By Gordon Rugg
Scientific writing isn’t boring because scientists don’t know anything better. There are solid, sensible, positive reasons for scientific writing being so boring. Unfortunately, those reasons are seldom explained to unfortunate non-scientists about to encounter the scientific writing style for the first time. This article gives a brief overview of a couple of the main reasons.
Reason 1: Word counts
If you’re a working scientist, you need to publish your findings somewhere respectable. “Respectable” normally involves peer review, where experts in your field will review your article for errors as part of the production process. Peer reviewed journals and conferences have tight word count limits.
So there you are, trying to cram a detailed description of a complex problem and your complex methods and your lengthy results into six thousand words (including the lengthy references that show you’ve done your background reading and that you aren’t some clueless newbie re-inventing the wheel). You very soon discover just how short a six thousand word limit is.
What do you delete when your first draft is over eight thousand words long? Adjectives are a prime target: all those persuasive, colourful words that don’t actually contain much information. Examples and anecdotes are also in the firing line; they’re just re-iterating points that you’ve already made. Rhetorical questions framed from the reader’s perspective don’t last long either. When you take all of those out, you end up with something a lot less exciting, but a lot nearer to the word limit and the prospect of peer-reviewed publication.
Reason 2: Weary cynicism
Word counts are a good reason for taking exciting, colourful words out of a piece of writing. What students usually don’t realise is that scientists actively dislike putting exciting, colourful words into scientific writing in the first place.
The reason for this dislike is the same reason that lawyers view emotive, colourful language with distrust. There’s an old saying in law about the relative values of different types of argument, and about which type to emphasise when you’re making your case. It goes as follows.
- If the law is on your side, pound on the law.
- If the facts are on your side, pound on the facts.
- If neither is on your side, pound on the table.
It’s a similar story with science. If you’ve got some interesting theory, write about the theory; if you’ve got interesting data, write about the data; if you’ve got neither interesting theory nor interesting data, then go away and find something that’s actually worth publishing.
When scientists see colourful, exciting words in a piece of writing, they react the same way that cynical car-buyers react when a stereotypical car salesman starts talking about the paint job on a car; they assume that this is an attempt to distract their attention from a major problem somewhere else, such as a major flaw in the research design, so they start looking hard for major problems. If the writer has been clueless enough to use that sort of language when writing for a science audience, then there will probably be plenty of major problems for a cynical, knowledgeable reader to find.
A classic, cautionary example of this is the work of Mesmer, back in the eighteenth century. He’s the Mesmer that mesmerism is named after. Back in the 1770s and 1780s, he produced some dramatic results via his work on what he called animal magnetism. In brief, he believed that electromagnetic flows ran through all living things, and that blockages in these flows could produce health problems. He publicised himself a lot, using colourful, exciting language. He got a lot of attention as a result, and made a lot of money. A couple of things worth noting are that he appears to have genuinely believed that he was right, and that he was generous with his findings, providing free “treatment” to people who couldn’t afford the real thing.
He was soon debunked by a committee that included Lavoisier (the same Lavoisier who more or less invented chemistry), Guillotin (as in the guillotine) and Benjamin Franklin (it would be hard to make this stuff up…) The full story is tragicomic, larger than life, and very entertaining reading. There’s a summary of it on Wikipedia, and there are numerous published accounts, including an excellent one by Stephen Jay Gould.
So, there are good reasons for scientific writing being deliberately unexciting. Does this mean that scientific writing is just ordinary “good writing” with the exciting bits taken out?
As you may have guessed, the answer is an emphatic “no”. Scientific writing has its own indicators of quality, most of which exist for very clear, practical reasons. Most of those indicators are completely missed by standard guides to generic “good writing”.
This has major implications for the concept of writing as a “transferable skill”. It isn’t. Different disciplines and fields have different norms for what constitutes “good writing” because they are using it for different purposes. That’s a fine, rich topic that should be good for quite a few blog articles in the future…
In the meantime, if you’re interested in the indicators of quality in scientific writing, and the reasons for those things being indicators of quality, Marian Petre and I have discussed these in some detail in our book on the realities of research, The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research.
On that note, I’ll draw this article to a gentle close, in the hope that you’ve found it informative and enjoyable.