How to write good science

Don’t expect me to give advice here except to say that the best way to write any good science stuff is to read a lot of science writing and pay attention to what you find tedious and what you find absorbing.  Oh, and this: I see the principles of good popular science writing as nearly identical to those of good technical science writing.

I once taught a course on technical scientific writing, but it failed miserably. I concluded that the best way to teach it is to take a student’s papers and keep correcting them over and over until he/she develops a decent prose style.

We all know that Steve Pinker’s next book is on how to write good popular science, and I’m much looking forward to it. In the meantime, there’s a nice piece by evolutionary biologist Lewis Spurgin called “Science and the English language“on the website A Great Tree. Spurgin’s title is taken from George Orwell’s famous essay, “Politics and the English language” (everyone should read this), which, though purporting to be about political writing, is really about writing anything clearly. I always gave Orwell’s essay to my grad students.

Spurgin makes the point that technical scientific reading should be clear and lively, though in reality it’s deadly about 98% of the time. He explains why we should care about this:

Science is about finding the truth and making sense of things. An essential part of this is communicating clearly and honestly. The structure, grammar and choice of words used in science articles makes them vague and inaccurate, which is exactly the opposite of how they are intended, and pretend, to be. And, as Orwell recognised, lazy writing encourages lazy thinking. The imitative and pretentious nature of how we write science papers acts as a barrier to thinking critically about what we’ve done, and how our experiments might be biased.

Science writing is also full of cliché, crap puns and metaphors, and borderline plagiarism. In short, it lacks imagination. It is no wonder, therefore, that nobody enjoys reading science papers. We often enjoy the story contained within scientific studies, but I’d bet that even most scientists don’t enjoy reading journal articles for their writing. Must this be the case? One could argue that imagery has no place in science articles. I think it has, and there are some examples where it has been used well. In my field of evolutionary biology, probably the most famous use of imagery in a science paper was Gould and Lewontin’s article on the “Spandrels of San Marco” [3]. Gould was also excellent at using metaphor to illustrate the vastness of geological time (“Consider the earth’s history as the old measure of the English yard, the distance from the king’s nose to the tip of his outstretched hand. One stroke of a nail file on his middle finger erases human history”). But, sadly, for every Spandrel there are a thousand Achilles’ heels, and so much light has been shed that we’ve all gone blind.

One of the most tragic consequences of the scientific writing style is the effect it has on students. Science students find it extremely difficult to get into the primary literature, and most undergraduates will not be able to properly critique a scientific paper until their final year. Complex methods used in many modern papers, and the jargon required to explain them, form a major part of this barrier, but I have no doubt that the writing is equally to blame. . .

Spurgin then gives a list of major sins of science writing, including pretentious diction, bad metaphors, and so on. I agree. If I see the words “a suite of characters” once again, I’ll hurl, and that also goes for “utilize”, “elucidate,” “facilitate” and “myriad.” And I abhor the way that even decent writers fall into tedious and jargony prose when they start writing science, as if the gravitas of a science paper demands tedium. Well, that’s the conceit of postmodernistic lit-crit, but shouldn’t be true of science. Our job is to be clear, not obscure. Granted, some humdrum stuff is necessary in a research paper, but there’s no reason why results shouldn’t be written clearly, why one shouldn’t write in the first person, or why one can’t use some humor.

Spurgin reprints Orwell’s six dicta for good writing, which I’ve tried to adhere to myself (especially number 3!), and I’ll put them here, too:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. [JAC: note that I violate this a few lines above!]

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Finally, here are some examples of either tedious or humorous writing that I’ve collected over the years (titles are mine). I omit the authors’ names to protect the guilty.

SCIENTIFIC FASCISM (in a paper on mutations in peanuts)

“Discrepancies in individual plant estimates were reviewed in congress and the reasons for the discrepancies were examined and the sources of differences in judgment were eliminated until the observers spoke with as nearly one mind on the subject of these peanut mutants as perhaps it is possible to achieve in human experience.”

****

POMPOSITY (my footnotes)

“Humans are themselves embedded in a Wrightean viscous population, where behavioral proximity, measured as the relative allocation of interaction among individuals, replaces spatial proximity.  Cooperation is the product of a fragmented social environment and, for this very reason, is itself heterogeneously distributed.  We are socially viscous creatures, creating islands of solstice* within Malthusian necessity.

Wynne-Edwards seems to write from his own island; yet the processes he speaks of bind him to others.  He is imprecise yet richly intuitive, at his best when neither crisply** right nor wrong;  a difficult cantankerous man for those interested in rapid progress.  But recall Alexander’s (1987:18) view of progress:  to identify the core of accuracy and correctness in the works of all writers in a field, excise the flawed portions, and then build from the best that is left. Wynne-Edwards deserves this***, as do we all.”

____________________

* Reference completely obscure.  Author most likely means “solace”.
**Has the author been eating crackers?
***Deserves what?

****

OVERLY CUTE METAPHOR

“In terms of the subject of this review, the epistasis between experimentalists and theoreticians has been positive, although small, but its strength should be increased through selection for tighter linkage, so that our understanding could evolve to the maximum peak in the knowledge surface.”

****

OBSCURANTIST ACADEMESE:

“Thus, even among the horseshoe crabs (proverbial epitomes of morphological conservatism), multitudinous nucleotide differences have accumulated among evolutionary lineages (albeit at an uncertain exact pace).”

Jerry’s Translation:  Diverse species of horseshoe crabs look alike, but their DNA is different.

****

UNNECESSARY RESTATEMENT OF THE OBVIOUS

“The world is heterogeneous.  It varies from place to place and moment to moment.  As a consequence of this variation, the optimal phenotype of an individual changes.  In an ideal world, an individual would alter its phenotype to always match the optimum.  In the real world, however, organisms do not always do this.”

179 Comments

  1. Posted March 19, 2013 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    I’ve had the displeasure of having to deal with business communication that is simply intelligible. As in, somebody in a company asking for something to be done, with no way to even begin to make sense of what’s being asked for. I’d offer examples, but won’t to protect the innocent and guilty alike….

    I fear that communication is a lost art that perhaps never was widely found. But, in today’s modern rush with all its distractions and Twits and FaceSpace and did you see whose wearing taht red dresss and OMG LMAO FFS I suspect it’s even more lost than ever.

    <sigh />

    b&

    • Posted March 19, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

      As I think I’ve said here before, certainly on B&W, If you are serious about your writing, Twitter can impose a good discipline. Can you convey an idea clearly in 140 or fewer characters?

      I’ve written a report in 100 up-to-140-character paragraphs, which was well received by clients.

      Now Marcus Chown and another have used a similar approach to write a cosmology book… Tweeting the Universe, iirc. But I doubt they got the idea from me.

      /@

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted March 19, 2013 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

        Back in the Stone Age of computer science, when we wrote our programs out on paper while awaiting our turn at the keyboard, I had a mentor who insisted that the proper size paper for this purpose was 3×5 cards (~75x125mm for you metric types). Any subroutine or code fragment that did not fit in that space was too complex and should be abstracted further.

      • Posted March 19, 2013 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

        Sadly, in practice, Twitter is not being used for concise clarity. Bqhatevwr it’s being used for, it may be concise, but it’s not clear, and it’s certainly not insightful. Indeed, it’s often not even intelligible.

        And, yeah…my frist psot was too brief by two characters…consider me contaminated…I know I often feel dirty at the end of the day, or at least dain brammaged….

        b&

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted March 19, 2013 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

        Twitter can impose a good discipline. Can you convey an idea clearly in 140 or fewer characters?

