Don’t weaken your writing with these three common mistakes of sentence structure

Communicate your research in the best possible way so it will get the attention it deserves. We can all think of someone who seems to get all the publicity, but doesn’t seem to be doing anything more exciting than what is coming from our own group. Why is this?

One reason is that they write more forcefully than you do. Perhaps they have learned the tricks of effective writing, so their ideas just seem to pop up right when the reader expects them. By the time the reader finishes reading the piece, she feels brilliant. She feels the author is also brilliant. How can we do this kind of writing?

First of all, it is hard. It takes practice. But it is always worth it. You may be sick of the work, ready to just get it out there, but take the time for writing excellence.

First, respect the semi colon. It can only be used in one way. That is to join two complete but closely related sentences. Each must have a verb. Each must be able to stand on its own. Those two preceding sentences are close enough that they could have been joined by a semi colon. If there is any doubt, just forget about ever using a semi colon. You do not need them.

Second, however in the middle of a sentence nearly always makes the sentence ungrammatical. Have you heard of run on sentences? Here are a couple of examples, good and bad. OK: He wore a coat however cold it got. Not ok: He wore a coat, however his wife never did. The incorrect example is two grammatical sentences so they cannot be joined by a however.

Third, don’t put your caveats before you give us your message. This is not a grammatical problem; this is a style problem. Don’t be ashamed of your results. Be proud, state them forcefully. Of course we need to know if there are conditions and qualifiers, but don’t put them first. Here’s an example. OK: I found a way to turn soil into gold, but it only works with soil from Timbuktu. Weak: I only succeeded with soil from Timbuktu in turning it into gold.

Read and reread your writing. It should be clear. It should tell a story. Be positive. Be directional. Have fun!

About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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