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Using syntax to ensure readability

Readability is the art of presenting information in the way which is most easily grasped by the reader. If your paper is poorly written, it may be ignored, or not even accepted for publication. The Requirements for Authors of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine states it in this way:

"Manuscripts should be concise. Verbose reports containing excessive redundancy and repetition are less likely to be accepted." Readability has four components:

  • syntax (the ordering of words within a sentence)
  • paragraph construction
  • connection between sentences
  • euphony (the sound and rhythm of sentences)

This tutorial focuses on the first, syntax. Before discussing readability further, there are two things you need to know:

The order of information in a sentence is important.

The reader tends to focus on certain locations in a sentence. He gives most attention to the information:

  • at the beginning of the sentence or main clause - usually the subject
  • at the end of the sentence
  • before internal pauses - commas and other punctuation marks

In the sentence:

I wanted to go shopping, but it was raining so I stayed home.

the reader focuses on the bold parts, and expects that these are the key points. Here, you emphasize [I - shopping - stayed home]

I wanted to go shopping, but it was raining so I stayed home.

But if [rain] is more important than the [staying home], the writer might say:

I wanted to go shopping, but I couldn't because it was raining.

Write for your audience

A report will be written differently for an audience of nonspecialists than for an audience of specialists. This means you must include sufficient background information to provide the reader with a context in which to understand the new ideas. In practice, 50% of the ideas should be already known to the reader, and only about 50% should be new.

Now, let’s look at the 4 rules of readability.

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