Three reasons why what you learnt in English might be bad for your science report writing

Author: Beverley Moore

The best English teachers leave students with a love of language and literature that lasts a lifetime. And whether your teachers were good, bad or indifferent, you probably came out of school having absorbed at least some ideas about writing that still influence how you write today.

Remember any of these?

1.    Use interesting words

It’s part of the role of an English teacher to encourage you to expand your vocabulary and demonstrate what words you know. And you do. It’s fun to try out new words, and you soon discover that when you stop writing ‘try’, ‘best’ and ‘find out’ and start writing  ‘endeavour’, ‘optimum’ and ‘ascertain’, you get more ticks.

2.    Be original in your writing

We’re taught to find new ways of saying things. After all, there’s little language skill demonstrated when you write an essay full of phrases everyone has seen before. We learn to avoid clichés, and to come up with imaginative metaphors and similes to describe the familiar in new ways and explain the unfamiliar.

3.    Be unpredictable

In creative writing, twists and turns in the plot keep readers reading. Why would people read on if they know what’s coming next?  So we’re taught to create suspense, to add surprises.

In context, each of these is sound advice.

The problem is that much of the time, your English teacher’s agenda had nothing to do with helping you learn to communicate facts and arguments convincingly.

A big part of an English teacher’s role is to encourage you to explore language, to understand how words can create worlds in the imagination, stimulate emotions, and inspire us to see things differently.

This is all important stuff. But it’s not going to help you get your research findings down on paper. If you’re still trying to write to impress your fourth year English teacher, you’re almost certainly making life harder for yourself and for your readers.

When your task is to communicate facts clearly, that’s all you have to do. Your job is to make it as quick and easy as possible for someone to understand what you are saying. So why use words that are longer or more complicated than necessary?

Even if, as readers, we know that ‘ascertain’ means ‘find out’, we process the information much faster when the simpler words are used.  The more familiar the language used, the faster we get the message. On top of this, you want everyone to take away the same information, rather than leaving scope for readers to interpret things in different ways. Clarity is critical – and simplicity is the best way of achieving it.

And remember, there’s a good chance not all your readers will be native English speakers. The last thing they need is to have to struggle with words they don’t know.

Are people reading your reports for fun? No. They’re reading because they hope what’s in it will be useful to them. They’ve got a pile of other papers to work through, and they want to get to the point fast. They certainly don’t want to be kept in suspense. Tell them the key findings right up front, and they’ll read on if it’s relevant to them – and they’ll thank you for respecting their time.

Free yourself from old school habits, and you’ll write faster and more easily. Leaving you time to go home earlier and curl up with a good book. Fiction or poetry, of course.