        The best writing on fora that limit the number of characters allowed resembles the prose of Elmore Leonard, in its leanness and concision, its excision of pleonasm, its tracking of speech. Most of it, nevertheless, is crap … like most writing everywhere.

        • Posted March 20, 2013 at 12:59 am | Permalink

          Sturgeon’s law!

          /@

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted March 20, 2013 at 6:41 am | Permalink

            I was thinking more the 80/20 Pareto Principle — making me a relative pie-in-the-sky optimist, I suppose.

    • Posted March 19, 2013 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

      I think simply intelligible communication would be a good thing…
      ;)

      • Heber
        Posted May 8, 2013 at 6:33 am | Permalink

        Exactly my thoughts . +1

    • juan
      Posted March 19, 2013 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

      Like Ben, I often find business language that’s pretentious/unintelligible. Investment analysts and consultants are famous for their pomposity. Here’s an example: “[W]e remain constructive on the multiple adjacencies and potential for inorganic growth.”

      • Posted March 19, 2013 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

        Oh-oh, some of my colleagues write like that. (But not I!)

        /@

        • Dermot C
          Posted March 19, 2013 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

          The inflation of daft adjectives even infects education as well. OFSTED alleged that my school was ‘outstanding’ in the last inspection. The problem was which adjective to choose for the next development plan; how can you be better than that? I suggested ‘galactic’, rather like Real Madrid; I was over-ruled. We’re all ‘world class’ now, apparently.

          • Kevin Alexander
            Posted March 19, 2013 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

            Was unbefuckinglievable taken?

          • Posted March 19, 2013 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

            It’s been my experience that “world-class” is universally applied to institutions that aren’t, and institutions that actually are never actually use the term.

            For example, you’d never hear the Metropolitan Opera referred to as a “world-class opera company.” But you might well hear the Lesser Hoople Area Philharmonia described as a “world-class chamber ensemble.”

            Personally, I probably would have suggested, “orgasmic,” as an alternative, though I’d have readily voted for Kevin’s option.

            Cheers,

            b&

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted March 19, 2013 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

              For example, you’d never hear the Metropolitan Opera referred to as a “world-class opera company.”

              I suggest you try typing “Metropolitan Opera” and “world-class” into the Google search box and see what you get. You may be surprised.

              • Posted March 19, 2013 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

                Oh, sure — I’m sure it’s done.

                But the thing is, nobody who knows anything about opera would bother calling them “world-class.” You might maybe fall back on it if you had to describe it to somebody who has no clue what they are, but only after descriptions like “the best opera company in the Western hemisphere.” Hell, I’d even use something like, “America’s premiere opera company” before stooping as low as “world-class.”

                Think about it in other fields. Would you describe SEAL Team 6 as world-class soldiers? Corinthians as a world-class football team? The Beatles as a world-class rock band? NYSE as a world-class stock market? BMW as a world-class auto manufacturer?

                No, of course not.

                “World-class” gets reserved for the wannabes.

                b&

              • Dermot C
                Posted March 19, 2013 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

                Yeah, I agree with the drift of what Ben says, but I would add what I think is the main point; it’s not up to any person, group or institution to call themselves ‘world-class’ or any boastful, immodest epithet. Who do they think they are kidding? It’s not up to you to decide how good you are. I am great; doesn’t that sound bonkers? Infantile.

                If everyone inflates their own value – and, nowadays, they do – why should we trust anything, any corporate nonentity propagandises? We all know that not everything is great, that all adverts are crap, that most of us are average at what we do.

                The Housemartins produced an album called, ‘Now that’s what I call “quite good”‘. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if we could return to such 20/20 perspicacity?

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted March 19, 2013 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

                Ben, if you actually do the Google experiment, the kind of places you see using those terms together include Wikipedia, The New York Times, and the Met’s own website and YouTube channel.

                I’m a trustee on the board of a world-class ballet company in Seattle — easily one of the top five companies in the US — and we’re quite proud of that status and not shy about saying so. The phrase “world-class” appears frequently on our website and in our press releases.

                So you’re simply wrong on this. World-class institutions do indeed describe themselves in those terms, and see no shame in doing so.

              • Posted March 19, 2013 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

                Dermot’s got it right.

                Were I to write the Met’s ad copy, I might well describe them as, “Manhattan’s largest opera company,” or the like.

                “If you have to ask…”

                Cheers,

                b&

                P.S. I see they’re doing the Ring this season, and their Saturday broadcasts of it start April 6 with (of course!) Rheingold! I’ll have to tune in…. b&

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted March 19, 2013 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

                If you think the Met’s ability to attract top-rank artists from around the world is of no relevance to potential ticket buyers, then you definitely should not be writing their ad copy.

              • Posted March 19, 2013 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

                Er, Gregory…you’re still missing the point.

                The Met doesn’t need to advertise, first of all, except insofar as it’s like business cards: it’s just assumed that one has such things. And most of their advertising budget is dedicated to society schmoozing and cultivating benefactors, I’m sure.

                And, second, all their advertisements need are their name, really.

                And they don’t need to trumpet the fact that they’re world-class enough to draw big names. All they have to do is print the playbill, which actually has those names.

                Indeed, go to their home page, and that’s exactly what you see. “Damrau and Domingo star in La Traviata.” “The Ring back on April 6.” “Live in HD: Dessay and Daniels in Giulio Cesare.

                That’s what a real “world-class” organization does. It doesn’t brag about how it’s “world-class.” It simply is “world-class,” and there’s no need to rub everybody’s nose in it by saying how world-class they are.

                Doing so is gauche, and not the sort of thing a true “world-class” organization would do, except maybe in some inconsequential off-the-beaten-path hyped-up introduction for the clueless put together by some junior flunkie.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Diane G.
                Posted March 19, 2013 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

                You’re both right. So drop it.
                :D

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted March 19, 2013 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

                Ben, I take your point just fine. You think my organization is “gauche”, “wannabes”, not “a real world-class organization” simply because we dare to describe ourselves (accurately!) as “world-class”.

                I can assure you you’re wrong on all counts. Our people are at the top of their field and have earned the right to call themselves the best, and they don’t need your permission or approval to do so. I am trying hard to keep this polite so I’ll say no more than that.

                Diane, I apologize for dragging this out. I’m done now.

              • gr8hands
                Posted March 20, 2013 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

                This exchange demonstrates that most of this thread is dealing with subjective opinions, and not a little arrogance about what is “right” — which should not have much place in science writing, should it?

          • Posted March 19, 2013 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

            Ha! Our 5-tier maturity model for enterprise IT stops at 5, optimising. We tell clients, you might not want aim for that, given the effort to sustain that level “going forward” ( :-) ). Even at 4, managed, it takes some effort. Folks forget that staying as good as you are is effortful, and is not an unworthy goal.

            /@

      • Veroxitatis
        Posted March 19, 2013 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

        My pet company-speak hate of the moment is “going forward”. This is usually dangled as a prefix to a list of vacuous “mission” type statements.

        • Dermot C
          Posted March 19, 2013 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, Veroxitatis, all mission statement gerunds are bo**o*ks; like all novels written in the historic present are tedious, the opposite of immediate.

          While I’m in grumpy old g*t mode, all historians who use that tense should recognise that its use can lead to genuine historical confusion; when they say, ‘So-and-so WOULD do this or that…’, does it mean that they DID do it, or that they might have done it?

          The past is the past; use the right effing tense.

