How to Write Like a Scientist

The mournful author's Ph.D. advisor objected to the over-poetical use of the word "lone" to mean "only" in the sentence “PvPlm is the lone plasmepsin in the food vacuole of Plasmodium vivax.” It exuded romanticism and
conjured images of PvPlm perched on a cliff’s edge, staring into the empty chasm, weeping gently for its aspartic protease companions. Oh, the good times they shared. Afternoons spent cleaving scissile bonds. Lazy mornings decomposing foreign proteins into their constituent amino acids at a nice, acidic pH. Alas, lone plasmepsin, those days are gone.
This could almost as easily have been entitled "How to Write Like a Lawyer." One of the federal judges in Houston first engaged my passionate admiration by excoriating the FDIC's evil flunky lawyers' views on sovereign immunity, but I admire him almost equally for his advice on legal writing. He once told a seminar's attendees that no judge was ever going to tell us, "Son, your brief is clear, compelling, and accurate on the law -- but it's just too darn short." He asked us whether it would be too much to ask that we find a place right in the first paragraph that gave him a clue what we wanted him to do. Yes, he was sure our story of injustice was shocking and fascinating, but what kind of piece of paper signed by a federal judge did we expect to alter the sad situation? Just give him a hint. Reverse a judgment? Issue an injunction? Must he wait until page 8 to find this information? And for pity's sake, could we please name the parties something brief and comprehensible? It's easier to keep track of "the Lender" than "the consortium of loan participants for which the First National Commercial Bank, as successor in interest to National First Bank of Commerce, serves as agent for limited purposes." But lawyers agonize over these choices.

The science writer also takes on the justly-reviled passive tense:
Why can’t we write like other people write? Why can’t we tell our science in interesting, dynamic stories? Why must we write dryly? (Or, to rephrase that last sentence in the passive voice, as seems to be the scientific fashion, why must dryness be written by us?)
H/t Not Exactly Rocket Science.


Grim said...

My MA advisor used to send me edits with explanatory lines like: "I eat poets for breakfast."

Anonymous said...

As an undergrad, I was told that my writing was too readable (!). Grad school did not cure that, but since I've gotten a book contract and won a dissertation-of-the-year award, I'm not going to weep over my inability to create dry prose. That said, if I were writing for something like the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, the adverbs and most adjectives would go on vacation for the duration of the article.


Texan99 said...

My high school English teacher advised us to root out most of our adverbs and adjectives. She told us to find a better verb instead. I still go through my sentences and weed 'em out.

She impressed us with an example of good prose dried to dust: the "race is not to the swift" passage from Ecclesiastes rewritten in bureaucratese: "Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account." Googling it now, I see she lifted it from Orwell.

douglas said...

"As an undergrad, I was told that my writing was too readable (!)."

No doubt by someone trying really hard to make it in academia. I sometimes can't believe some of the stuff architects write in academic settings or even in interviews sometimes. Inscrutable would be a kind description. I tell my freshmen that it's important to learn and use appropriately the big fancy words, but first, write clearly, and use the simplest terms you can to be accurate. You know you're getting somewhere when you can't use simple terms and remain accurate.

"I eat poets for breakfast."
Perhaps that should have been amended with the adjective 'bad', but he or she would likely not approve.

Why is it so difficult to admit that bad poetic writing (with too many adjectives and such) and overly-dry techinical writing that leans too heavily on jargon are both horrible. Good communication should be able to work with all the tools available, but skillfully.