One languid Sydney lunchtime I copied a particularly egregious paragraph from one of my co-authors and emailed it to my boss, with simply a ‘!’ for comment. A few minutes later his reply snuck sheepishly into my inbox, with the single comment, “I have subjected my sandwiches to eating”, thus summing up pretty much all that is wrong with the writing in research papers today.
Actually, of course, there’s a bit more than that wrong with the writing of research papers today, but I have to use the anecdote somehow.
I used to hate reading papers (little has changed). They are invariably tedious and long-winded, with the interesting bits behind a Berlin Wall of passive tense and inscrutable and interminable sentence constructions that seem to exist merely to prevent the author saying something as simple as “I did a PCR.”
Now yes, I get that there should be objectivity, and I get that we are not writing to please ourselves, but surely there is a better way? In the day job I get to read papers from many disciplines, and there is something wrong when I notice a well-written paper; when I sit up and think, gosh, this is fun. It is painfully rare that I get past the second sentence of the abstract without the overwhelming urge to push somebody’s face (preferably the author’s) through the window, or failing that go and get a cup of tea.
With the exception of sex, science is the best fun you can have. Why, then, do you write your papers couched in such pre-Victorian language? Is it because everybody else does it? That well-written, damn it, enjoyable papers exist puts the lie to that one. It’s because you’re lazy, and you’re scared. There’s no need for it. You want people to read your paper (assuming you’re being deliberately obtuse, in which case you have no business publishing at all), and you want people to think how great you are.
So learn what it takes, and put it into practise. Take a course, if necessary. Break every one of the ten rules.
What’s it going to take, huh? Wake up and smell the roses, and write me a paper I will enjoy and understand, and rave about to everyone I know. Who knows, you might even enjoy it.