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted March 19, 2013 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

            “Would,” in the sense of “might have,” would be the subjunctive. Like grumpiness, the subjunctive is a “mood,” not a “tense” — though making that point to a self-described grumpy old g*t puts me in a tense mood.

            • Dermot C
              Posted March 20, 2013 at 1:06 am | Permalink

              Very good! The mood has passed.

              • Dermot C
                Posted March 20, 2013 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

                Although, Ken, if I revert to G.O.G. mode, I was referring to the confusion which the historic present presents (!). Take this example, much like one which I heard on a telly documentary.

                “Elizabeth I comes to the throne at the tender age of twenty-five. As the Defender of the Protestant faith, she would be the object of Catholic conspiracies on her life.”

                In the context of the historic present, I still don’t know whether the conspiracies occurred. You could change, “she would be…” to “she was…”, but in that case you’d have to give up the whole tense structure.

                It’s easy to clarify the historical narrative with the correct tense: “Elizabeth I came to the throne at the tender age of twenty-five. As the Defender of the Protestant faith, she later became the object of Catholic conspiracies on her life.”

                No ambiguity. Ooh, I’m coming over all Radio 4.

                Cheers.

      • darrelle
        Posted March 20, 2013 at 5:29 am | Permalink

        Such writing is often inspired by the need to convince the reader(s) that what the writer has been doing is important, that they are an expert, and that they have diligently applied themselves to the task. Particularly when none of those things is actually true.

  2. Chris
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    In the interests of good writing (or at least proper writing, an aspect of good writing), I’d like to point out an irritating – to me as an editor – and increasingly common mistake in Spurgin’s article. “Science writing is also full of cliché” is wrong. A cliché is a singular noun; its plural should be “clichés.” Additionally, a phrase is not “cliché,” it is “clichéd,” as in, “His writing is terribly clichéd.”

    Apologies for the pedantry….

    • Posted March 19, 2013 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think that’s an objectionable change in usage – based on a Google search, “full of cliché” is nearly half as popular as “full of clichés”.

      /@

      • Chris
        Posted March 19, 2013 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

        As I said, it’s an increasingly common error. Like spelling barbecue incorrectly as barbeque (which still shows up as incorrect in SpellCheck, so civilization is saved! For now…).

        A Google search can’t arbitrate what is correct, it can only show usage. While there’s a gray area between ‘usage is the rule’ and proper grammar, in this case I think it’s simply incorrect, since it misuses general grammar (plurals ending with ‘s,’ etc.). If common usage is •always• the rule, then soon we’ll loose all sence of good grammer (all errors I see constantly).

        • Ryan
          Posted March 19, 2013 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

          You spelled lose wrong.

          • Diane G.
            Posted March 19, 2013 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

            Is that all you saw in that sentence, Ryan?

        • Posted March 19, 2013 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

          I disagree, so long as the novel usage doesn’t erode meaning or introduce an ambiguity it’s healthy language change – progress not decay.

          Is the sea full of fish or full of fishes?

          /@

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted March 19, 2013 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

          Prescriptivize much?

          • Diane G.
            Posted March 19, 2013 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

            Ah, please, we don’t need another battle here! Neither being conservative nor liberal on this issue makes anyone a bad person. It doesn’t even make them wrong.

            • Posted March 20, 2013 at 12:10 am | Permalink

              I don’t think it is such a trivial matter. “Prescriptivist” pedants often get too much of a free pass to propagate their individual preferences in the guise of grammatical rules set in stone. Past examples of such madness that ran out of control are (a) “thou shalt not end thy sentences with a preposition” (invented by John Dryden, seemingly in order to belittle the work of such giants as Shakespeare) and (b) “thou shalt not split thy infinitives” (which seems to originate in an attempt to impose upon English concepts drawn from the grammar of other languages).

              • Chris
                Posted March 20, 2013 at 7:25 am | Permalink

                There are varieties of prescriptivism, of course – they don’t all equate to the preposition/end of sentence issue (and it is perfectly acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition). Some amount of prescriptivism is necessary. If no one was prescriptive, then there would be a genuine breakdown of communication. In any case, I’m not trying to impose rules from Latin or any other language – just good ol’ dictionary usage. You accept the dictionary, right?

              • Posted March 20, 2013 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

                Chris:

                “You accept the dictionary, right?”

                Yes, I do. I also recognize that modern usage (which often shows a high correlation with “Google Search”) might be a much better indicator of the current meaning of a word for the purposes of avoiding “breakdown(s) of communication” than some musty dictionary sitting on a bookcase.

            • Posted March 20, 2013 at 2:17 am | Permalink

              Does the “G” in your name stand for “graphite”, Diane?

              /@

              • Diane G.
                Posted March 20, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

                Ant, you’re too clever by half. Are you by any chance saying I’m trying to ease some friction here?

              • Posted March 20, 2013 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

                Oh, no. Good one. I was going for the nuclear option.

                /@

              • Diane G.
                Posted March 20, 2013 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

                :embarrassed:

                Ha Ha, how disparate can you get?

                Well, good. I’m no diplomat, that’s for sure. :D

              • Posted March 20, 2013 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

                Um… I thought you were trying to be a moderator.

                /@

              • Diane G.
                Posted March 20, 2013 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

                Heh, gotta love contranyms.

                Thank you for at least including a link this time. ;)

                See other thread for my meltdown…
                ;)

        • John Scanlon, FCD
          Posted March 20, 2013 at 6:10 am | Permalink

          Describing this as an error is full of fail. :)

        • gr8hands
          Posted March 20, 2013 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

          Chris, you might want to check out Merriam-Webster — they disagree with you:

          http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/barbeque

          (you have to scroll down to see that they accept barbeque as accurate)

          • Chris
            Posted March 21, 2013 at 6:56 am | Permalink

            Hm, I see you’re right. They didn’t accept it as of a few years ago; it was considered a ‘common misspelling.’ But I guess this is an instance where usage has had its way.

      • Marella
        Posted March 19, 2013 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

        If it’s wrong, it’s wrong. Until the wrong usage is so common nobody understands the correct one I will be using the correct one. Kthxbai.

    • Posted March 19, 2013 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

      Or it could be just a typo…

    • Posted March 19, 2013 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

      My dictionary app gives “cliché” as an alternative for “clichéd”, that is, as an adjective, too.

      Is it not acceptable to use “cliché” as Spurgin did if you mean to refer to cliché as a sort of genre?

    • RFW
      Posted March 19, 2013 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

      I think you are wrong about that. English grammar distinguishes countable nouns from uncountable nouns, as you probably know, but imo treating a countable noun as uncountable as in the phrase “full of cliché” is a useful rhetorical device on occasion.

      There’s a subtle difference between saying a writing is “full of pomposity” and saying it is “full of pomposities”. The former carries the connotation “the whole damned thing is tainted with pomposity, not just a few, not just here and there, but in nearly every word, sentence, and paragraph.

      To say that a text is “full of cliché” makes the same point wrt clichés.

      • Posted March 19, 2013 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

        My point, more clearly expressed!

        /@

      • Diane G.
        Posted March 19, 2013 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

        And god knows, “full of fail” has succeeded wildly of late.

        • Posted March 19, 2013 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

          And your comment is full of win!

          • Diane G.
            Posted March 19, 2013 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

            :D

        • John Scanlon, FCD
          Posted March 20, 2013 at 6:12 am | Permalink

          Sorry Diane, I didn’t see yours before the comment I just added above.

          • Diane G.
            Posted March 20, 2013 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

            Great minds, John, great minds…

      • Chris
        Posted March 20, 2013 at 7:11 am | Permalink

        Well, I take your point to a degree, but I don’t know that “full of cliché” does any real ‘rhetorical’ work that “full of clichés” doesn’t do.

