work before submission.

In this section, I hope to briefly give a taste of how I work, and what considerations the author should bear in mind when checking their own work.