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I am seeking suggestions to improve my "dry" writing style.

I recently submitted a manuscript that was intended to be a review article on a particular scientific topic in the field of biomedical science. One of the comments from the manuscript reviewers was that

the paper is rather "dry" ...

My question is:
What makes a scientific article dry and what makes it non-dry?

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Dry is not a precise or technical term in writing. It is more of an I-don't-know-what-it-is-but-I-know-I-don't-like-it term. There are a lot of those in writing because in the end it is the total effect of the writing that matters and either the total effect is pleasing or it is not.

However, most writing problems, or, to be more precise, most storytelling problems, are not about the prose, they are about the subject or the telling. A gripping tale told in short spare prose can be gripping. (See Hemingway.) 90% of the art is in the tale, not the prose. Bad prose can mar a fine tale; great prose cannot save a poor tale.

I say tale and story here, even though you are writing a scientific review article; not fiction. But all writing is really storytelling. Not classic Hero's Journey drama, but storytelling nonetheless. Storytelling is really just about showing the connection between things and the consequences that flow from those connections. At the base level, stories are interesting to the extent that we are interested in the consequences and convinced by the connections. A + B --> C. Do I care about C? Do I believe that A and B are true and related?. Do I accept that C follows as a consequence of the relationship between A and B? That is storytelling.

If your review simply lays out A and B and does not explain and convince us of the relationship between them and the consequence C that follows from them, and give the reader a reason to care about C, it could well be described as dry.

Of course, it could be something else entirely, but this is the first place I would look.

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    If this was a peer review I don't think it boils down to storytelling. On the other hand it would be odd for a reviewer to call out a scientific paper as dry. They're all dry. Every last one. That's what we love about them! Nothing mushy, or gushy, or wet. Just the facts, ma'am. – DPT Apr 18 '18 at 21:02
  • @DPT: Scientific articles are not just the facts, they generally also contain the reason why we should care about those facts. If they don't, a referee might shoot them down due to lack of relevance. Of course those reasons are also largely facts, but then, you could also say that a fiction story does nothing but tell facts about the fictional world. – celtschk Apr 19 '18 at 6:25
  • @celtschk Where did I say they were just facts? I said they are all dry. Thus, if the 'dr'y comment was peer review commentary to the OP, it would be an odd piece of review. – DPT Apr 19 '18 at 13:41
  • @DPT: “Just the facts, ma'am.” – celtschk Apr 19 '18 at 13:44
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    @DPT Dragnet. Sgt. Joe Friday. – user16226 Apr 19 '18 at 14:41
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In biomedical science, you have the opportunity to discuss the human health impacts (and bring in broader societal ramifications) of the medical issues you're covering. My guess is that you reviewed the state of the science without grounding sufficiently in human health cost.

I'm not certain which sub discipline you are reviewing, but for example if it were medical devices you could briefly elaborate in each (or some) sections of the manuscript how the device saved lives, or any new health risks the devices introduced. If the paper is on molecular tests, or data mining, or whatever - same idea.

Ex: I wrote a paper years ago identifying the gene responsible for a neonatal lethal condition. Two paragraphs in the introduction of the paper were very abbreviated case studies of infants with the condition. These paragraphs were not necessary for the scientific advance that the research provided, but they help the reader understand the motivations for finding disease genes.

Answer: See if you can mention the health cost (number of lives saved or lost) by each advance or 'section' you cover in your review. If it makes sense to do so, which may not be the case, you can mention a high profile case that people will recognize, that was impacted by some aspect of research in your review.

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It's a bit hard to guess what that reviewer thought of when they wrote that your style is "dry", but I can think of the following:

  1. Good academic journal articles are written not for an audience of experts, but attempt to be comprehensible to any kind of academically educated reader.

    Many people from other fields will be interested in your research, and review articles are especially sought after, because they give an overview and save others a lot of reading time.

    For that reason, while being technically accurate, try to briefly explain central technical terms when you introduce them and basically write as if you were explaining it all to, say, a professor of physics or psychology.

  2. Write in the first person (or the third, if you report what others have found) and avoid a convoluted indirect or passive style.

    Write "Sims & Brown have found that ...", not "It was found that ...". Use simple, accessible language.

  3. Explain what this all has to do with the world that the layperson lives in. Why is it important? Why should they care? Give examples.

    A good strategy is to begin with the general ("Parents and teachers are faced with an increase in difficult behavior in children."), related this to your discipline ("Psychologists have studied these behaviors, but not found any increase."), and then state how your present study or review adds to the research ("In the present study I have...").

    Then present your hypothesis, your design, the results, the discussion, and in the end, from the specific findings of your research, move out to the general again ("Behavior has changed, but..."). I made up the examples from my field, as I know nothing of biomedical science, but I'm sure you get the idea: tie the more specialist and difficult parts of your research to the world we all live in and thus make it accessible to non-experts.

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+1 DPT. As a peer-reviewer for scientific articles, I would not use "dry" but I suspect it means you have no particular factual errors but the paper is a boring review anyway.

For example, providing results as numbers without any context; "these guys did X, and found a fit of Y." So what?

The point of a review article is to show the progress, the state of the art, the recent advances, where the breakthroughs occurred or are likely to occur. If I finish your review of this topic, and feel no better informed on the current state of the art in that topic and the direction it is taking, then you failed.

Think of "dry" as in food, it is not satisfying the reason for conducting a review; namely showing the shape of the field. Where it's been. Where it is now. Where it is going.

  • What are researchers striving for?
  • How has that changed?
  • Where is the current bleeding edge of the research?
  • What are the recent successes?
  • What needs to be refined?
  • What approaches have been abandoned?
  • What's next?

Not necessarily ALL of those questions, but some of them should be answered. A list of facts with no interpretation is not satisfying.

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