        Mostly I am reacting to constantly seeing – in print, not just in Internet comboxes – the single word “cliché” as a singular noun, in place of a plural noun, and as an adjective, i.e., many people seem to use just the one word for all usages. It’s a terrible problem that we should all be really concerned about. :)

        • Posted March 20, 2013 at 7:22 am | Permalink

          “It’s a terrible problem that we should all be really concerned about.” — Not for most of us, apparently… ;-)

          /@

          • Chris
            Posted March 20, 2013 at 7:33 am | Permalink

            “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
            -Edmund Burke
            :)

            • Diane G.
              Posted March 20, 2013 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

              Laughing out loud again. :D

  3. gbjames
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Simply unintelligible? ;)

    • gbjames
      Posted March 19, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      (sorry… meant to be under Ben’s comment #1)

  4. Kevin Alexander
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Science writing is also full of cliché, crap puns and metaphors, and borderline plagiarism. In short, it lacks imagination.

    Which is what makes science writing the most difficult kind of prose. It’s absolutely essential that the information be accurate so you have to reign in your imagination since so often science+imagination=junk science.

    • Posted March 20, 2013 at 12:57 am | Permalink

      “rein in”. (scurries away… hides).

      (pops head back up)

      …needs a few commas to avoid a run-on and set off a dependent clause… (ducks the hurled rotten potato… scurries away again)

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted March 20, 2013 at 11:32 am | Permalink

        …the hurled rotten potato …

        You said potato, I’d say tomato …

        (Let’s call the whole fruit-or-vegetable debate off …)

  5. John
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, do you ever sleep? I see posts from around the clock and I certainly look forward to each of them. I envy your time management. If I had to do all that writing, teach my classes, fight the bureaucracy, council my students, do my research, etc…..well I would be found wanting. Keep it up, I for one enjoy it immensely.

  6. gr8hands
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    I’d have to disagree, respectfully, sir. Your “translation” was less specific, therefore less accurate, and did not convey all that the original did.

    Orwell admitted that he was guilty of the very sins he decried — even in the essay outlying those sins. Surely if they were so terrible and to be avoided, they could have been avoided in his instructions about them needing to be avoided.

    Part of the joy of literature (like most art) is that it is personal. You read the words and take something totally different from them than what I take when I read them. But I believe science writing has to be less so, in order to assure conveying accurate information.

    “It was a lovely shade of red” versus CMYK values. In science, I prefer the latter, in most prose, the former.

    Ultimately, a writer has to consider who the intended audience will be, and cater to them. Your best writing on this website, Dr. Coyne, would probably not be most appropriate for a 3rd grade class — and something you wrote for a 3rd grade class would probably not be most appropriate for a submission to the Grand Prix Charles-Léopold Mayer award.

    I love language. I love a good turn of phrase, a deftly placed metaphor, subtle shading of simile, and image-evoking neologisms.

    I tend to reject the notion that one “style” of writing is inherently superior to another.

    But, of course, I could be completely wrong.

    • Posted March 19, 2013 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

      That’s a lovely shade of beaded

      /@

      • jesse
        Posted March 20, 2013 at 6:36 am | Permalink

        [Ahem... takes Ant aside and whispers:]
        I’m a real dullard so I need you to spell out what you meant here. Is this a tongue-in-cheek comment where you are referring to purple prose? I am not being funny, just trying to understand if it is a joke.

        • Posted March 20, 2013 at 6:54 am | Permalink

          No, just a facetious reference to the fact that some specific hex codes (~ CMYK values) form words that can be included in prose.

          /@

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted March 20, 2013 at 11:45 am | Permalink

          From one dullard to another: I took it for a Procol Harum allusion.

    • Marella
      Posted March 19, 2013 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

      Readable writing is always better than unreadable, and confusing writing. I think that’s the gist of Jerry’s post.

      • gr8hands
        Posted March 20, 2013 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

        Readable to what reader? Confusing to what person? If I read the examples and understood them, what is the problem? Merely personal taste.

        You will get nowhere trying to claim something is “unreadable” — that’s just a personal opinion. Much like the commonly expressed opinion that romance novels are poor literature. Completely subjective.

  7. Posted March 19, 2013 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Hm. I actually find very little wrong with the way English papers are written in my own area, but that may be simply because I am used to them. There is unfortunately a limited number of ways to describe a phylogenetic tree, the morphology of a plant or the result of a statistical test without becoming misleading or technically wrong.

    I find it very, very odd, however, whenever I read a scientific paper in my native language German. They always appear horrifically pretentious and unnatural. It is to be feared that a layperson who is a native speaker of English would say the same about my papers…

  8. BilBy
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    What kind of feed back, if any, did you get from your students after they read Orwell’s essay? I also tried to teach a short course on scientific writing and at the end, much like you, I decided the only way students could learn to write was just to write. The corollary was that they also had to read – a lot – and that was the stumbling block. Ooh, Orwell would have hated ‘stumbling block’ :)

    • Posted March 19, 2013 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

      Very well-worn metaphors like “stumbling block” are on their way to becoming just words in the language. English is full of them, but they’re so embedded that we no longer think of the original literal meaning. (Which is why some of them lend themselves so well to egg-corns; eg, damp squib/squid.)

      /@

      • Posted March 20, 2013 at 2:10 am | Permalink

        PS. Which, I belatedly see, Orwell calls “dying metaphors”.

  9. Veroxitatis
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    May I commend to you also some thoughts of Ben Franklin.

    http://grammar.about.com/od/rhetoricstyle/a/stylefranklin.htm

  10. Gordon
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    By coincidence I was, this morning sent a copy of a paper by Kaj Sand-Jensen “How to write consistently boring scientific literature” which may be a useful antidote to the above. It appears in Oikos 116: 723-727, 2007

    • Ivo
      Posted March 19, 2013 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

      I recommend this article too.

  11. Genghis
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    I had to chuckle reading Jerry’s post because it is the complete antithesis of sophisticated theology.

  12. neil
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    The best science writing I have ever read is by Richard Dawkins. Every sentence he writes is a model of clarity and elegance. I try to style my own writing after his, although it is much inferior.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted March 20, 2013 at 6:16 am | Permalink

      This is so true that, by now, actually mentioning it is dangerously close to cliché.

  13. RFW
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    One way for students of good scientific writing to improve their style is to ask themselves the question “how would I say this if I was explaining it to my mother?” To put that another way, “how would I say this in ordinary everyday conversational English?”

    It’s also important to remember that scientific writing is not literature, and rhetorical flourishes are out of place. Though I hate dreary writing that is a string of subject-verb-object sentences with nary a relative clause to be seen, that’s still better than cramming eleventy-umpteen distinct thoughts into one turgid, run-on sentence like the one JAC offers on peanut mutations.

    There’s also the question of vocabulary. English has perhaps the richest vocabulary of any language, and is capable of using it to express very delicate shades of meaning. Make sure you use exactly the right word, not a near synonym.

    And I’ll hold up a banner calling for the use of hence, whence, thence, hither, whither, and thither where possible and as appropriate, even though the school marms say they’re dead words now.

    • Posted March 19, 2013 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      “Hence” is not even on the critical list. I use it a lot and see it a lot in my colleagues’ writing.

      /@

      • Ivo
        Posted March 19, 2013 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

        Mathematicians are forever grateful for “hence”. Otherwise, each research article would be an uninterrupted procession of therefore’s… (Only slightly exaggerating here.)

