George Gopen and Judith Swan write in the American Scientist (Nov/Dec 1990) about The Science of Scientific Writing. They write that complex thoughts can be made accessible and clear without minimizing their complexity if a set of structural principles are followed:
- Follow a grammatical subject as soon as possible with its verb.
- Place in the stress position the “new information” you want the reader to emphasize.
- Place the person or thing whose “story” a sentence is telling at the beginning of the sentence, in the topic position.
- Place appropriate “old information” (material already stated in the discourse) in the topic position for linkage backward and contextualization forward.
- Articulate the action of every clause or sentence in its verb.
- In general, provide context for your reader before asking that reader to consider anything new.
- In general, try to ensure that the relative emphases of the substance coincide with the relative expectations for emphasis raised by the structure.
…The substance of science comprises more than the discovery and recording of data; it extends crucially to include the act of interpretation. It may seem obvious that a scientific document is incomplete without the interpretation of the writer; it may not be so obvious that the document cannot “exist” without the interpretation of each reader. In other words, writers cannot “merely” record data, even if they try. In any recording or articulation, no matter how haphazard or confused, each word resides in one or more distinct structural locations. The resulting structure, even more than the meanings of individual words, significantly influences the reader during the act of interpretation. The question then becomes whether the structure created by the writer (intentionally or not) helps or hinders the reader in the process of interpreting the scientific writing.
Danish biology professor Kaj Sand-Jensen has a new Oikos paper (2007 – 116: 723-727) which provides advice on How to write consistently boring scientific literature:
A Scandinavian professor has told me an interesting story. The first English manuscript prepared by one of his PhD students had been written in a personal style, slightly verbose but with a humoristic tone and thoughtful side-tracks. There was absolutely no chance, however, that it would meet the strict demands of brevity, clarity and impersonality of a standard article. With great difficulty, this student eventually learned the standard style of producing technical, boring and impersonal scientific writing, thus enabling him to write and defend his thesis successfully.
I recalled the irony in this story from many discussions with colleges, who have been forced to restrict their humor, satire and wisdom to the tyranny of jargon and impersonal style that dominates scientific writing. Personally, I have felt it increasingly difficult to consume the steeply growing number of hardly digestible original articles. It has been a great relief from time to time to read and write essays and books instead.
Because science ought to be fun and attractive, particularly when many months of hard work with grant applications, data collections and calculations are over and everything is ready for publishing the wonderful results, it is most unfortunate that the final reading and writing phases are so tiresome.
I have therefore tried to identify what characteristics make so much of our scientific writing unbearably boring, and I have come up with a top-10 list of recommendations for writing consistently boring publications.
- Avoid focus
- Avoid originality and personality
- Write long contributions
- Remove implications and speculations
- Leave out illustrations
- Omit necessary steps of reasoning
- Use many abbreviations and terms
- Suppress humor and flowery language
- Degrade biology to statistics
- Quote numerous papers for trivial statements
Via Erik Andersson.
Navigating the surprises of the anthropocene