Limit average paragraph length

Paragraph length and complexity also influence readability. A paragraph length of about 150 words has been judged to be optimal for a scientific article. A paragraph that covers more than two-thirds of a page when typed double-spaced usually should be shortened. Select a few representative paragraphs, and use the word processing program to check their word count.

A paragraph that is too long and complicated is tedious to read. Reexamine the paragraph to see whether it includes more than one idea; often it will. Divide the paragraph between ideas. If paragraphs in a scientific publication consistently

Exercise 5.2. Readability

Improve the readability of these sample paragraphs by changing the sentence lengths and word order as needed.

1. The Haversian system consists of a canal in the center containing blood vessels and a nerve surrounded by concentric rings of bony matrix and between them scattered tiny spaces called lacunae filled with bone cells connected by canaliculi to one another and the central canal. Through this canal the cells are nourished and kept alive.

2. The kidney is a very important organ. It has the ability to secrete substances selectively. This makes it able to maintain proper composition of the blood and other body fluids. The various end products of metabolism are injurious if allowed to accumulate.

3. Sex-linked genes explain red-green color blindness in man, and if a woman heterozygous for color blindness marries a normal-visioned man, all of the daughters of this combination will have normal vision, but half of the sons will be color blind; however, half of the daughters will be heterozygous for the defect but the normal sons will show no trace of the anomaly and will never transmit it to their children; while the heterozygous daughters can have color blind sons, the homozygous daughters will never pass the trait on to their sons or daughters.

include fewer than 50 words (five average typewritten lines), they may seem scrappy and annoying to readers. Reexamine the text to see which paragraphs could be combined.

Present ideas in expected word order In the English language, changing the word order clearly changes the meaning:

Hunter kills bear.

Bear kills hunter.

Proper word order is obviously needed to provide the intended meaning. In addition, studies have shown that people's ease in reading and understanding sentences depends to a surprising degree upon the grammatical order in which words appear.

The use of standard and expected word order - in English, this is subject, verb, object, or SVO - makes ideas easy to follow because the words appear in the sequence in which things happen. When one writes "The cow swallowed a magnet," the reader mentally follows the action, seeing the cow, then the swallowing motion, and then the magnet, the object being swallowed. If instead, one writes

Table 5.1. Some of the hedging words commonly used by biologists and medical researchers

Nouns Adverbs Verbs supposition presumably appear idea probably postulate speculation possibly suggest conjecture apparently seem possibility not unlikely may be inference seemingly speculate

"A magnet was swallowed by the cow," the reader unconsciously unscrambles the backward construction, converting it back into SVO order before grasping it fully. This takes extra mental energy and always interferes to some degree with effective communication.

This is one of the reasons why overuse of the passive tense makes scientific documents difficult to read. Studying the works of 20 top writers (10 fiction and 10 nonfiction), Bjelland (1990) found that over 75% of their sentences used standard SVO order. However, in scientific writing, heavy reliance upon passive constructions results in an overwhelming number of inverted sentences. Change sentences back to SVO order whenever possible, while simultaneously keeping other aspects of readability under control.

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  • Thomas Pfeffer
    What is an average paragraph?
    8 years ago
  • jarno
    What is usual or expected word order is changed?
    8 years ago

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