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 19, 2013 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

      Because, of course, no mothers are science-literate…

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted March 20, 2013 at 1:07 am | Permalink

        Is that you, Larry Summers?

    • darrelle
      Posted March 20, 2013 at 5:42 am | Permalink

      “English has perhaps the richest vocabulary of any language . . .”

      Uh Oh! You might want to duck.

      Huh. That wasn’t so bad. Carry on.

  14. Dermot C
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Practically the plenitude of Blair’s œuvre has been perused by my good self; nevertheless, notwithstanding the general, universal, catholic, even, wisdom, or should one aver, sagesse of the estimable litterateur, it ought to be recalled that the said Orwell was kicking against the pricks, on the one hand, of the obscurantism of James Burnham’s managerial revolution, and on the other hand, of the clichéd deathly prose of the communistic house-style. The epithet ‘dense’ could never be ascribed to Eric’s literary productions, but neither might the adjective ‘funny’ be associative of 1984’s progenitor.

  15. Posted March 19, 2013 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    Just a simple thanks, Jerry, for posting this commentary about good (scientific) writing.

    Everyone can gain something from the reminders and examples.

  16. Diane G.
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    Hear, hear! (or its non-trite equivalent)

    I especially love Orwell’s (vi)! :D

  17. BilBy
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Kingsley Amis wrote of ‘berks’ and ‘wankers’ when it came to the English language. ‘Berks’ do not care about precise English and ‘wankers’ care too much: in science writing, as in all writing (and speaking), we have to chart a course between the Scylla and Charybdis of our own inner ‘berk’ and ‘wanker’ (and yes, I know Orwell would have hated that cliched phrase too – it was self-deprecating mockery, honest)

    • Posted March 19, 2013 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

      Not only clichéd, but a pretentious classical allusion as well! At least “between a rock and a hard place” would be more widely understood! ;-)

      /@

      • BilBy
        Posted March 19, 2013 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

        Ta :)

      • Occam
        Posted March 19, 2013 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

        Cornelian dilemma between Inchcape Rock and a maelstrom! :)

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted March 20, 2013 at 1:04 am | Permalink

      The self-appellation for wankers adopted by the Foster-Wallaces of Southern Illinois — whither sprang the late meta-fictionalist David — was “snoot.” Like K. Amis’s term, it captures in condign manner the prescriptivist outlook.on language.

  18. JHB
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    Sorry; this is about good science, but filmed, rather than written…

    The BBC has a dramatisation of Richard Feynman’s role in the Challenger enquiry up on their iPlayer site; it’s called ‘The Challenger’ and is up until the 25th March, I think.

    Sorry – threadjacking! But it’s very good!

    • Posted March 19, 2013 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

      It is.

      Now I must find time tomorrow to finish the report I was going to finish tonight. So, thanks. :-/

      /@

    • Occam
      Posted March 19, 2013 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

      Right. The TimeOut review of “The Challenger” begins with this splendid line:

      “The most refreshing aspect of this excellent BBC/Science Channel co-production is the fact that it has an atheist Nobel-prize winning physicist as its main protagonist.”

    • Posted March 19, 2013 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

      It’s up until 19 April, btw.

      If this had been a Hollywood movie, I’m sure Feynman would’ve had an “accident” before the end and our ahistorical young hero would’ve had to figure it out from the prof’s notes and gone public with the truth. It just had that feel at times, esp. after MacDonald “disappeared”.

      /@

      PS. And not such an egregious threadjacking when Feynman was an exemplar of good science communication.

  19. Posted March 19, 2013 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    I write reports to clients detailing hydrogeologic work I have completed for them. Even use EQUATIONS in the text! I unknowingly have been following Orwell and your rules pretty well, Jerry. I very rarely get questions about the reports so I like to think this is due to clarity rather than them not being read at all… However, my writing came at the cost of years of reports bleeding red from reviews of upper level folks in the companies for which I used to work.

  20. andreschuiteman
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    I have read a paper in which the observation that alpine spiders mainly walk around during the early summer months was phrased “Epigeal locomotor activity of spiders in the alpine zone is mostly unimodal, with a peak in June/July.”

  21. Daniel Hauser, Ph.D.
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    I’m retired now but read Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” several times over the last 52 years. I still recommend it.

    • Posted March 19, 2013 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

      You might want to read Geoffrey Pullum’s essay on the subject of Strunk and White’s “grammar advice”.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted March 20, 2013 at 3:32 am | Permalink

        I read it with great interest. I do like a good erudite hatchet job, it must be the iconoclastic streak in me.

      • RFW
        Posted March 20, 2013 at 9:14 am | Permalink

        From that link:

        “The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired”

        This annoys me as badly as fingernails scratching a blackboard. It’s a horrible circumlocutious statement of cause and effect that would be much better (imho) as “He left college because his health became impaired” or even better “…because of impaired health.”

        Eschew complication and beating around the bush. Get to the point.

        • Posted March 20, 2013 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

          Sure, but as the essay in the link points out, Strunk and White seem to criticize it for all the wrong reasons, and not for the simper, prosaic reason that you point out.

  22. Jim Thomerson
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    Are those of you actively teaching aware of “writing across the curriculum”? As I understood it and practiced it, students wrote, then edited and reviewed each other’s papers, then rewrote and edited some more. Learning from doing both writing and editing.

    My papers are ordinarily read by people for whom English is not the primary language. I thus tend to avoid synonyms, and long sentences in scientific writing.

    When I have had difficulty writing, I would reread some of my earlier papers, say to my self. “Wow, that guy is good!” and go back to work. It has actually worked well for me.

  23. Hempenstein
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    I once attended a one-day workshop by George Gopen on scientific writing. I only went since it sounded like the dean had brought him in at considerable expense and was worried that nobody would go, but I was very happy that I did. Here’s his 16-pg paper on the topic from American Scientist.

    • Peter Beattie
      Posted March 20, 2013 at 8:44 am | Permalink

      The Gopen/Swan paper is one thing I have found to be a good resource in my Scientific Writing classes, as students considered it to be rather helpful. So, +1 on that.

  24. David Johnson
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    Whoops, Jerry violated his favorite of Orwell’s rules, no. 3, in the sentence immediately preceding the list of rules, as the word “myself” adds nothing to that sentence. Or maybe Jerry was just seeing whether anyone was paying close attention.

  25. jono4174
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    Jerry sez:
    We all know that Steve Pinker’s next book is on how to write good popular science, and I’m much looking forward to it

    Steve Pinker devoted a page or two to this topic in “The Language Instinct”. One piece of advice was “revise, revise, revise”. Reading the book itself, many of Steve’s examples were hinted at in the text of other chapters.

    • RFW
      Posted March 20, 2013 at 9:03 am | Permalink

      One thing that helps a great deal in untangling one’s more tangled prose is reading out loud. You needn’t have an audience; cats are happy to listen attentively, as are loving mothers and grandmothers. The latter groups offer the advantage of pointing out bad spots you the author may miss.

  26. zackoz
    Posted March 20, 2013 at 12:57 am | Permalink

    Maybe too late to join in here, but it’s surprising – at least to me – that no one has mentioned current examples of good science writing. Who are our best exemplars these days?

    I’d nominate Carl Zimmer and Ed Yong myself, but there are others, including our esteemed host.

    • RFW
      Posted March 20, 2013 at 8:59 am | Permalink

      Not current, in fact long dead, but Isaac Asimov’s long series of science articles written for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction remain a monument to clarity.

