Scientific Writing

I’ve started reading the blog Serial Mentor by a PI at University of Texas Austin, and he’s got some awesome (though much more science- and academia-specific posts than most of you probably care about). But he has a great post about the problems with academic-style writing and how to improve your writing.

And having just written a final paper and final exam for classes, it was really obvious how much I’ve ingrained a lot of the “correct” scientific writing practices that are actually terrible. Actually when I was writing my exam, I realized I had a sentence that really should have been about 4 sentences. I ended up crossing it out and restarting because it was so unweildy I couldn’t end it. And I am the master of sentences so long that they seem like they’re run-ons even though technically they’re not, haha.

But I’ve also been thinking about how scientific language is an impediment to public understanding. I remember in undergrad, reading a scientific paper was really difficult. And part of it is that there are a lot of terms you don’t know, and the more you get used to hearing certain words, the easier it gets. But the sentence structure that’s common is also incredibly difficult to understand. Usually there are prepositional phrases on prepositional phrases, so it’s hard to figure out what’s actually happening (as serial mentor’s post points out).

Which is funny because the goal of scientific writing is supposed to be clarity. That’s the reason it should be different from literary writing: you want to get to the point clearly and concisely. But that’s not at all what actually happens when you use passive voice and prepositional phrases for days.

Another thing I’ve been thinking about related to science writing and communication: in science we tend to be really careful about our word choice. There are very few things we can say with any certainty, so we carefully hedge our sentences to be clear that “the evidence suggests” or “these findings would indicate” and avoid saying “this is the way it is” because you can never prove anything with 100% certainty. Additionally, we often use highly specific terms because even small variations in the way an experiment is done can make a big difference.

But while these differences are very important in a research context, they’re pretty useless for explaining to the general public. The general public doesn’t care about details, and including them can make things more confusing than it’s worth. I think that sometimes explaining things a little bit wrong is better than being technically correct but having nobody understand.

So I’ve been trying to incorporate a great improv technique into my explaining: “yes and.” For those who haven’t done improv before, the idea of “yes and” is that you never shoot down somebody’s idea, because it shuts everything down and makes for terrible comedy. For instance:

“I’m an elephant! *flails arm-trunk*”
“No, you’re a cat.”
“Oh, umm… I guess I’m a cat then.”

isn’t a good way to start a scene. But this is:

“I’m an elephant! *flails arm-trunk*”
“Yes, and we’re on our way to Pride Rock to meet Simba!”

And I think this technique is also super valuable for explaining complicated concepts, and I’m trying to be better at incorporating it in my explanations (as well as the rest of my life). For instance when I took physics, I had what I thought was a very logical realization: because electrical currents generate magnetic fields, what made magnetic objects magnetic was that the electrons moved around atoms in a synchronous way that generated a magnetic field. And when I asked the TA about it, his response was basically “Well, not really, but you haven’t taken enough math for me to be able to explain it to you.” Which just left me more confused. And what I think would have been more valuable would have been him saying, “Yeah, that’s a good way to think about it! And here’s this extra piece of knowledge to build off of that.” In that second version, I would have learned something new from the interaction instead of just feeling like physics was a confusing and impenetrable subject.

So I want to be better at saying “yes and” as well as writing and communicating in ways that are clear, instead of just trying to be technically correct or sound official.

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One thought on “Scientific Writing

  1. As someone who spent years editing scientific writing, I sympathize and applaud! I read a couple of posts from Serial Mentor, about passive voice and about topic and stress positions – very useful information. I wish I had had this insight back when I started editing.

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