Monthly Archives: August, 2011

Ten lessons about writing that every scientist should learn…

Yesterday, I spent the day at the horse races, taking in the pomp and pageantry of the biggest stakes card of the year. I find the racetrack fascinating, and not just in that girlish horse-crazy sense. For starters, it’s the only place I know where it is normal to see small men wearing outrageous colors and women wearing birds on their heads. Second, I love the wordplay of the racing form, with horse names like Two Horn Unicorn, Tiny Giant, We Taught Ed, and the perennial long shot, Sir Sits A Lot.

But while the word bending usually tickles my writer bone, there are limits. Take, for instance, Meagans Princesses, whose crimes against grammar stopped my wager at the gate. I could almost forgive the missing possessive-forming apostrophe, but the plural princess just didn’t fly. My friends were appalled that I rejected a 2-1 favorite on grammatical grounds, but I guess that’s why I’m a writer and not a handicapper. I can’t help myself.  To some, it’s just a missing apostrophe. To me, it’s a shot heard ‘cross the page.

OK, so maybe I’m a tad obsessed, but it doesn’t stop at the racing form. Scientific writing is full of such shots. Sometimes the sentences are so tangled and twisted and jargon-filled that they don’t carry any real meaning. It’s dead writing.

You know the kind I’m talking about.  Here is one of my recent favorites from an article on aquaculture:

It is, however, ironic that even to date, food fish species that feed  lower in the food chain predominate in global aquaculture, even though  for numerous reasons in most quarters aquaculture is seen as a sector  that is predominantly confined to a few high-valued commodities such as  salmonids and shrimp.

Translation:  Although most people think global aquaculture is confined to a few high-value commodities like salmon and shrimp, other fish species are actually more prevalant.

I love this example because it illustrates so many common sins of scientific writing:  1) the lengthy but meaningless transitional phrase (It is, however, ironic that even to date); 2) stacked qualifiers (for numerous reasons in most quarters); 3) passive voice (aquaculture is seen as a sector); 4) repetition of similar words, one of which is an unnecessary adverb (predominate/predominantly); and 5) the overall length of the sentence (50 words).

I see sentences like this every day, and they frustrate me because I know they are written by bright people whose ideas and insights deserve better.  These are often people who would rather volunteer to fill tip boxes for a month than volunteer to write an extra paper.  And who can blame them?  We’ve probably all been scarred by the high-school English curriculum, in which the lone goal is for students to learn how to write the “perfect essay” in under two hours.  Given that kind of pressure, I’d hate writing too.  Let’s just break the myth right now:  the perfect two-hour essay doesn’t exist.

Now, moving on…

Here’s what you really need to know about writing in science:

1) It’s all about the reader. That’s right.  All that jazz you learned in undergrad labs about it being about the “results” is nonsense. Sure, the purpose of writing about science is to communicate results, but the operative word here is communicate. Communication only occurs if your audience receives the message – so it’s not just about what you write; it’s about what they read.

2) Respect the reader’s time. Readers are busy people. If you want them to get your message, you have to make it easy for them.  Don’t waste their time, and don’t make them work too hard at it.  I often recommend William Zinsser’s book, “On Writing Well,” to my colleagues, not only because it offers excellent, common-sense advice about writing, but also because Zinsser’s own style is such a pleasure to read.

3) Don’t drive the reader off a cliff. I often tell students that writing is like giving someone directions. The information has to flow in a logical order from point A to point B, so that the reader can follow along without making a wrong turn or falling off a cliff.  Every sentence needs to convey an idea, and that idea should lead to the next, and so on. Back in high school, you probably learned about writing “thesis statements”,  and you probably hated it.  Fair enough.  But when you begin a sentence, or a paragraph, or a whole paper, you need to give your reader a glimpse of where you are going, and then deliver on it.

4) Tell the reader what time it is, not how the watch works. As scientists, we have a knack for detail, and sometimes, we get lost in it. It is rarely necessary to give a comprehensive history of your subject in order to set the context for your particular study. When writing background information for introductory sections, focus on the most relevant ideas that build up to your hypothesis. You don’t have to tell the whole story – just the part that is important to your work.  This is related to my previous point – if you’re drawing someone a map, you’re not going to give them a complete history of the convenience store they’re going to pass on their way through town. Instead, you’re going to tell them where it’s located and which way to turn when they get there.

5) Make sure every word does its job. You know what’s the best part of being a writer?  You’re the boss. The words work for you. And if they’re not working, you can go all Gordon Ramsay on them and throw them the **** out of the kitchen.  Every word should contribute some meaning to the sentence, every sentence to the paragraph, and every paragraph to the whole.  Kick adverbs and take names.  Have no mercy.

6) Write one word at a time.  This is just a rephrasing of rule 5. When you write, and especially when you re-write, pay attention to each word. Make sure that it conveys the intended meaning.  William Brohaugh’s book, “Write Tight” has some good examples of words that should go on the chopping block.  (Though, I must confess, I’m not a big fan of the book – when it took 60 pages to describe “16 types of wordiness”, all I could think was “Please, write tighter!!”)  At the top of the list in scientific papers:  “Due to the fact that…” (just say “because”), “Our observations showed that…” (just say “We observed that…”), “It is interesting to note that…” (Just note it.).

7) It’s not the size of your words, it’s how you use them.  This isn’t Scrabble.  There are no extra points for using every letter at your disposal.  It’s OK to use short words.  And while you’re at it, ditch pretentious phrases like “the aforementioned results…”

8) Read your work aloud.  We read with our eyes and our ears.  When you read your work aloud, you’ll catch all sorts of things your eyes miss. You’ll feel it immediately when you stumble over a phrase, or when you run out of breath because a sentence is too long.

9) Take a break.  When you’re finished writing a draft, put it away for at least an hour, preferably a day or longer, before you revise. Good writing often takes several drafts, and there are no shortcuts.

10) Read.  Read everything.  Read good writing.  Read bad writing.  Read the cereal box.  When you read scientific papers, read in different disciplines.  Read historical papers (see my previous post about the simplicity of older scientific papers). Develop an ear for language – for  grammar, style, and structure. Get a sense of what works and what doesn’t, and then try to understand why.

And now, on a lighter note,  I’ll leave you with a few more examples of poor grammar “in the wild” – in case you thought that the racing form example at the beginning was just too obsessive.

Many people use this microwave. Please be sure to clean up all the messes in the microwave as soon as it happens!

How many messes are there, exactly?  And if “messes” are plural, why is “it” singular?

Gilled chicken breat

Yum, gilled chicken breat. Is this some kind of waterfowl we haven’t heard about?

"...reduces the energy consumption used."

Redundant much? This might as well say “reduces the energy use used.” Yikes.

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