    • Peter Beattie
      Posted March 20, 2013 at 9:06 am | Permalink

      Carl, Ed, and Jerry are indeed exceptional in the simplicity of their prose. Gould is exceptional in the colourfulness and emotional depth of his writing, as well as the breadth of his vocabulary, often adding surprising layers of nuance to his stories. Dawkins is simply a master explainer. Pinker has a great ability to put his subject-matter into an enormously engaging conversational style, and his imagery and wit are major assets. And let’s not forget the inimitable David Quammen, whose languid style, attention to detail, and admirable use of analogies to convey even complicated ideas anyone would do well to study.

      One other writer, however, I must single out, and that is David Deutsch. His latest is The Beginning of Infinity, and as a professional writer myself I stand in awe of his ability to structure his thoughts and his arguments with absolutely uncanny precision. The way he weaves many differents threads together while simultaneously making you see the emerging pattern as well as every individual thread is simply astonishing. Just as with Handel, I am deeply envious of that level of talent. ;)

  27. Posted March 20, 2013 at 1:43 am | Permalink

    Just before I read this article, I was looking at some excerpts by Alvin Platinga, whose writing seems to be more about making a display of obscure vocabulary than communicating ideas to his readers. He could do with reading one of Richard Dawkin’s books to see how it is done.

    Is it just my imagination, or is there an inverse correlation between pomposity/obscurity and the overall quality of ideas?

    That being said, I know I have a long way to go with writing skills. The more time I spend writing computer code, the worse I seem to get.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted March 20, 2013 at 2:41 am | Permalink

      Computer code has nothing to do with English. It always amuses me (in a simple-minded kind of way) when I load a computer program into MS Word in order to print out part of it, and Word’s spelling and grammar checker (which seems to default to ‘on’) promptly goes berserk. As, of course, one would expect.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted March 20, 2013 at 3:16 am | Permalink

        I hasten to add, no criticism intended of Paul’s writing, which ‘reads’ perfectly well to me. I just think that computer language and English are sufficiently different as to effectively nullify any interference between the two.

  28. Posted March 20, 2013 at 1:49 am | Permalink

    This is a really interesting article and most helpful. School children in 1950′s England were subjected to these mysterious styles of writing. I am certain it generated so much fear of ridicule that pupils worked hard to imitate these pompous and obscure styles. It was as though a passage of writing easily understood was considered immature.
    Thankfully the message is now the key. If the message is unclear then the message is lost.
    Thanks to your EIT web I may have a chance to improve yet.

  29. Dominic
    Posted March 20, 2013 at 2:32 am | Permalink

    There is nothing wrong with a long sentence provided it is to the point & structured appropriately. If every sentence is short it can create a staccato effect. Just be natural. Sentences are a construct of writing – they do not exist in speech. Try transliterating a conversation & that will become as plain as a pikestaff!

  30. TJR
    Posted March 20, 2013 at 3:24 am | Permalink

    When I was a PhD student a copy of Orwell’s six principles was on the coffee table in the common room, so I’ve always tried to abide by them.

    One thing that always bugs me is when someone try to explain something in words when it would be so much better as a picture, a diagram, a table of results or an algebraic expression.

    • RFW
      Posted March 20, 2013 at 8:53 am | Permalink

      What bugs me is when someone tries to explain something with a picture, diagram, table of results, or algebraic expression when it would be so much better as words.

      Edward Tufte, in his The Graphical Display of Quantitative Information and its sequels, goes both of these mistakes (using the wrong medium to communicate) at great length. His books are strongly recommended for all writers regarding quantitative informaiton.

      One big change in the last twenty years is that online graphics can now include animation and sound. An excellent example of effective use of these capabilities is at

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plate_tectonics#Types_of_plate_boundaries

      • RFW
        Posted March 20, 2013 at 8:53 am | Permalink

        Wrong link!

        Try this:

        Sorry, people.

  31. Posted March 20, 2013 at 4:20 am | Permalink

    Jerry, thanks for posting this. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the positive reaction from scientists. Most I’ve spoken to either a) had never thought about their prose, and had developed the “journal style” without thinking, or b) have wanted to write in the first person, active tense, etc. but feared criticism from reviewers.

  32. Matthew Jenkins
    Posted March 20, 2013 at 4:25 am | Permalink

    I translate for nursing magazines, and this is what I have noticed:

    1. Authors of well-written research have almost always written on topics which will save lives.

    2. Those who write badly have almost always written on a topic which will not save lives.

    3. Only those who write on life-saving topics bother writing back to me, the translator, with queries, comments, suggestions or criticisms. From this I conclude that those writing non-life-saving research are aware that it is not valuable.

    4. Sociology fans can’t write, so translating their gibberish takes longer: however, from a financial point of view this is acceptable, because their habit of using ten words when one will do, and not taking up my time with queries, comments, suggestions or criticisms, means that in economic terms they’re not bad customers.

    5. How I wish editorial boards would enforce a granny test! This involves giving the text to your grandmother and seeing if she can read it without asking what it means or whether you were on drugs.

    • TJR
      Posted March 20, 2013 at 7:23 am | Permalink

      I like the granny test!

      Reminds me of the Mitchell and Webb “Little Old Ladies Job Justification Hearings” sketches, where everyone has to go before a panel of little old ladies to justify their job. The futures trader didn’t come out of it well.

      • Diane G.
        Posted March 20, 2013 at 11:09 am | Permalink

        I am so sick of the mothers, grannies, and little-old-ladies slurs.

        Find some other demographic to make your casual patronizing insults about.

        • RFW
          Posted March 20, 2013 at 11:43 am | Permalink

          Some of us who refer to mothers and grannies do so because we consider them fearless critics uncowed by status, academic or otherwise.

          • Diane G.
            Posted March 20, 2013 at 11:47 am | Permalink

            Uh huh.

            Well at least they’re all predictable.

            • Matthew Jenkins
              Posted March 20, 2013 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

              The ‘Granny Test’ is an accepted part of the computer game design process in some companies; game designers are too close to the product to be able to assess whether the instructions on how to play are straightforward enough for a customer to understand, especially if they are not accustomed to gaming.

              Grandmothers are not likely to be familiar with the turgid phrases which disciplines end up evolving, and will therefore point out to you that what you’ve written doesn’t make sense or is overly vague. If you read Orwell’s essay, you’ll find he writes about this trend excellently. On Kindle the book is only $1.95 or so – I bought myself a copy this morning and read it over lunch.

              Normally I can translate a well-written article in one day. My anti-record for a badly-written one is fourteen. I suspect it was accepted for publishing because the author was a very senior member of the health service in the country where I live.

              • Diane G.
                Posted March 20, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

                You’re not helping. ;)

                Tell that to Ada Lovelace.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted March 20, 2013 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

          Graphite meltdown? :)

          • Diane G.
            Posted March 20, 2013 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

            Ha ha!

            I have a short fuse this week…usually I’m better at squelching the posting impulse.

            Nothing worse than complaining about ageism while sounding all crotchety…

  33. Posted March 20, 2013 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    Thank you, Jerry, for Orwell’s rules. I’ve never seen them before. But as a writer I fully intend to memorize and apply them lavishly to my own stuff.

  34. TJR
    Posted March 20, 2013 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    A social scientist once told me that he knew perfectly well that their style of writing was completely ridiculous and needlessly confusing, but that you just had to write that way to get published in journals.

  35. SES
    Posted March 20, 2013 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    Academics use jargon to mark their territories. Using the approved jargon establishes your membership in the group staking a claim to that territory.

    Approved jargon evolves over the course of a generation (about 20 years). New words become popular not because they communicate better, but because they stake the newcomer’s claim. Ditto for acronyms.

