In academia, we read all the time. We read long texts, short texts, monographs, anthologies, and abstracts. In the natural sciences, papers are usually shorter and follow a tightly organised structure. As for the social sciences, by contrast, the texts are longer and more fluid in structure. In both, we find figures of speech, examples and comparisons. They provide a framework for the results and add meaning. Across all disciplines, however, readers devote energy depending on the quality of the text. Reading energy is what this Reading List is all about.
In 2014, alarm bells were ringing all across the US scholarly community: for the first time in 35 years, scholars were reading fewer! Soon it turned out that the analysis was wrong and the title of the article confusing: scientists read 264 articles per year or 22 per month and have never been reading more. In an article published in Nature, Richard Van Noorden provides insight into the details of scientists’ reading habits.
For every new article, colleagues engage with previously unfamiliar narratives and writing styles. Without knowing the content, they invest energy in it. The total energy required to process a sentence (Et) is made up of two components: syntactic energy (Esyn) and semantic energy (Esem). At least, this is how Jean-Luc Lebrun argues in the book “Scientific Writing” published in 2007.
The best way to understand the energy required is … well … to read. How difficult is it for you to decode long, complex sentences and – more importantly – were you able to grasp the contents alongside their structure? To clarify the complexity of self-written sentences, it helps to underline all the main statements (the compound of noun and verb). The greater the gaps between the underlined passages, the more cumbersome the formulations. We have arrived at Lebruns’ core.
Break sentence structures
There are a number of strategies to help readers save energy when decoding sentence structures and instead spend it on understanding the content. In 2013, Tomi Kinnunen et al. from the University of Eastern Finland published SWAN – Scientific Writing Assistant. Outlined in a paper, SWAN built on the premises established by Lebrun and looked for particularly challenging sentence structures in texts: nested sentences, nominal structures, and long-windedness. Today, digital solutions such as Grammarly take over this function. But beware and continue breaking grammatical structures if beneficial to the readability. Also in academic essays.
Punctuation marks are particularly important when breaking up sentence structures: Commas, semi-colons, colons and dashes. In a blog post by the Writing Cooperative, Karen deGroot Karter shows how punctuation supports readability. Stephen Wilbers is more detailed. He devotes Week 21 of Mastering the Craft of Writing to the use of punctuation marks. His thesis is that while all punctuation separates, they offer different stylistic possibilities. Commas can be played around with.
Readability can be measured. For this text, a WordPress plugin did the job. The Flesch Reading Ease of this Reading List is 49,5. The text is considered difficult to read. The reason for the low score are sentences that are too long and too few transition words. However, it would be wrong to be put off by this. There are certainly readers and authors who would describe the text as easily readable and – overall – understandable. Assuming there are 22 articles a month and 264 articles read by every scientist per year, this likely applies to many scholarly publications. Nevertheless, examining one’s own writing from an energy perspective is certainly helpful. It’s a crucial step in making individual thinking and ideas approachable to others.