Study of 1 million pieces of content turns rules of writing on its head

Wrong_way_signIs it possible that the commonly accepted rules of good writing are in fact completely wrong?

Authors of a new report have revealed that certain poor writing habits, such as failing to keep copy short, compact and simple, actually improve online shareability.

Writing in a science journal, the study’s co-ordinators examined the use of abstracts that are normally written in relation to the publication of science-related papers.

They took ten generally accepted rules of writing and measured their effectiveness, in terms of whether they resulted in more or less citations by other scientists. The scope of their study was huge, covering one million abstracts from eight different science disciplines, and spanning 17 years.

They examined the most frequent suggestions for good writing and formed “Ten Simple Rules”:

  1. Keep it short
  2. Keep it compact
  3. Keep it simple
  4. Use the present tense
  5. Avoid adjectives and adverbs
  6. Focus
  7. Signal novelty and importance
  8. Be bold
  9. Show confidence
  10. Avoid evocative words

They cross-referenced these rules as used in abstracts for scientific papers, against the frequency of being cited by other scientists. In the graph below you see the impact of each of these ‘rules’ (represented by the columns) upon the scientific abstracts that were published, across the eight science disciplines (represented by the rows). Significant increases and decreases in citations are represented by blue and red, respectively.

Fig 1

The authors found that shorter abstracts and few sentences consistently led to fewer citations, with short sentences being beneficial only in mathematics and physics. Similarly, using more adjectives and adverbs was also beneficial.

The use of the present tense was beneficial in biology and psychology while it had a negative impact in chemistry and physics. This could reflect a difference in disciplinary culture, they noted.

Matching keywords lead to universally negative outcomes, while signalling novelty and importance had positive effects. The use of superlatives was also positive, while avoiding ‘hedge’ words was negative in biology and physics, but positive in chemistry.

Finally, choosing ‘pleasant’, ‘active’ and ‘easy to imagine’ words had positive effects across the board.

When measuring the size of the effects, they found that even a very small increase in the use of one of the ‘rules’ leads to disproportionately large increases and decreases in citations, with increases of up to 4.6% and decreases of up to 7.2%.

See the graph below to see the size of the effects.

Fig 2

The study suggested, counter-intuitively, that longer and more wordy abstracts actually produce better results, not worse, therefore going against the commonly accepted rules of writing.

Perhaps scientists like to read certain abstracts, but not necessarily cite them, noted the authors. This could also be due to how easy they are to find online, with longer and more specific abstracts being favoured by search engines. There is then a higher probability of being used, even if badly written.

So back to my original question of whether the commonly accepted rules of good writing are in fact wrong. Well, of course they’re not – I think we’re safe on that one. And this study doesn’t manage to prove otherwise.

Good SEO is what enables you to be found by search engines, not bad writing habits. And good SEO coupled with strong writing still provides the winning combination.

For the full report click here.

Photo: Creative Commons

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