    Academics too often write to impress, rather than inform. Academics who write to inform, like Carl Sagan, are often castigated, perhaps because they have made the boundaries of the territory more permable, opening it up to outsiders?

    Finally, my favorite writing mentor once told me to rework my prose until it was as perfect as I could make it — and then cut it by a third. Best advice I ever got.

  36. Dominic
    Posted March 20, 2013 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    Also, do not do what Jane Goodall has just admitted to…

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/mar/20/jane-goodall-admits-web-material-citation-book

  37. Posted March 20, 2013 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    There’s a book of collected (supposedly) good science writing, called _Galileo’s Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing_, which I found somewhat interesting on this topic.

    Also, it is possible to *oversimplify*, but where that occurs is not obvious. For example, Jerry’s last example is one: “Jerry’s Translation: Diverse species of horseshoe crabs look alike, but their DNA is different.” needs the additional bit that we don’t know how fast the DNA of horseshoe crabs changes to convey the same information as the original.

    Another topic which needs to be thoroughly explored – and I await Pinker’s take on this particularly – is jargon. Every field uses stipulative definitions, especially. These are hard to catch on to, especially when the diference between the stipulative meaning is so slightly different from the ordinary one. And yet, they are necessary – seemingly. And yet we all likely know we can “snow people” with jargon, etc.

  38. Hempenstein
    Posted March 20, 2013 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    Took me awhile to find this one, even tho I mostly remembered what I was hunting for. If there’s ever a contest for most pretentious title of a biochemical paper, I nominate this one.

  39. Posted March 21, 2013 at 6:01 am | Permalink

    Since we are probably getting to the end of this thread I thought, just out of mischief, that it would be fun to bring the intellectual level down a peg or to with this famous offering that I have lifted from Google.

    HOW TO WRITE GOOD

    by Frank L. Visco

    My several years in the word game have learnt me several rules:
    Avoid alliteration. Always.
    Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
    Avoid cliches like the plague. (They’re old hat.)
    Employ the vernacular.
    Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
    Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are unnecessary.
    It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
    Contractions aren’t necessary.
    Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.
    One should never generalize.
    Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”
    Comparisons are as bad as cliches.
    Don’t be redundant; don’t use more words than necessary; it’s highly superfluous.
    Profanity sucks.
    Be more or less specific.
    Understatement is always best.
    Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
    One-word sentences? Eliminate.
    Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.
    The passive voice is to be avoided.
    Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.
    Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.
    Who needs rhetorical questions?

    • gbjames
      Posted March 21, 2013 at 6:10 am | Permalink

      Excellent! A good morning laugh to start the day.

    • Posted March 21, 2013 at 6:15 am | Permalink

      “Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.”

      Unless your topic is Mesoamerican cultural anthropology.

      /@

      • gbjames
        Posted March 21, 2013 at 6:18 am | Permalink

        Kukulkan is watching.

  40. Fatboy
    Posted March 21, 2013 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    My technical writing class in college specifically instructed us not to use first person or the active tense. If a draft of a paper had those ‘mistakes’, we had to correct them before the final draft. Granted, it was for engineering and not science, but there’s a lot of overlap. So, it’s not just people picking up on a style unconsciously, it’s part of our training.

    • gr8hands
      Posted March 21, 2013 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      And your intended audience was not the English Lit majors, was it?

  41. Posted March 21, 2013 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    I, too, am a fan of Orwell’s essay despite some critics who in recent months have been mounting rather pedantic attacks against it.

    It all actually has a rather neat connection with science – when the Royal Society was founded in England, it was their Philosophical Transactions that became the first English-language science journal in 1665. Previously, although many science books were being printed in English, most of it was communicated in Latin or other continental languages and, of course, a few centuries earlier, Latin was the most predominant language of learning. But the founders of the Royal Society *specifically* rejected both the Latin language and many facets of Classical rhetoric because they felt that the essential purpose of science was the cultivation of clear and sensible knowledge, and this would be best achieved in simple words with their first language. The whole point of writing in English came with the implicit assumption that people would write clearly, succinctly and simply with as few obfuscatory intrusions as possible.

    • gr8hands
      Posted March 21, 2013 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      I believe the link to the Royal Society’s own website dispels your view “they felt that the essential purpose of science was the cultivation of clear and sensible knowledge, and this would be best achieved in simple words with their first language.”

      In actuality, their fundamental purpose “is to recognise, promote, and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity.”

      http://royalsociety.org/about-us/

      Nullis in verba indeed.

      • gr8hands
        Posted March 21, 2013 at 11:46 am | Permalink

        Damn typo! Nullius in verba

      • Posted March 21, 2013 at 11:47 am | Permalink

        Do you seriously believe that either the sentiment I described or the sentiment the Royal Society’s website describes is supposed to be taken as the sole aim of the Society to the exclusion of all other aims, be they complementary or contradictory? Read some Francis Bacon and some Robert Hooke, with a dash of historical and literary criticism, and maybe you’ll see how facile your dismissal of my comment was.

        • gr8hands
          Posted March 22, 2013 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

          Callum J Hackett, you are terribly confused. When you wrote “But the founders of the Royal Society *specifically* rejected both the Latin language and many facets of Classical rhetoric because…” you were in error. Perhaps you could provide the citation to support your statement?

          Facile enough for you?

          • Posted March 22, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

            I can certainly do that for you – full references come after the summary.

            For information about the predominance of Latin in learned writings *prior* to the establishment of the Royal Society, see Barber, 1997. For an account of the perception of English as a comparatively inadequate language around this time, see Jones, 1953. Around the mid-17th century and later when the Royal Society was established, Anderson, 1996 demonstrates that Latin was finally starting to be viewed as a dead language, and Barber, 1997 suggests this was both because of the democratisation of learning cultivated by the ever-increasing circulation of printed books, and due to nationalist sentiment after the Reformation. Francis Bacon actually worried that English was too unstable a language to be used for posterity, but he advocated its use anyway because he was deeply suspicious of Ciceronian rhetoric (for this, see his Novum Organum of 1620, his New Atlantis of 1627 and most particularly his essay on The Advancement of Learning from 1605). Tebeaux, 1997 has also showed that his contemporaries had similar ideas, though he was more influential, and, finally – right on topic – Jones, 1953 will provide an account of the Royal Society’s *explicit* rejection of classical languages as part of its repudiation of the authority of classical science in favour of empirical observation, with English being perceived as more appropriate for clarity of thought.

            Now, from your tone and your quick dismissal of my comments, I should surely imaging that you have you done similarly substantial research in the history of science thus enabling you to offer some counter-examples. Would you care to share them?

            - Anderson, Judith H., ‘Words that Matter: Linguistic Perception in Renaissance English (Stanford University Press, 1996).
            - Barber, Charles, ‘Early Modern English’ (Edinburgh University Press, 1997).
            - Jones, Richard Foster, ‘The Triumph of the English Language: a Survey of Opinions Concerning the Vernacular from the Introduction of Printing to the Restoration’ (Stanford University Press, 1953).
            - Tebeaux, Elizabeth, ‘The Emergence of a Tradition: Technical Writing in the English Renaissance, 1475-1640′ (Amityville, New York: Baywood, 1997).

    • Posted April 6, 2013 at 7:22 am | Permalink

      The only trouble being that what we perceive as clarity and simplicity in reading a text turn out, on closer examination, to be products of a very advanced level of language competence that can’t be adequately described in simple terms. It *can* be described quite well, but it takes a bit of effort and relies on several blocks of linguistic research that just hadn’t been done in Orwell’s day.

