HOW TO MAKE YOUR ARTICLE MORE READABLE
As part of our Author Support Policy, the editorial team aims to help authors develop their writing skills as well as the scholarly content of their articles. The main way we do this is by closely editing or `marking up' articles when they are near to being accepted. We ask authors to make these revisions on their disks before returning what we hope will be the final revision of the article. We hope that this way of working will help to show how to develop a pleasing style.
One of the principles we use to aid clarity and readability is to encourage use of the first person. Readers may recognize this as one of my `things', as I first wrote about it in JAN in 1992 (Webb 1992). Some nursing editors in the USA have been waging a similar campaign, as a Commentary in a recent issue of Nursing Outlook explains (Winslow & Guzzetta 2000), referring to an article in the same journal in 1974 entitled `Pretentious prose' (Lewis 1974).
Winslow and Guzzetta (2000) carried out a small survey using a convenience sample of six nursing and six medical journals to see whether their articles used the first person. They found that most articles in the medical journals (92%), including the high status New England Journal of Medicine, did so. However, only a third (32%) of the nursing journal articles used the first person. In some cases this occurred only a small number of times, but in the New England Journal of Medicine it was done `frequently, consistently, boldly, and without apology' (Winslow & Guzzetta 2000, p. 157).
Why is use of the first person a matter of such debate in nursing? I was reminded recently that it is when I was talking about students' writing to a colleague whom I regard as `progressive' in her views about her own nursing speciality. However, she became quite heated about stating that using the third person was more academic and that students' should be encouraged to do this in the vast majority of their writing.
One reason people give for using the third person is that it is more objective – the study was set up, the data were gathered, the results indicated, and so on. However, as Mohr (1999) writes, use of the third person or passive voice leads to `shirking responsibility', whereas writing in the first person suggests that writers are taking responsibility and are accountable for their actions and opinions. This may not be just a question of use of language, but could mask the fact that a research project was not carried out as objectively as the passive voice implies. The history of science contains many examples of this, including crediting people who have not in fact been involved in the research as well as not acknowledging those who have (for an interesting account of the example of Rosalind Franklin and her exclusion from writings about the discovery of DNA by Watson and Crick, see Rosser 1989). Incidentally, we are currently developing a policy for JAN on authorship so that it is clear what responsibility each named author on an article has taken in the work discussed and writing the article.
Coming back to first person writing, positive reasons for using it are that it makes for a livelier and more interesting read. A direct style is always better and often involves using fewer words, which also makes an article more attractive. Thus We interviewed 30 patients is better than Thirty patients were interviewed, and We recommend that is preferable to It is recommended that. The second example here makes the accountability point particularly well, as it refers to application of the findings in other settings.
It is possible to use the third person or passive voice in a more elegant way than often happens in the articles we receive. Particularly stilted and irritating are forms such as The author considers that or This study suggests that. Using the first person would be a vast improvement –We consider that and We suggest that– after all, only people not studies can actually make suggestions! Poor use of this style can also be confusing. When authors refer to `this study', for example, it is often not clear whether they are writing about their own study or one conducted by someone else and to which they are referring. This problem is easily avoided by saying `our study'.
In some sections of articles or in certain kinds of writing, using the first person is essential. Where writers are giving personal opinions, this should be acknowledged in the form of language used. Similarly, when they are writing a reflective account or analysis people should use the first person. (Compare this last sentence with its passive voice alternative: When a reflective account or analysis is being written, the first person should be used. Which is more direct and easier to read?).
As well as using the first person and a direct style, there are several other ways to make writing more reader-friendly. Guidelines for preparing patient information leaflets are equally applicable to writing intended for professionals, and include using short words and short sentences rather than long ones. The grammar checkers included in word processing packages help with this, so do use them when writing your article for JAN! Another tip is to read through your article afterwards and `edit out' every unnecessary use of the word `the'. Using plural rather than singular words often helps to cut these out and it is also a neat way to avoid gender problems such as his/her or he/she. For example, Authors should use spell checkers on their computers when preparing articles for publication is better than The author should use the spell checker on his/her computer when preparing his/her article for publication.
As I said earlier, we aim to help contributors to JAN to develop their writing style and so we have prepared some more detailed guidelines giving further `tips' for improving readability and thereby persuading more people to read articles – for surely this is what you want when you have spent so much time and intellectual and emotional effort on writing them? You will soon be able to find these guidelines and other aspects of our Author Support Policy on the JAN website at www.blackwell-science.com/jan.
Plain English Campaign. A-Z of Alternative Words. Plain English Campaign, New Mills. (available at http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/A-Z.html
Silverman J. (1998) Skills for Communicating with Patients. Radcliffe Medical Press, Oxford.
Turnbull A. (2001) Plain Words for Nurses: Writing and Communicating Effectively. Foundation of Nursing Studies, London.