Seven sins of science writing

I was never trained as an editor, but a few years ago I found myself as joint editor of our Institute’s annual volume of essays on science, aimed at a lay(-ish) audience. For the first few years I worked on them with a couple of more experienced scientist-editors, observing how one of them in particular could, with a few strokes of his pen, turn a clumsy sentence into an arrow of meaning. For the past five years I have been sole editor. I confess I do struggle sometimes when the topic is unfamiliar and/or the essay is pitched at the wrong level. I can usually find someone in the Institute to help out though, or else give some feedback to the original author. Most authors seem ready to accept the feedback I give.

After putting this year’s essays to bed I found myself reflecting a little on the variety of editing problems that I have encountered over the years and I came up with a list of seven sins of science writing. They are probably not original nor definitive, but I thought I’d share them anyway.

1. Error
This is the most fundamental sin. If you get some of your facts wrong then you have failed at the first hurdle. How can you explain what you don’t know yourself? If the topic of your essay is just a little outside your expertise, or if parts of the essay stretch past your comfort zone, then you need to check and recheck what you say and ideally run it past an expert to check. Getting something wrong is embarrassing!

2. Ambiguity
The facts should be set out clearly, leaving no room for doubt. It’s not enough to know something in your mind, you also have to find a way to express it in words that another mind can understand. If you leave your readers wondering what you meant then you have failed.

3. Obscurity
Don’t obscure your message by peppering your prose with technical terms that non-specialists will not understand. In particular you should try to avoid using too many names of entitities. I think of this as ten War and Peace problem; when the list of participants (genes, proteins, whatever) is too long then the reader can’t remember who is who and quickly becomes lost.

4. Complexity
Long sentences, with multiple clauses and tricky constructions, do not aid comprehension and readability. This doesn’t apply only to science of course, but I think it’s endemic in science. Trying to express something very precisely, especially when that something is inherently complicated, often results in sentences with too many twists and turns.  Cath Ennis memorably described this phenomenon as a gnarly word salad. Don’t be afraid to break the sentence up into smaller sentences. Maybe some of those sub-clauses are not really necessary.

5. Clumsiness
OK, we’re starting to get into personal abuse now but there’s getting away from it. Some writing is just clumsy; not difficult or obscure, just clumsy. It’s like driving along a road and hitting a pot-hole.  You’re reading the sentence and suddenly your flow is interrupted as you have to figure out whether an “it” means the thing last-mentioned or the thing before that.  Grammatical slip-ups are another common kind of pot-hole.

6. Ennui
It is important that your reader stays awake long enough to finish reading what you have written. Two things help here: brevity and a light touch. If you’re given a word limit try to stick to it or you may be making unrealistic demands of your reader’s attention span.  Also try to inject some personality into your writing, something to make it interesting – perhaps even some jocularity.  But please, not too many exclamation marks!

7. Irrelevance
Stick to your brief and if you are not sure what your brief is then talk to whoever has commissioned you to write the piece. If what you write is not relevant in some way to the intended audience then it doesn’t matter how good it is.  Perhaps that’s an overstatement, but your choice of topic and the way you decide to treat the topic are something you should give thought to, preferably before you start writing.

While preparing this diatribe I saw a couple of other posts relevant to good writing:

Interesting that they are both positive “tips” rather than my more negative “sins”.  Sins sound more interesting than tips though, so that suggests a final sin that I am guilty of quite often:

Don’t choose a boring title!

About Frank

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we slip from print through to electronic information resources.
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5 Responses to Seven sins of science writing

  1. Frank says:

    Eek. I clicked “publish” too soon! Hurriedly finished off and just about fit for purpose I think.

  2. Steve Caplan says:

    Frank,

    Those are excellent tips. The only tips I’ve been getting recently are those on Google “Ten tips for a flat stomach”–and they don’t help…

  3. cromercrox says:

    = likes =

  4. Marie-Noelle says:

    Excellent. Indeed, they are identical to the seven sins of social science writing too. I will pass them on to my students. Oh, and an eighth one: don’t plagiarise! oh, and a ninth one: check the finished product with the flaming spellchecker!!!!!

  5. Frank says:

    Marie-Noelle – good to see you here! Thanks for your kind comment.

    I’d like to think that the rule on plagiarism doesn’t need saying, but maybe it does. As for the spellchecker – fat chance!