      Orwell & Co. are all very well in demanding simplicity, and they are lucid, readable writers, but they hadn’t a clue how to begin telling anyone about the linguistic nuts and bolts involved in doing so.

      For example, Orwell bashes the passive voice to hell, although he uses it more frequently in this essay than it is used on average in competent English prose, and that his main gripe about it (that it is used to obscure agency) is no more or less true than it is of active-voice clauses.

      He also goes on about hackneyed phrases but overlooks the fact that using expected collocations is one important way we can make texts easier (not harder) to process;inaccurate use of collocations is a major reason why writing by non-native speakers seems odd.

      Orwell, and many other gifted writers, don’t know how to explain what they are doing any more than football coaches can explain the physics of getting the ball into the back of the net.

      Now you can respond to that in two ways. One is to say that writing should be learned by apprenticeship, by many attempts and corrections, just as the football star certainly doesn’t bother with advanced mechanics (that does seem to be the main mechanism in the real world). The other is to say that rational analysis of what makes good writing can play at least a partial role and could facilitate this otherwise rather irrational process of picking up good instincts and tastes.

      But if we choose the second way, then I think we have to listen to the people who actually work on these things: linguists. And they say with a mass of evidence and explanation that Orwell’s essay, Strunk & White, and a range of other writing advice is full of wrong guff. I don’t think it’s pedantic to point that out.

      Further reading:

      http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3144#comments

      http://chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/2013/04/04/elimination-of-the-fittest

      • Posted April 6, 2013 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

        Which is the motivation behind Pinker’s new book, I think.

        /@

      • Posted April 8, 2013 at 9:36 am | Permalink

        Jesus Christ, this is the best comment in the entire thread. This should just be copied and pasted into every thread of linguistic nonsense (which I’m sure there will be more of) from now on!

        The way smart, educated people cling to their misinformed ideas about language is very similar to the way smart, educated people cling to their religions. They do not care for evidence, nor do they care for making their statements falsifiable. They emotionally defend ideas they were taught when they were young. And then they decry religious people for doing the exact same thing.

        It’s time to open your eyes, people.

  42. Luke Vogel
    Posted March 21, 2013 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    I picked the least offensive to “good science” writing on this topic from you.

    “And your evidence-based conversion to God need not be permanent, either. Since scientific truth is provisional, why not this “scientific” truth about God as well? Why not say that, until we find evidence that what just happened was a natural phenomenon, or a gigantic ruse, we provisionally accept the presence of a God?”

    My favorite along with “Brother Blackford” was all the that “science” fitting in with Oral Roberts, a 900 foot Jesus (Oral’s inspirational vision to build something), definitional debauchery, myopia to simple things like science actually falsifying a 10,000 year old earth – not “god created” and being so beholden to “science can study the “supernatural” (without a single rational example and nothing in reality to relate) to not be able to separate and understand what is a “claim” (outside of “provisional gods” and “science can falsify the supernatural” – without any doubt by you it seemed – “claim” was never misunderstood, in fact you’re very good at examining peoples scientific claims).

    Your “Brother” in a comment response (one of many like it) to me on what was perhaps the worse blog piece of “supernatural” apologetics written by an atheist (and is up there with many theist).

    “But of course some claims about supernatural events (in a perfectly familiar sense of the word “supernatural”), e.g. the claim that the world was created by God 6000 years ago, are not only falsifiable but actually falsified. This claim only becomes unfalsifiable if you add the additional claim that God created the world in a pre-aged state so that it looks billions of years old, but not all religionists do that.”

    I must have tried to explain that it was science that falsified the 6,000 year old claim and had nothing to do with the rabbit hole claim of “god created” a dozen times to “Brother”. The “supernatural claim” doesn’t become unfalsifiable when adding in an extra-supernatural-claim – the claim regarding the earth being 6,000 years ago is testable, falsifiable and all the rest, to science, regardless.

    Thanks for all that great science writing on “supernaturalism”. There’s potentially thousands of deluded atheist (and many theist making the same type of claims) because of your efforts.

    • gbjames
      Posted March 21, 2013 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

      There are so many quote marks and parens in your comment, Luke, that I don’t have a clue what you are saying.

      • Posted March 21, 2013 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

        Ironically, on a page about writing well!

        /@

      • gr8hands
        Posted March 22, 2013 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

        Really? Doesn’t that say more about you than Luke Vogel?

        • gbjames
          Posted March 22, 2013 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

          Yes, really. If you’d dare to translate, have at it.

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 21, 2013 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

      WTF?

  43. Posted April 6, 2013 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    Linguistically, Orwell’s essay is a lot of nonsense.

    Collocations are an essential part of normal prose that functions well.

    The grammatical and syntactical features of sentences that make them easier or harder to follow have been well described. Steven Pinker provides the basic tools in The Language Instinct. In science, we often need complex sentences, so it would be good to be able to talk about how to construct them well. Alas, most scientists have none of this basic knowledge, and I haven’t yet seen a book on scientific writing that avails of it. Mostly, things like Orwell or Strunk and White are cited, and these are relentlessly wrong and unhelpful. “Omit needless words” – yes, we all want to. Which words are needless? They don’t say. And then there’s all the deprecation of the passive voice, often by people who can’t even identify it, never mind the main thing that it is useful for (putting a different element of the sentence at the beginning).

    Style: Towards Clarity and Grace by JM Williams makes a decent attempt to help people work out which words are not needless, and particularly how to structure ideas in paragraphs. But I found that one on the recommendation of a linguist, not someone involved in teaching scientific writing; and I’ve never seen anything similar specifically addressed to scientists.

    There’s some interesting material in the realm of English language teaching, which hardly seems to make an appearance in advice for native speakers. For example, the emphasis on collocations as in collocation dictionaries, and sometimes features of English that come into focus when taking a comparative approach with other languages. Writing in English: A Guide for Advanced Learners by Siepmann, Gallagher, Hannay & Mackenzie (A. Francke/UTB)turns up some (to me) very interesting points for learners with a background in German, some of which would be just as relevant for native speakers. For example: English sentences like to have a compact main clause, with not too much stuff separating the subject, verb and object. If you can get that right, the rest of the sentence can get quite complex but remain easy and clear to follow.

    It’ll be very interesting to see what Steven Pinker comes up with, because as far as I can see, there certainly seems to be a glaring hole in the market.


8 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] From Jeremy, a piece from the blog Why Evolution is True on why science writing is tedious and often boring and what it takes to write good science. [...]

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  3. [...] of style. Jerry Coyne follows up Spurgin’s post with some similar suggestions of his own on How to Write Good Science. That Coyne himself knows how to write well is demonstrated amply in his book ‘Why Evolution [...]

  4. [...] evolutionary biologists devoted recent blog posts to ladling renewed praises on P&EL (Jerry “Why Evolution Is True” Coyne, referring with approval to a piece by Lewis Spurgin of the University of [...]

  5. [...] evolutionary biologists devoted recent blog posts to ladling renewed praises on P&EL: Jerry “Why Evolution Is True” Coyne, referring with approval to a piece by Lewis [...]

  6. [...] How to write good science (whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com) [...]

  7. […] to modern scientific writing. The magnitude of the response is thanks largely to Jerry Coyne who wrote a very nice take on it, the LSE Impact blog who reposted it, and the many people on Twitter who shared it. The reaction […]

  8. […] of style. Jerry Coyne follows up Spurgin’s post with some similar suggestions of her own on How to Write Good Science. That Coyne himself knows how to write well is demonstrated amply in her book ‘Why Evolution […]

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