Monthly Archives: June, 2011

When good rhetoric goes wild…

Author’s note:  I wrote this for a class in which we were challenged to use 16 different rhetorical schemes in a “manifesto” of some sort.  Call it an experiment with language, if you will.  Now, aside from the fact that most of the rhetorical schemes sound like incurable diseases (epistrophe, anastrophe, polysyntedon, anadiplosis…you get the idea), forcing sixteen of them to play nice together on one page is a little like asking sixteen scientists to come to a consensus on any issue in under sixteen days.  Weirdness often ensues…  Nevertheless, rhetoric rocks, and there might just be something of value here…maybe only amusement value, but hey, we’re scientists – we take humour however we can get it…see Chicken Chicken, if you don’t believe me.)

Say it simply, Scientists!

Science writing, a necessary but unpleasant chore for most scientists, serves several important purposes, to report results, to solicit funding, and to frustrate graduate students.  But basically, it’s always the same:  “This is what people did before me and this is what I think about it and this is what I did about it and this is what I found out and then I ran out of time/money/interest and this is what I want to do next.  What a wonderful scientist I am. Give me a publication/more money/a job please.” That’s it.  Not a difficult formula (unless you are a grad student at the looking for a job part). But obfuscates, their writing does.   Scientists can think well, experiment well, analyze well, interpret well, but write well?  Sorry, not their department.   It’s baffling.  They may be scientists, but they are also readers, and readers appreciate clarity.  Simplicity, people, simplicity!  Is that too much to ask from the world’s smartest – at least according to them – people?  Such brilliance in the lab, such hopelessness on the page. There has to be a better way.  Results are everything in science: the path to high-impact publications, the key to career advancement, the solution to mankind’s problems.  It’s too important to leave to chance.  So here are my tips to make your scientific writing a little more palatable:

1)    Writing is hard for writers too, but they still write effectively.  No more excuses about not being a writer. If you’re writing, you’re a writer. And a writer will tell you that writing is sometimes hard.  You do research for a living. You deal with hard every day.  Why should writing suddenly be easy? (And don’t say “because the Arts people do it.” Argh.)

2)    Ask not what your reader can do for you, but what you can do for your reader! Newsflash!  You’re not writing for you. It’s not up to the reader to figure out what you are trying to say, it’s up to you to say it right in the first place.  Be kind.  Help them out. (Yes, even if the bastards scooped you on a previous publication.)

3)    To write is necessary; to communicate, human. I understand.  Human isn’t easy. But it’s what we socially awkward sciency folk do to fit in. Communicating is a good place to start.  You know how sometimes, you open your mouth and words come out?  Pretend your pen is your mouth and write it down.  It’s even easier than conversation, and no one will care that you smell like something you grew in the lab.  Well, your lab-mates might, but since they can’t communicate…

You see where this is going, don’t you….

If you want to play “find the rhetorical scheme” – (and why wouldn’t you?) – here they are. (PDF, 65kB)


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