Less Is More: Some Writing Tips

Few people actually read long articles—they don’t have the time. We offer plenty of techniques to help you meet or better our intended average of 4,500 words in the Articles section. Intelligent use of appendices, supplements, sidebars, footnotes, and captions can be particularly helpful.

Appendices and supplements. An appendix is appropriate for technical methods that aren’t fully necessary for all readers to absorb. Also, sometimes an appendix is a good space for quantifying work while the main text makes more qualitative arguments. An Appendix is intended to be published in print.  Similarly, the permanent online archive--easy to find through the AMS Web site—offers additional space for peer reviewed material, alongside the stored version of the printed article. Supplemental Material should have strong relevance to the article, but offer an excellent avenue for going into detail and thus keeping the main text short and readable. An electronic supplement is also useful for large tables that might be unnecessary for the general reader, or for animations and other digital content. When a supplement is associated with an Article, we include a symbol in the print magazine indicating the availability of the supplement, and of course a live link is included for the electronic version. You can also refer to it in the text. 

Sidebars. Specialized content in articles distracts readers from basic, new, surprising, or otherwise memorable content—sometimes it can be moved to a sidebar more readily than to a footnote, appendix, or supplement. Often this specialized material is in the traditional “methods” section of a paper. We generally think of anything up to about 500 words as appropriate for a sidebar; most articles should not have more than two sidebars. A very short aside for specialists, on the other hand, might be best placed as a footnote.

Captions. There is no need to duplicate caption information in the main text. For instance, information about how to read a figure should be in captions, not in the main text. And there is no better place to discuss the implications of a graphic than in the caption itself, unless those implications are central to the main point of the article. Think of captions and images as a type of sidebar or footnote.

Equations. Equations are essential and often an elegant way to communicate science. However, sometimes well-known equations are best left to references—rather than reprint them in the article. Also, if your paper is highly mathematical, consider running it as a BAMS supplement (electronically on our Web archive), and craft a shorter, less detailed version in print.

Accessible style. We ask for “active voice” wherever possible—passive voice is wordy and harder to read. Keep your paragraphs under 150 words when possible. Wherever possible, give a good example; readers retain interesting specifics. When you quantify something, remember that not all readers have a sense of small and large in all types of units and all situations—so make enlightening comparisons to help readers understand. Ultimately, a good BAMS article should be readily accessible—at least in the main text and captions—by a second-year college student majoring in meteorology or oceanography.

Achieve a linear flow. Make reading a linear experience by achieving a logical, compelling flow. We’d rather you trim some detail on some points, in order to focus on just a few essential ideas, and thus give more space to establishing the context and logical flow. The best way to make such a flow an inexorable momentum that sweeps readers to your concluding paragraphs is to make one, overarching point early, and organize everything else in the article in such a way that it argues (pro or con) and amplifies that point. Everything inessential to that flow is good material for an appendix, a sidebar, and/or electronic supplement.

Eliminate Redundancy.  Redundancy is a sign of poor flow. The standard article format—Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion, Conclusion—encourages repetition. So does a good lecture format, in which you tell students what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.  This works with a captive audience, but not with readers. If you find yourself referring to a previous section or later section of the article, or if you find yourself summarizing a previous point, you will be dissuading a reader from continuing. They’ll jump ahead…or quit reading. Make sure your conclusions take the next logical step in the article, not repeat what has already been said. Nor should the introductory pages be an abstract or summary of the following pages. In the opening of the article, you should establish a context, and give readers a reason to continue by making your one good point worth explaining in the following paragraphs.

Avoid Lists. We prefer exposition and discourage long bulleted and numbered sections. Your article shouldn’t look like an outline or a list. Lists lack the context, transition, and relationships that are necessary for flow and retention of information.

Subheads. Multiple levels of subheads are another form of outlining that discourage necessary context and flow. Subheads can become a crutch in place of an agile transition, so limit your subheads to one or two levels. Also in BAMS, we never start an article with a subhead.